What God Can Do with Boxes of Clothes and Leftovers

Horizon Weekly | 29 July 2020

by Kimberly (Warren) Ma

In 1988, when the English-speaking congregation of (now) Cityview Church of Vancouver, BC, had eleven members, we already had boxes of donated clothing available for anyone in need. We also offered free ESL classes for newcomers. At first Cambodians came, then Central American refugees and Chinese immigrants attended. We reached out to First Nations peoples and also had a Spanish-speaking congregation.

We—the church family—understood that we were stewards entrusted with skills, talents, energy and resources intended to be used to share God’s love. We loved in very practical ways. “For I [Jesus] was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me” (Matthew 25:35–36, NIV).

After months of prayer walking and noticing various needs in our neighbourhood, in late 1989 we at Cityview Baptist Church opened Mainstay Ministry Centre. We moved the boxes of clothes there and provided a welcoming place to anyone and everyone.

We were the church out with the people, not expecting them to come to the church building to find us—and God. We offered the ministry of presence, just being present, available and willing to care and serve day after day, week after week. We had opened the doors with enough money for one month’s rent. Months became years. God provided money and volunteers as needed, month by month. In 1992 we moved to a larger facility and were able to expand the clothing ministry to an actual thrift shop.

Craig and Ellen O’Brien began pastoring Cityview in 1994. The foundation of loving our neighbours and serving locally, regionally, nationally and internationally influenced our activities. Cityview taught me that engaging in missions was central to being a healthy church body, not a secondary assignment or purpose. “…and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8b).

Many people came to Mainstay regularly, some daily. We served people from all backgrounds, all circumstances, all needs. Some were hungry—like the single, unemployed men. Some were lonely—like the elderly European immigrants. Some needed clothes—like the single, struggling mothers. Some needed encouragement—like the addicts struggling to change their habits. Some needed a bargain—like the new Asian and African immigrants. Some needed coffee and conversation—like everyone!

Everyone had a story. Most told their stories more than once. A listening ear offers a lot of validation and healing. People needed to feel valued before they gave any value to our message of a loving Saviour.

The volunteers and I sorted, priced and hung mounds of used clothing. We made and served thousands of cups of coffee. We cleaned and tidied the small space so that people felt welcome. We longed to be able to offer showers to customers and a washing machine for clothes. We listened. We cared. We knew people’s names. We learned about their families. We celebrated and grieved with them. I learned a lot from the people who came to Mainstay.

I learned that people have more in common than we have in differences. I learned that people from different walks of life really can get along. I learned that I needed them as much as they needed me. I learned so much about compassion and grace and boundaries and second chances. I learned I needed compassion and grace too. I had a habit of separating my personal life from my role as the director at Mainstay. On one difficult day, they collided.

While working at Mainstay, I received some sad news and lost my ability to be patient with what I perceived as people’s petty requests. In that moment my raw humanity showed and much to my surprise, the needy people suddenly became the giving people. They knew what to do: one ushered some men engaged in a loud discussion outside, one made tea for me, another asked people to move and make a place for me to sit on the sofa. They did not probe for details. They simply offered me the ministry of presence in the midst of my sadness and worry. I saw clearly that God’s love was making a difference in people’s lives!

We prayed for people and with people. We displayed a Bible verse every morning. People lined up waiting for the doors to open so they could pick from the variety of day-old bakery goods and loaves of bread. David Warkentin faithfully drove early in the mornings to local bakeries to pick up the donated bread and deliver it to Mainstay. It arrived in large (clean) garbage bags and often seemed to be more than we could use. These rough-on-the-edges types learned the routine and could be seen slapping anyone who delayed the process with a stern admonition to shut up so we could thank God for the bread. The people gratefully received the free bread and we were grateful that on most days all of the bread was taken.

Churches often host Vacation Bible School in the summertime. True to our traditions, we wanted to offer that same kind of opportunity in the community where the children lived. We got permission to have Backyard Bible Club in the nearby Little Mountain housing development. The first couple of years very few families trusted each other and viewed us with caution. We remembered the ministry of presence.

