The prosperous suburbs on the north shore of Vancouver Harbour were not immune to the Global Financial Crisis. This became evident in the closing months of 2008 as I began to see more homeless people bustling on North Vancouver’s Lonsdale Avenue.
North Shore Alliance Church (NSAC), where I had worked for more than a decade, was also experiencing a rise in people at the front door seeking one-on-one meetings with a pastor, looking for cash or a grocery card. Praying for guidance, I instructed the church staff to ask anyone showing up unannounced to come back on Wednesday at 2 p.m. My original thought was to hand out food cards and maybe put the coffee pot on. I had no idea that our temporary solution would blossom into Coffee Time, a vibrant weekly gathering of over 100 people in NSAC’s basement, at the corner of East 23rd Street and St. Georges Avenue, in North Vancouver.
A decade after first putting on the coffee, a team of 25 volunteers—including co-founder Maree Scott—serve free hot drinks, muffins, music, fellowship, a short Bible message, and $10 grocery cards. A common theme at Coffee Time is that the volunteers reap as many, if not more, benefits than the participants they serve. Lawrence Thompson, a regular participant, calls Coffee Time a “one-of-a-kind place for Christians and non-Christians.” The sermons and songs keep him coming back.
The gathering, of course, is only one of a myriad of inspiring outreach organizations and support groups on the North Shore helping new immigrants, the poor and destitute, and those grappling with mental illness and addiction. Yet, one must only spend a few minutes at Coffee Time to sense that much more is happening than free coffee and muffins. Our outreachand its spin-offs have become places of renewed hope in the power of Jesus Christ to transform lives. The transformation process begins at the entrance. At each meeting, participants are individually welcomed before moving toward a series of name-card display boards. Each board covers a section of the alphabet. Amid hugs and high fives, the clients sign in for the grocery card they get after the one-hour meeting.
One of our volunteers, Dave Greer, designed the board system to establish and nurture relationships with the participants by presenting a familiar face every week. Each of the greeters really gets to know people on their boards.
Although we do not offer meals, like other nearby churches, Coffee Time emphasizes the strengthening of connections between our volunteers and participants. In some instances, Coffee Time is an example of broken people helping broken people.
It is not uncommon for some Coffee Time participants to be visibly perspiring as they move into our meeting room. This is because they just finished exercising at a fitness class specifically designed for Coffee Timers at Harry Jerome Community Recreation Centre across the street from NSAC. Officially known as the Active Living program, the free 45-minute session was established in 2011 in partnership with the North Vancouver Recreation Commission, Vancouver Coastal Health, and fitness instructor Karen Harmon.
In September 2018, the BC Recreation and Parks Association named Karen the industry group’s Fitness Leader of the Year for her work with Coffee Time clients and other fitness participants living below the poverty line. Among the fitness program’s participants is Doug Schlamp, a Coffee Time regular, who has struggled with drug addiction and mental health issues.
On a warm day in July of 1999, Doug jumped 27 meters (90 feet) off Vancouver’s Granville Street Bridge in a bid to silence the voices in his head. After physically recovering from what he calls an “act of madness,” Doug’s life gravitated toward the North Shore and a series of group homes where he lived until the middle of 2018. Over the years, many Christians offered to help Doug give up his drug-fueled illicit lifestyle to follow Jesus. He felt they did not understand him, so he pushed them away. He eventually found his way to NSAC, the church that gives away grocery cards. One day I asked Doug if there was anything he wanted prayer for. Given his history of illegal substance abuse, his answer surprised me. “My lungs,” he gasped, “I need to quit smoking.” While he had learned to manage his drug addictions, kicking cigarettes was more than he could handle on his own. Doug continued to smoke even after his doctor told him his lungs were shutting down.
For two years, Doug and I prayed for the power to quit cigarettes. Then something happened. Doug awoke one day and did not feel the urge to smoke until early afternoon. Another morning came and he held off the urge to light up until early evening. After that, he pledged to quit smoking for good the next time he felt the same sense of calmness. Today, Doug has not had a cigarette for nearly three years.
Over the past decade, a significant number of conversions and baptisms at NSAC have come from our Coffee Time congregation. Clearly, God is using this urban ministry to transform lives.
Dave Sattler is the Outreach Pastor at North Shore Alliance Church in North Vancouver, BC. Passionate about raising up the next generation of Christian leaders, he has been a pastor at NSAC for more than 20 years. He loves Jesus, hiking and camping with his family, and cheering on the Vancouver Canucks.