Saturday, March 10, 2007

Ellice Cafe & Theatre

(Thanks to Jamie for posting this first!)

Every once in a while some story comes my way that makes me exhale and smile to the depth of my bone marrow. The following article is one of those stories. It's an example of incarnational brilliance that I hope spins your imagination and moves you toward creative, Christ-led action! It has me.

Revitalization can taste great!
by Harry Lehotsky (January 30, 2005 The Winnipeg Sun)

Some folks know me as a pastor. Others know me as an activist or a troublemaker. Some know me as landlord for some of the integrated transitional housing run by our church. This week, however, I'm putting on a new hat. I'm becoming restaurateur at the Ellice Cafe & Theatre on the corner of Ellice and Sherbrook.

Some have asked: "Why would a church start a restaurant?" It's a good question. Some background. For 21 years, I've pastored this inner-city church. I started in stereotypical fashion, going door-to-door, asking people if they wanted to attend a new church. I knocked on the doors of all the homes, apartment blocks and rooming houses in the neighbourhood. I was able to count on one hand the people who expressed an interest in checking out a new church. An ordained Baptist minister with a seminary degree, I wondered if perhaps this was the wrong place or wrong time for a church -- or perhaps that I was just the wrong person for the job.

I decided to go back through the neighbourhood and ask different questions. "What are you interested in? What are your concerns in the neighbourhood?"Suddenly, people were willing to talk.I heard their frustrations, fears, and hopes for the neighbourhood. I talked with parents concerned about their children. I heard from seniors concerned about health and safety in the neighbourhood. Business folk detailed their issues in the community.

I tried to help people regardless of whether or not they attended church. I expanded my understanding of ministry from serving people in a church building to serving the entire community around the church. We spent years trying to help people through counsel, advocacy and referral. I was frustrated by all the things we couldn't provide. No sermon, song, counsel or social service could counter the debilitating effects of living in some hellhole of a building. It's tough to sustain change when sharing long days and nights with others who have no interest in their own health and safety -- let alone that of others.

Our experience in patching and painting each other's homes helped us to gut and rehab a derelict house in the neighbourhood. A developer noticed some of our work on TV, and donated an apartment block to our church. Government noticed our work and started helping us. We were able expand the quantity and quality of our renovations of homes for homeownership and apartments. But the more you do, the more you see still needs doing.

I had noticed for awhile how eating and leisure habits contribute to - or frustrate - positive changes in the lives of people. Whenever our church had a meal, people would share good food and warm fellowship. I noticed how happy people were getting out of their apartments to spend time with others.

For awhile, in addition to community meals, we started a monthly coffee house. On those Friday nights we arranged our seating around candlelit tables with a well-lit stage. We invited a variety of bands to play. We sold pizza by the slice, soda, coffee and desserts to cover our costs. During one of those coffeehouses, a friend leaned over and suggested that I look around."Check it out, Harry. You know why some of these people are here? Some of them don't even like this style of music. But they're here because it's better than sitting home alone and cheaper than all the other places they can't afford."

There were days I fantasized about starting a full-time coffee house or even a food service for residents of our transitional housing. But I never thought I'd have the opportunity. The trick would be doing it in a way that wouldn't force me to depend on government for operating funds. I wanted it to be self-sustaining. But to become self-sustaining, it would have to be nice enough that people who could pay for what they want would choose to eat with us. Their income would not only pay for their own food, but also subsidize a high quality meal program for some low-income people in our community. We were able to purchase the old Mac's Building at the corner of Ellice and Sher-brook. This week we'll finally open the cafe.

The name - Ellice Cafe and Theatre - was selected by community residents. A designer worked with our Lazarus Housing crew to feature some of the heritage of the building and our community. Evidence of providence came with the addition of an excellent chef. I may be naive, but I also wanted to tackle some of my frustrations in restaurants. Waiting too long for someone to take my order, or waiting too long for my cheque afterwards. Sticker shock from how pre-tax menu prices don't match up to my bill at the end. Above all, I wanted a warm atmosphere and great food in the healthy context of a good socio-economic mix of people.

Sometimes folks get overwhelmed with the problems of the inner city. They wonder how to support revitalization. We don't want government operating funds. We don't want to be dependent on your tax dollars. We'd like to attract some of your leisure dollars. Revitalization is also about where you go to see movies or attend concerts. It's also about where you go to eat, and who provides your catering. Come downtown. Revitalization can leave a great taste in your mouth.


David said...

Wow, awesome.
My wife and I were just talking last night about how when God leads us to our next adventure we really want to tap into the needs of that community and see how to best serve them...which may not mean just planting a 'church'.
Great inspiration from a troublemaker!

John Lynch said...

Amen, brother. An additional note that deepens this testimony is that Harry passed away just last year... and his legacy of incarnational, kingdom-building continues to grow. It's as Moses prays in Psalm 90, "Establish for us the work of our hands." What an inspiration! May we all increasingly become as Harry was - as Jesus lives His world-changing life through us.