By the third year we learned to use the neutral common ground of a community room in the centre of the complex and encouraged parents to stay too. At the end of one week, the children begged us to continue “The Party.” We gladly did. Chris Alderman and other volunteers coordinated games, songs, activities and Bible stories once a week. The children felt loved and wanted more of Jesus. Some of them began coming to Cityview on Sundays and bringing their parents. Some stayed and are still active members at Cityview.

I lived alone when I became the full-time director of Mainstay in 1994. I often cooked a large pot of soup or stew or spaghetti for myself and would get tired of eating it before the pot was empty. I started bringing my leftovers to Mainstay (breaking all kinds of city health safety regulations, I’m sure!) to share with the people there. I realized quickly that grumpy people are more agreeable when they have something warm in their stomachs. I began to think how wonderful it would be to serve meals regularly.

I talked to Pastor Craig; he and I agreed not to speak to anyone about this idea but to pray and see what would happen. It was not very long, just a few days, before Cynthia Lim walked in and said she wanted to do something for people, like cook soup! God had something good, and tasty, planned.

Cynthia and a team of volunteers started Soup ‘N’ Friends on Thursdays sometime in 1995 in the basement of Cityview Baptist Church. People gathered over bowls of soup became united in Jesus. They changed the name to Open Table and this became their church family. They chose not to move upstairs and join the Sunday crowd.

Today, Open Table is reaching out beyond the neighbourhood. This congregation currently sponsors five children in Burkina Faso, Indonesia, Haiti, Guatemala and Sri Lanka! With current social distancing restrictions in place due to the risk of COVID-19, Open Table adapted and serves lunch in boxes to go.

The ministry of presence allowed people to watch us and gradually they learned to trust us. They saw our authenticity and genuine concern. It took four years of Mainstay being open weekly before the first visitor ventured into Cityview Baptist Church on a Sunday. That one started a long line of weekly visitors, some who trusted Jesus, some who got involved and stayed.

Knowing God had called me to serve others and to communicate the Gospel cross-culturally, I recognized that I needed more training. I left Mainstay to go to the Canadian Southern Baptist Seminary and College in Cochrane, Alberta.

Christina Muise passionately and capably continued the outreach to the diverse Main Street community until Mainstay closed in 2000. After completing my course work, I gladly accepted an offer to return to Cityview to lead the small group ministry and to direct the ESL classes. God prepared a very special gift for me in 2005 as I got married, said my goodbyes to Cityview and moved away to continue serving in cross-cultural missions.

My last Sunday to worship at Cityview before my wedding, I overflowed with emotions. There was joy, gratitude and sadness at leaving this vibrant loving community who had taught me so much.

I caught a glimpse of two men across the sanctuary and I became distracted because they looked so familiar, but I could not recall their names. As soon as the worship service ended, they headed straight toward me. My confusion turned to embarrassment as they expressed appreciation for how God had used me and Mainstay in their lives.

I finally realized that I had not recognized these men because of the life in their eyes. The last time I had seen the father, he was addicted to drugs and was forcing his girlfriend to sell her body to support his habit. He was a robber of life, a cruel heartless man and he disgusted me. I hated everything I knew about him. I tried my hardest to support his girlfriend and get her out of that situation. Yet, there he was thanking me. I could not understand.

Then I learned that his teenage son had met Jesus through another ministry and had introduced his father to the Giver of Life. They were both involved with a Christian outreach in downtown Vancouver. They had come to thank me for the years of offering the ministry of presence on Main Street and making a difference for them. I cried tears of gratitude, seeing that God never gives up on anyone and can use my small efforts to do big things for his honour and glory.

Do you have a story you would like to share? Please contact Lynda Blazina and let her know. We would love to share your stories with our CNBC family of churches.

CNBC Weekly Horizon
National Ministry Leader: Gerry Taillon 
Editor: Lynda Blazina
French Translation: Baker Hill    


CNBC Mission: We are churches in covenant giving ourselves away to advance the Kingdom.

CNBC Vision: 1000 healthy, Kingdom-focused churches.




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