Salvation switched off
Calgary says preachers in a public park will have to save souls without a microphone
CALGARY – Triangle Park, a.k.a. Needle Park, isn’t really much of a park at all. Barely larger than a suburban backyard, it is wedged between the Bow River and two of Calgary’s major thoroughfares. There are few mature trees, some used-needle bins, and the footfalls of the junkies and winos who loiter here have worn away all but the odd patch of grass.
But then, a barbecue here on a frigid Sunday afternoon is no picnic in the park, either. It’s a revival.
In front of a red Dodge pickup, a homemade cross erected in its flatbed, stands Maurice Boyer, a drug pusher turned preacher. Using a PA system powered by the truck’s battery, he tells the grim line of homeless people and addicts lined up for a meal of wieners, bread and coffee that eight months ago, he was like them.
"I was guilty. I was so hungry to make money, I wanted to murder," he cries into the microphone. "I am saved now."
Looking toward a cluster of drug dealers skulking beneath a nearby overpass, he calls, "Come to the Lord! He will set you free!"
For four years, Street Church Ministries has visited Needle Park three times a week, bringing food, clothing and the testimonies of former prostitutes, addicts and dealers, such as Mr. Boyer, who credit this church with their salvation. One of its ministers, Artur Pawlowski, believes street life survivors are the only way to credibly communicate with people living amidst violence, drugs and crime. And, he says, his 220-watt PA system is the best means to reach the troubled mortals huddling amongst the area’s bridges and alleys.
The city does not seem to agree.
This year, the city refused to renew Mr. Pawlowski’s permit to use the park unless he gives up the amplifier. Though the ministry has had permission for the PA system for years, David Lewis, a city lawyer, said using speakers to broadcast beyond the boundaries of the park, is "a way we felt they shouldn’t be used. ? We had so many complaints, it made sense to say to Mr. Pawlowski ? ‘You can still do what you want, you just can’t use loudspeakers.’ "
Mr. Pawlowski sees it as a plot by the city to shut him down.
"There is like a witch hunt against us," he says. "It’s like a war going on against the cross. That’s what I believe."
Arguing that the prohibition violates his speech rights, Mr. Pawlowski is taking the city to court. This week, an Alberta judge is expected to rule on an injunction application that might allow the amplified preaching to continue until the case comes to trial, which could take months.
There is no question this area needs some serious saving. Calgary’s eastern downtown, rife with crime and drugs, has been compared, unfavourably, to Vancouver’s notorious Eastside.
During a street church service two weeks ago, two men were stabbed to death just 100 yards away, reportedly over a $60 drug deal.
Refugees from that life, who return to Needle Park to help and pray with Mr. Pawlowski, claim it was the voices on the loudspeakers that encouraged them to seek help.
"I remember sitting on that bank over by that liquor store, drinking and listening to those messages," says Brian Sharon, a former alcoholic and crack addict, pointing down the block. "I know they had an effect on my life. I know they did."
Vivian Leask, a former crack user, says street people "hear the message and they come. Without the speakers, it wouldn’t attract the people."
Mr. Pawlowski says that despite a network of shelters and social agencies, many drunks and addicts fear the official system.
"They don’t want to go into the buildings," he says. "They are intimidated by the buildings. They don’t believe the people in the buildings will accept them the way they are."
The declarations of hope and love from people who once were laid wretchedly low themselves, is more persuasive than messages offered up by social workers, he says. The ministry claims it has saved 400 souls this way.
The city, says Mr. Lewis, considers this a case of "one person, Mr. Pawlowski, that wants to make use of loudspeakers, balanced against the rights of people that live in the area."
But Gerald Chipeur, the church ministry’s attorney, insists the six hours a week of preaching does not harm anyone. The derelict neighbourhood is a virtual wasteland, he points out, the closest house or apartment blocks away, across noisy freeways. Even standing inside the Calgary Drop-In Centre across the road, it is impossible to hear the speakers. And the city itself admits the service does not violate noise bylaws.
"There is really no evidence of any impact on anyone," says Mr. Chipeur. "Any complaints they have received have been in bad faith."
Someone listening to music at the same volume in his backyard, he adds, would be legally protected from the complaints of neighbours. The fact is, he says, people complain to City Hall about all kinds of things, that doesn’t give the city licence to violate the Charter.
Mr. Pawlowski claims he is a target for activists and officials who "don’t like the cross."
His persecution complex is understandable: He has stacks of videos of his ministry being hassled by police and bylaw officers (he films every service for security purposes). Last summer, he spent a night in jail after one officer arrested him for refusing to stop reading a Bible aloud in public.
Whatever the motives, those whose lives have been turned around by the Street Church are baffled to see their municipal government fight something that has done them so much good.
"The city cries out for ways to improve the lot of the homeless and to improve the lot of marginal people, and then you have this ministry that’s changing lives like my own, that is taking crack addicts and showing them a better way, and the city’s trying to shut them down," Mr. Sharon says.
"That’s just stupid. I can’t think of another word for it."