Loudspeaker preacher won’t back down
City seeks injunction to keep Street Church from gathering in park
How to describe Street Church leader Artur Pawlowski and his band of unruly followers? Always preachy and sometimes pushy. Jarringly fundamentalist. The church is made up of loud twentysomethings, weathered seniors and everyone in between, including many who live on the streets.
Much of the church’s time is spent serving meals and preaching in a park just east of the Drop-In Centre — one of the bleakest areas of the city. Love them or hate them, Pawlowski and his crew form a committed and strikingly unusual religious group.
The ragtag bunch gathered in front of the Calgary Courts Centre the afternoon of March 31, readying themselves for the next chapter in the church’s long battle with the City of Calgary. With a bright red Gideon Bible in his left hand, Pawlowski, 35, confidently told the gathering of about 40 people that God commands people to take care of the poor. “It’s not an option,” he said in his thick Polish accent. Shouts of “amen” went up as he spoke. Pawlowski — dubbed the “loudspeaker preacher” by some because of his insistence on using amplified sound when he preaches — then led his assembly in singing “O Canada.”
The church has been at odds with the authorities since 2005, when the city first started getting complaints about Pawlowski and Street Church. You can hear the noise in Bridgeland from the other side of the river when he preaches in the park. The city wants to end this. In December, the city applied for an injunction against the church to prevent it from meeting in any city park. (The city pulled the church’s park permit last year after the church used amplified sound after being told not to.)
“We have a series of tickets that have been issued against the Street Church,” says Colleen Sinclair, the city lawyer handling the Street Church case. “When that has not succeeded in forcing compliance with the bylaws, then the only step open to the city to enforce compliance is an injunction.” The injunction application, says Sinclair, is in the public interest. “We bring it because citizens are being disturbed or annoyed.”
Pawlowski says Street Church has received more than 50 tickets. These days, however, it isn’t just getting nailed for noise. Pawlowski and other members of his church have been hit with a wide variety of bylaw infractions like jaywalking, placing a sign in a park, operating a barbecue or stove where prohibited in a park, and using a tree to secure an object.
And then there’s Pawlowski’s favourite: giving away free goods or services in a park without a permit — a contravention of the parks bylaw. “Most of the 50 tickets we got were for feeding the poor, not for noise,” Pawlowski says. He shakes his head at the thought of being penalized for giving food to people who are hungry. “Why can’t we start working together for the common good? You have your methods, we have ours.” Pawlowski says the number of people coming to Street Church is constantly growing. “The lineup never ends sometimes.”
Vivian Leask, 44, is one of many people who’ve come through the line at Street Church. “If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” says Leask, who lived on the streets for more than 30 years. “I’ve been clean for two years.”
Brian Skifton, 47, also lived on the street for several years, and says he got better meals at Street Church than any of the shelters. “Art’s helped us a lot,” says Skifton.
Inside the packed courtroom, the Court of Queen’s Bench judge decided to adjourn the matter until April 17 because of some legal technicalities. Until then, the church will continue meeting. In fact, Pawlowski has indicated the church will keep meeting in the park regardless of the court’s decision.
In the courthouse lobby afterwards, Pawlowski said he was hoping for a resolution. “I was hoping that finally they would leave us alone so we can do what every man should be doing — taking care of the poor and broken-hearted, the widows and the orphans,” he says. “Just because they’re poor and homeless, they don’t have rights like everybody else? We can gather, just because we have money and nice clothes, anywhere we want. But the homeless are forbidden from it.”
Street Church is currently suing the city, alleging the city is violating the church’s Charter rights — a separate legal case from the injunction. The city says the allegation is false. That suit was filed in 2006, and Sinclair says it will likely take a “full-scale trial” to resolve.
Regardless of how the legal situation unfolds for Street Church, one thing is clear: Pawlowski and his crew don’t plan on disappearing anytime soon. “Feeding the poor is not an option,” repeats Pawlowski.
“I think, as a society, we can do more than let those people die under the bridge.”