A year after Sunday services stopped because no one was attending, ministers of the First United Church in the Downtown Eastside had to remove the pews and pulpit in the sanctuary - to make room for all the people.
The congregation is back, but the overflow crowds spilling out of the old, battered building at the corner of Gore and East Hastings Streets have been driven to the church by poverty, not a search for faith.
That growing demand has led the church to launch a major funding drive on Wednesday, with the goal of raising more than $31-million. The plan is to redevelop the church into a multi-service facility that will provide everything from health care to housing in the heart of one of Canada's poorest neighbourhoods.
"We have always served the needs of the community here, so this is just an extension of what we've been doing," said Sandra Severs, deputy executive minister of the First United Church, which has been in the Downtown Eastside since 1885.
Ms. Severs said the church has long felt a responsibility to provide more than just a house of worship to the community, but over the past few years there has been a lot of soul searching about what role the church should play.
In 2007, the congregation had dwindled so much that the Sunday services were cancelled. But while interest in prayers had fallen off, an increasing number of people were coming to the church for other things - free meals, counselling, a safe place to sleep for a few hours.
In 2008, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson asked the church whether it would become one of four new Homeless Emergency Action Team, or HEAT, shelters being planned by the city and the provincial government.
With the 2010 Olympics approaching, the government was ramping up programs to deal with a deepening homelessness crisis in the Downtown Eastside, and the HEAT shelters were a key initiative.
"We had to ask ourselves - what does it mean to be a church in the 21st century?" said Ms. Severs of the discussion that was prompted by the overwhelming demand for beds and other urgent social services.
"A church is traditionally seen as a place you go to worship … but that's not what we see our role as being now … that's not the need there is here," she said. "We see our role as meeting the needs of the Downtown Eastside. And the reality of that is that we have to deal with poverty, mental illness, addictions and homelessness."
The First United Church agreed to become a HEAT shelter, and soon the pews were stripped from the sanctuary, to be replaced by rows of bunk beds. To make more room, the church organ was taken out and sold. The pulpit was put in storage, and most of the pews have been shunted into the hallways, where they serve as makeshift beds when the bunks are full.
"We routinely have 250 people a night," Ms. Severs said. "Some nights it's 350. When the bunks are all taken they sleep on the pews, or under the pews, on the floor. We don't turn people away."
She said the plan is to secure block funding from the government and match that with private donations, so a new complex can be built where all social services are provided under one roof.
"What we see too much of in this community is people being set up for failure because of the way services are fragmented," Ms. Severs said.
The redevelopment plan calls for the existing church to be replaced by a main services and administration building, linked to two housing towers. "We won't take this building down until we have the funding in place. But we hope that won't be too far off," she said.
During the two-year projected construction phase, the church plans to rent space nearby to continue providing emergency shelter.
"The people we are taking in are coming from Stanley Park and from under viaducts," Ms. Severs said. "We basically have become an indoor park that serves meals and provides support services. We can't just shut down. These people have nowhere else to go."
Nina Matthews, co-ordinator for fund development, said although First United may look more like an emergency shelter than a church, she feels the organizers are still doing God's work.
"After all," she said, "the Bible does say, 'Go and feed my lambs,' and that's really what we are doing."Report Typo/Error