Are local charities compelling faith onto clients?

Greg Stetski Introductionfrom Union Gospel Mission said those clients who come to religious charities are often looking for spiritual encouragement. Mark Reimer

Winnipeggers have a lot of choices when it comes to donating to an inner city charity – but not the clients, who often find themselves succumbing to the religious affiliations of charity organizations.

Shelters and soup kitchens like Siloam Mission and Union Gospel Mission are non-denominational Christian organizations that work in Winnipeg’s inner city.

Greg Stetski, executive director of Union Gospel Mission at 320 Princess Street, believes Christian values are important guiding principles that help people just as much as food and shelter.

“We want to give spiritual bread along with physical bread,” he said.

Stetski added that not only do those who give to Union Gospel Mission believe it is important to include Christian-oriented messages when they provide services to people, the people who come expect prayer and bible study.

“There are places people can go without getting the spiritual help… generally the people that come here appreciate the Christian perspective,” he said.

Stetski figures that the charity gets about two complaints a year related to their religious leanings.

Main Street Project has existed since 1972 and provides an emergency shelter to homeless people. The organization receives almost all of its money from government sources, and is not affiliated with any religion.

Brian Bechtel, executive director of Main Street Project at 75 Martha Street, said charity is conceived of in a fundamentally disempowering way. Rather, he believes services provided to people in need should be considered part of one’s social contract.

“[The social contract] relationship is a more balanced approach,” he said.

Bechtel believes people who give from a religious perspective often do so as a requirement of their faith, rather than out of belief people have a “social right” to food and shelter.

Byron Rempel-Burkholder is a member of the Home Street Mennonite Church in Winnipeg’s West End. He is part of a church group that welcomes people in need who sometimes drop by the church on Sunday mornings.

While Rempel-Burkholder gladly shares his faith with people conversationally, he doesn’t believe Christian beliefs should be pushed on anyone.

“I have trouble with some of the proselytizing, like when you have to sit through a service to get a meal,” he said.

But he added the work being done by religious charities, even if it does include evangelism, should not be discounted.

“I don’t see how it can be a bad thing that people are trying to relieve suffering on the street,” he said.

At Union Gospel Mission, Stetski said the Bible can help people looking for direction in life.

“A lot of people want a little encouragement from the Bible,” he said.

Historically, religious institutions have often been the source of charity for people in poverty. The state began providing basic social services after the broadening of the public sphere after the Second World War.

But after recent cuts to government spending, Bechtel believes charities have to become more involved.

“We shouldn’t be necessary, but we’ve become essential,” said Bechtel.

The privatization of social services made charities much more competitive, he said.

“There is no question that when you are looking for media attention you realize you are facing stiff competition.”

As charities have to compete with each other, they tend to focus on simple problems with easy to understand solutions to get people to donate to their cause.

“The problem with charity is that it puts money into places that are easy to understand,” he said.

While Stetski admitted his organization competes with Siloam Mission, he said Union Gospel Mission has about 250 churches in Manitoba behind it, and still has many people coming through its doors.

“We serve over a hundred thousand meals a year,” he said.

Published in Volume 63, Number 26 of The Uniter (April 2, 2009)

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