prepared for pandemic

Local Presbyterian Church Was Prepared for the Pandemic

A little Presbyterian Church in one of Montreal’s neediest boroughs is discovering that the best preparation for the pandemic was ten years of consistent benevolent outreach in the surrounding neighbourhoods and the building of partnerships with other social organizations around them.


Like many local churches, Côte des Neiges Presbyterian has a missions budget that makes modest monthly contributions to a dozen organizations, some of them half a world away. As the gentrification of several poorer boroughs of the city slowly transformed their area into the affordable rent district, the needs that had been barely visible below the surface came out into the open. One adult out of four and one child out of every three survives with a monthly visit to a foodbank. Over 45,000 of the 180,000 residents of Côte des Neiges NDG lives below the poverty line. And many of them are well below it.

As Joel Coppieters was inducted and began serving his first pastorate here in 2012, somebody wisely suggested two important steps; that he begin attending the monthly borough council meeting and that he lead the congregation in a complete demographic study of the neighbourhood.


“The demographic study based on the most recent census figures put tangible numbers on the general impressions. It’s one thing to know that there are hungry children in your neighbourhood, but it’s another know that within 15 minutes of our front door 8200 children under the age of 12 will go to bed hungry tonight. Or that in the same perimeter there are 450 single mothers with more than 3 children living in apartments with one bedroom or less and that their average household income is less than $10,000 a year”  Coppieters explains.


They began by expanding what was already in place. Over the years the coffee and cookies after the morning service had expanded to become a more complete meal. This helped with the fellowship, but it also provides one of the week’s best meals to many of the seniors, struggling families and international students on tight budgets. The meals, which are provided by a rotating roster of families who cover the costs out of pocket, are typically oversupplied so that leftovers can be discreetly sent home to those who can use the help.

A small cupboard of non-perishables originally intended to provide a little helping hand to families from the church has increasingly served struggling families in the wider community. Two churches in wealthier neighbouring districts help Côte des Neiges by collecting non perishables at their monthly communion services. 


Attending the city council meetings has allowed pastor Coppieters to hear the concerns expressed by citizens, to meet the other social organizations active in the community and often to lobby for important changes at the municipal level. Through these connections, the congregation realized that while there were several foodbanks and community groups addressing food security, substandard housing and other poverty related issues, there were a number of significant holes in the services provided. Holes which their limited budget and more responsive volunteers could address.


“There are a number of families and individuals for whom the traditional foodbank model doesn’t work. Sometimes there is a mobility issue, sometimes there are dietary requirements that the wholesale foodbanks can’t respond to” Coppieters explains. “And some strange rulings occasionally exclude newly arrived refugee families with no official paperwork from registering at the regular local foodbank.”


The pastor turned occasional lobbyist is particularly proud of having played a part in bringing together the partners that provided subsidized school breakfasts and lunches so that similar meals could also be offered at the borough sponsored programs during the summer when the children from indigent families often go hungry.


Coppieters has built a substantial list of available resources, and he has built personal contacts with dozens of organizations, most of whom have significantly larger budgets than the local church. Making referrals and sometimes holding somebody’s hand through the process has become a considerable part of his pastoral care to the neighbourhood as a whole, on top of the dozens of funerals and weddings he officiates in the community for people who have no church home.


And when there is a gap that nobody can fill, the church steps in. They have become the place to go for the weird, unsolvable, fall between the cracks cases. 


A grant from the Presbyterian Church in Canada’s Avondbloem fund helped them add some measured housing solutions this past summer. Over several weekends of the busy moving season in Montreal several volunteers rented a moving van and cruised through the neighbourhood helping people who were stuck with moves they couldn’t handle. They did some painting and doorknob fixing and improved a number of unbearable apartments with dehumidiers and air conditioning units. By far the most frequent request was for new mattresses and bedding. 


“There is something inhumane about a mother and three little children sleeping together every night on a worn and unsanitary small double mattress on the ground” Coppieters says, struggling with the emotion.


When the pandemic hit, it was the most natural thing for the church to step up and continue serving the community in the way they had already been doing. 


Côte des Neiges does the things most churches are doing during the shut down. There is a pre-recorded Sunday service that’s broadcast on their Facebook page, they hold a midweek prayer and Bible study on Zoom. But far more importantly, they have become a bit of a hub, answering questions, redirecting people to the right place to find the help they need, and stepping up to provide groceries, diapers, pre-cooked meals … whatever is needed that can’t be obtained anywhere else.


It turns out that it’s relatively easy to put up a sign that says “hope,” even in several different languages. You only accompany that with the offer to help if you really mean it.

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About the author


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