The Gathering Place in Thunder Bay, Ont., has been reaching out in word and deed for more than 30 years by offering Bible studies, food hampers, clothing, school readiness programs, and other community-focused activities.

“We’re very deliberately looking at balancing word and deed ministries,” said executive director Yvonne Schenk. “We’re not just diaconal, handing out food and clothing, and we’re not just evangelizing [by] offering Bible studies. We’re very deliberately trying to do both. There’s a tension in that, but I think it’s an okay tension.”

The ministry has been supported by three Christian Reformed Churches in Thunder Bay: First, Hope, and Bethlehem, as well as by Classis Lake Superior (the regional group of churches).

Pastor Robert Hoekstra of Hope CRC said, “The Gathering Place is a community where visitors, volunteers, and staff know each other, greet one another with smiles, tell life stories, shed tears of joy or pain, exchange warm hugs, pray for each other, share contagious laughs, and where a visitor may simply show up to have a coffee just to be there. We see here in a tangible way a glimpse of how [important] this ministry is to us at Hope church; it is truly a calling from God we take seriously.”

Started in 1983 as a vacation Bible school in one of the poorer, more transient neighborhoods in Thunder Bay, The Gathering Place has grown steadily and become an important part of the community. Its school readiness programs are funded in part by the Thunder Bay District Social Services Administrative Board. 

“We have a large playroom with different play areas that focus on gross motor skills, fine motor skills, and other intentional areas for a holistic program for children,” Schenk explained. “In the fall, we offer an eight-week program that focuses on reading readiness. In the winter, there’s a seven-week program focusing on early math experiences, and in the spring, we offer a six-week program that focuses on resiliency skills in young children, building coping skills or what you can do to prepare your child for adversities in life.

“These school readiness programs are for both caregivers and children. We have staff who work with the kids. At the same time, Tammy VanElberg, coordinator of child enrichment, is teaching their caregivers how they can build these skills in their children.”

Schenk, her staff, and volunteers are being intentional about taking their ministry outside their doors this year, connecting with their neighbors and inviting the community that doesn’t usually make use of their services to come in and get to know them. In addition to having a public showing of the movie The War Room, they will be hosting a Christmas carol sing-along in December, something their neighbors told them they would love to have happen.

The Gathering Place is looking forward to making their current building, which they purchased two years ago, more accessible so that they can make better use of the space they have.

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Krista dela Rosa