The Rev. Cathy Stone has just parked her car behind an imposing black and white Victorian building. “That’s Cameron House,” she says, pointing to the shelter for women ages 25 and above.
A woman who’s been sitting on the lawn recognizes Stone’s car and walks over. She wants to know whether Stone has determined the whereabouts of a former shelter resident. “Is she doing ok? I want to send her a letter.” Stone reassures her. The woman absent-mindedly walks away, muttering to herself.
“How’re you doing?” Stone waves to another woman seated on a lawn chair, cradling a mug of coffee in her hands. The woman, her hair wet from a shower, waves back, a faint smile on her lips.
Two black duffel bags sit by the entrance. Someone is either leaving or has just arrived.
Inside, Stone is greeted by a cheerful woman in her late 50s who says she is need of “a week’s supply of Cathy hugs.” Stone obliges and compliments her on her flowery mauve outfit. The woman beams.
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Cameron House is a once-grand Gothic Victorian building in what used to be an affluent neighbourhood in Peterborough, Ont. Run by Brock Mission, a non-denominational Christian charity, it first opened its doors in 1996.
Clearly, Cameron House has seen better days, but about 10 women who have nowhere else to go consider it home. Some are struggling with addictions or have fled abusive relationships; some have been sent by other social agencies that have given up on them.
For many, Cameron House is the closest thing they’ll ever have to a family, and Stone, a.k.a. “Church Lady,” is one its loving members.
A deacon at St. Barnabas Anglican Church, Stone is also executive director of the Rural Outreach Committee (ROC), an emergency shelter funded in part by the FaithWorks program of the Anglican diocese of Toronto. Cameron House works closely with ROC, and on evenings, weekends and statutory holidays, Cameron House personnel answer the ROC crisis hotline.
Since May 2008, Stone has been “bringing church” to Cameron House. She did so at the invitation of Jane Kennedy, a staff member who realized the women at Cameron House needed something more than food, shelter, clothing and emotional support. Cameron House is, after all, a Christian organization.
After receiving the blessings of both Brock Mission executive director Bill McNabb and Trent-Durham Bishop Linda Nicholls, Stone began a “fresh expression” of church at Cameron House. She also had the support of St. Barnabas parish.
“I was so excited,” says Stone of the first meeting. She told the two women who showed up, “I’m not here to tell you what to think or do, [but] I don’t mind sharing things that have helped me and might help you, too.”
The next week, six women arrived, and a week later, eight. Stone asked them what they needed. “They hoped that there was something in the way of spirituality that would help them,” says Stone on the Fresh Expressions website at www.freshexpressions.ca
The group began with a Christianity 101 course that included prayer, worship, Bible study and discussion. They decided to work their way through “The Twelve Steps for Christians” used in Christian drug and alcohol rehabilitation centres, and The Life Recovery Bible, which contains scripture-based resources.
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Today, a steady group of 8 to 10 women meet Wednesday evenings at Cameron House to talk about God and their lives, over a cup of coffee and a plateful of desserts. “We don’t just do Bible study,” says Stone. “Everybody has a chance to talk about how their week went, [to] get it out in the open and to see if we can support each other. Most women talk about experiencing sexual, physical or emotional abuse, as well as their struggles with different kinds of addiction. “Every one of us suffers from addictions,” says Stone. “It doesn’t have to be to substances. It can be to computers, work, selfishness, pride, religion. Anything that separates us from God.”
The main message the women receive is, “We love you,” says Kennedy. Stone’s gentle, caring spirit continues to draw women to weekly meetings even after they have left Cameron House, she adds. The group provides women with “something to believe in, when most of them have hit rock bottom,” says Kennedy. “I think it’s a very positive, uplifting group. It’s showing them God. Not many of them go to church or if they ever have, not since they were children.”
In the room where the women meet, which they have dubbed “God space,” there’s a wall where each woman has pasted sayings meaningful to her. “Always choose life,” says one. “No matter how you feel, get up, dress up and show up,” says another. “Whatever doesn’t kill you really does make you stronger,” declares a third. Now that Stone has brought church to the women, some of them have, in turn, gone to St. Barnabas church. Stone picks them up at Cameron House every Sunday and then drives them back after the service.
She credits the church’s incumbent, the Rev. Eugene Berlenbach, and the congregation with making the newcomers feel at home. “The people at the church were very welcoming,” confirms Debra Deasley, a former resident, in a video about Stone’s ministry at Cameron House. Deasley hadn’t attended church since Sunday school days. “It was making me feel better,” she says, “helping me to know who I was as a person.” The day Deasley was baptized represented “the beginning for me,” she continues. Now she wants to go back to school. God is telling her, “It’s not too late,” she says. Ω
Watch for part two of this story in an upcoming issue of the Journal.