“Hood mom” mothers gang-involved refugees

WINNIPEG, MB - I met Gaylene Dempsey in a cafe instead of at her house. A young refugee was sleeping on her couch and she didn't want to disturb him.

Dempsey is 50 years old, red-haired and high-spirited. She calls herself an urban missionary, but most of the young men and women who crash on her couch, phone her from jail or knock on her door high on drugs and looking for prayer call her "Mom."

Dempsey has been mothering young refugees in Winnipeg's core for years, even before she quit her job at the NEEDS Centre, a organization that helps newcomers to Canada.

When she worked at the NEEDS Centre Dempsey ran a program focused on steering newcomer youth away from the influences of gangs and drugs. Funded by federal crime prevention money, the program set up mentorships between established Canadians and 45 young refugees.

The program worked well for most, but a few of the boys ended up in jail. Dempsey was discouraged. She had developed deep relationships with many of the youth, and she was heartbroken to see some of them fail. "We really thought we were going to save these kids," she says. "There was no Plan B to figure out stuff like visiting guys in jail."

In 2008 funding for her program ran out. Dempsey quit her job at the NEEDS Centre, but she didn't give up on the many young men and women from Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya and many other countries she had gotten to know. She knew how precarious their futures were.

Dempsey recalls standing on the corner of Edmonton Street and Qu'Appelle Avenue in 2008, watching a group of young men dealing drugs. She sensed that God was calling her to get more involved in their lives so she walked right into the group and ordered them to stop dealing drugs. Some of them still remember her impetuous rebuke, Dempsey says.

Impulsive acts of brash compassion seem to be Dempsey's way of inserting herself into the lives of youth at risk. Her rented house in West Broadway is always open (though drugs, alcohol, knives and sex are strictly forbidden). She answers the phone at any hour. The night before I interviewed her she took calls from remand centres in Calgary, Medicine Hat and Winnipeg.

"I pray a lot in the middle of the night," she says. Besides praying, she helps teens find jobs, calls lawyers and writes letters of recommendation.

Right now Dempsey is talking with her church, Sanctuary House of Prayer, about setting up a safe house - a transitional home for young men and women getting out of jail. Three different young men have been bailed into her house on different occasions. She carries a Bible and a notebook stuffed with addresses of jails, conditions of release, lists of what is and isn't allowed in a penitentiary and the phone numbers of lawyers.

Since leaving the NEEDS Centre Dempsey has worked odd jobs, collected employment insurance and often struggled to make ends meet. For a while she worked at a restaurant, but she needed a job with a more flexible schedule.

In early April Dempsey was out of money and more than $700 behind on her water bill. When her water was cut off she e-mailed a plea to everyone she knew. Her church helped pay the bill and a next door family from Sierra Leone let her use their outside faucet. "I felt like a refugee," Dempsey says, laughing.

Among the boys and girls she mentors are the ones she calls her spiritual sons and daughters. One young woman from Sudan - a 20-year-old single mom with three brothers in jail - asked Dempsey to be her mom on Mother's Day.

Last night she phoned from Edmonton, Dempsey tells me.

"What did she want?" I ask.

"Love," says Dempsey. "A lot of love, and not judgment. She thinks I'm judging her all the time, because she was working in a massage parlour, and I'm certainly not down with that."

Dempsey doesn't judge, but neither does she sugarcoat reality. Dempsey herself was addicted to drugs and alcohol for 10 years before she sobered up, joined Alcoholics Anonymous and finished her college degree.

"I've come to understand that my role is not so much to save people - that's God's job - but to sow seeds into really hard ground," Dempsey says.

Dear Readers:

If ChristianWeek has made a difference in your life, please take a minute and donate to help give voice to stories that inform, encourage and inspire.

Donations of $20 or more will receive a charitable receipt.
Thank you, from Christianweek.

About the author