Shunning the dinner-and-a-movie cliché, Alex and Belinda* took to the alleys and sides streets of their Vancouver Downtown Eastside neighbourhood for dates, seeking out the lonely and isolated to talk and pray.
“Spending time on the streets was really life-giving. We are the light of the world and the salt of the earth and we need to be out there,” says Belinda, who invited people they’d met to their salt-and-light-themed wedding reception on the Downtown Eastside. “They will know us as Christians by our love.”
They are part of a Christian movement called MoveIn, inspired by John 1:14: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” MoveIn calls Christians to pray for and move into urban, low-income neighbourhoods to live alongside people who haven’t heard the Gospel.
Beginning in one Toronto neighbourhood in 2009, MoveIn now boasts 79 teams of 358 people in 12 countries and 29 cities around the world.
A single 20-something woman is the face of the movement but couples, families, empty nesters and seniors also move in as teams of two to 15 people.
“Compassion literally means to suffer with. When you move in, the neighbours’ problems become your problems. You have a relationship to serve out of,” says Sam, a MoveIn vision team member, who provides support and resources. “MoveIn is an avenue for people to see their faith with flesh on, an embodied faith they didn’t find in church.”
Meeting people where they are
That’s where John was at 19. While attending Redeemer University College, he stayed with a MoveIn team and something clicked.
“God already put on my heart people who are marginalized in the inner city, those who were rejected and oppressed,” says the now 24-year-old. “MoveIn felt like a way of living that out. It was a way of life and people who aren’t conforming to the world.”
After graduation, John got a surprising call: an impoverished part of the Hamilton mountain neighbourhood where he grew up needed a team.
He moved in and within months, began hosting a Saturday waffle breakfast for the whole building. No one banged down the door the first week, but before long they had a crowd of five to 15.
MoveIn is about being there and fighting the urge to be busy, says John.
He played soccer with neighbourhood teens, ate at the food centre, and went to the annual block party. When the elevator broke down, he sat with a neighbour who couldn’t take the stairs. He’d eat with same crusty woman at the community food centre, time after time. “It’s about patience and love and reminding yourself this person is loved by God.”
Outreach has its own flavour in every neighbourhood, says Sam, who moved into downtown Hamilton six years ago but now lives in Kitchener.
At least one thing doesn’t change. While neighbours may struggle with addictions, chronic health problems, discrimination, or poor access to services, there is often a strong sense of community to plug into.
“What the poor often have that the rich struggle with is social capital. We know and need our neighbours here,” says Sam, explaining relationships are built on the generosity of shared meals, a listening ear, and an open door. “When your neighbours are out-loving you in terms of hospitality, what can you offer them? We offer people Jesus. We can pray.”
God also calls the 28-year-old to care for the neighbourhood, involving public health when a property manager left mould untreated and lobbying for parks and a pedestrian bridge over light rail tracks.
“When we seek the shalom of our neighbourhood and we love our neighbours, even the ones that hate us, that gets people’s attention,” says Sam, emphasizing God does the heavy lifting. “I believe the margins are actually the centre of God’s kingdom. We’re encountering Christ in our neighbours.”
It’s not always easy
Alex and Belinda were living at the margins when MoveIn found them four years ago.
Alex, a social worker, moved to Vancouver to an intentional Christian community but when it wasn’t the right fit, he stayed in the Downtown Eastside to pray. Working as a critical care nurse but spending her off time at shelters, Belinda felt God moving her heart and got a job at the safe injection site.
MoveIn spoke to them and soon, two houses formed a team.
“It struck a chord. Christians need to look at mission and ministry as flowing out of daily life. For me, it was about trying to intentionally go place where other people might not,” says Alex.
With poverty, substance abuse, acute mental health issues, and social isolation the norm, the Downtown Eastside is heavily targeted by Christian outreach, but few Christians live there, he says. “If you are going to speak to people, you have to be in the midst of it, as opposed to swooping in and out.”
That ministry is helping people access services and walking the streets or stopping by the mission, hoping to see familiar faces.
“You have to be willing to go to them. Once there is a relationship, they are comfortable and trust you as safe, then coming to your house isn’t so scary or shame-causing,” says Alex, adding that years of one-off conversations that didn’t go deeper took a toll. “They might not be there tomorrow. That can get tiring, trying to gain momentum.”
Belinda remembers one date where an intoxicated woman punched Alex in the nose and a complaint that nearly got her fired from the safe injection site.
“Some of these conversations are literally two minutes before they have to run off somewhere and every time you talk to that person, you may have to reintroduce yourself because they don’t remember you. It wasn’t sustainable,” says the 36-year-old.
Working long hours outside the neighbourhood with hardly time for each other, they decided to move to Burnaby last fall, where Belinda worked at a refugee clinic.
With a passion for global missions, she’d applied feeling unqualified. “But when I prayed about it, I felt God telling me, ‘You’re not going anywhere. I’m bringing the nations to you.’”
They got odd looks when they invited strangers to Thanksgiving lunch, but several families took a chance. They spend weekends in the community. Belinda babysits and gave one woman a grocery-buying tutorial, trading recipes afterwards. “We just do life with them.”
Chelsea agrees. The 28-year-old has been driving people to appointments, organizing BBQs and block parties with Halal options, finding shelter rooms, picking up stranded teens, and helping people navigate the court and social services systems for eight years in downtown Ottawa.
Everyone knows MoveIn houses are places they can get help, day or night.
“It’s letting them know someone will always be on the other side of the door,” says Chelsea, adding that living in tight quarters with roomies and pests like mice or bedbugs means you need to practice self-care. “It can be very draining to do ministry that’s essentially 24/7.”
It’s not temporary
There is no going back for any of them.
John and his wife joined a new team in downtown Hamilton last month.
“Moving in is the easy part. You’re constantly forced to re-evaluate your privilege to leave if it gets hard, unlike your neighbours,” he says. “MoveIn is a strong way to live obedience to calling.”
When he first moved to Kitchener, Sam couldn’t find a team and felt something was missing. To his surprise, he found Jesus’ abundant life in the uncomfortable spaces most people avoid.
“The idea of upward mobility is reversed in the kingdom. This king was crowned not on a throne but on a cross. Following Jesus to the margins is where I’ve found life,” he says.
Alex agrees. MoveIn reminds him who he wants to be.
“We run the risk as Christians being really comfortable hanging out with ourselves. If you think about the people that God connected with, he was always going to new people that needed to hear who he was,” says the 34-year-old, who is now a homeowner but already looking for rental units in the neighbourhood. “I don’t want to get comfortable. I want to strive toward being in a constant state of discomfort to put myself in a place where I’m more likely to come across people that need the Gospel.”
They have a 9-month-old daughter, but Belinda doesn’t hesitate a moment about their choice.
“Wherever we live, we’re going to do it with our family. We pray often for God to break our hearts for what breaks his. You better watch what you pray for because it really hits you. This is not temporary. This is how we want to live.”
How to MoveIn
Already decided? Mobilize a team of friends and use the neighbourhood finder online at www.movein.to, or get in touch at ot.nievom@tcatnoc.
*all last names withheld for privacy and safety
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