A question all too familiar for many since the start of the pandemic, and one which brings great concern to some of the most vulnerable individuals and families in our communities. As narratives evolve and our concerns grow — where were we a year ago, where are we now, and where might we be heading?
As the year comes to an end, I’ve tried like many to remain optimistic in a future that seems to be made of many unanswered questions. But through these moments, I remain curious of what exactly we may be hoping to hear. What will we continue to ask ourselves and those around us as we look to the future? Unlike years prior, where the streets are usually littered with fall leaves and a seasonal spirit of enthusiasm and grace for the new year, this fall certainly feels different. The streets seem quieter and in the silence many people are suffering. But with this said, this year has also been one of healing and has been a testament to our collective endurance and resilience as interdependent communities.
In hopes of highlighting some of these stories within my local community, I connected with Lead Pastor Fredrica Walters and Administrative Pastor Shirleen Weeks of the Christian Faith Outreach Centre (CFOC) located in Downtown Ajax. We were able to discuss how they’ve adapted during the pandemic, and their visions as they look to the future. During our discussion, we touched on the history and journey of the CFOC, and the mission to develop a sustainable network that can better serve and support individuals and families in need within Ajax and the developing Downtown core.
Interview with Pastor Fedrica Walters and Pastor Shirleen Weekes
MJ: As Churches, Charities, Businesses and the Government continue to adapt and develop strategies for engagement, what may assist in the process of creating or sustaining equitable community focused initiatives?
I’ve noted that there are a variety of Businesses in the Ajax Plaza, but what is the history of the Christian Faith Outreach Centre (CFOC), and its relationship to the Ajax Downtown core?
Pastor Fedrica: The Christian Faith Outreach Centre started in 1987, under the Pastoral leadership of Larry Hunter followed by Minister Mel Piper. We were first located in Pickering High School in the 90’s and eventually relocated to the area of Salem and Chambers until January of 2012. After many challenges and changes, in 2009 I came in as the interim pastor and was nominated to be the leading pastor in 2011. At that time, parts of land in Ajax were being designated as prestige employment, meaning Churches and Church schools could no longer be housed in that area. Once the units were vacant, you could no longer be able to go back in and operate as a Church. So, this transition changed the ideology for Church infrastructure here in Ajax. Our current location at 158 Harwood became vacant during this time and after receiving an offer, our membership came together to purchase this property in 2013.
MJ: Wow, I find it very interesting to see how far CFOC has come. To now be in your offices, and being able to witness some of the work that goes into leading both a Church and Outreach Centre, this is a very special place. Following the move in 2013, what experiences led to the development of the homelessness outreach program? Sometimes it is difficult to see the state of an environment in its totality, you know? I assume the demographics in local neighborhoods and the Downtown area may have begun to change?
PF: You’re right, it’s certainly been a journey for us. After purchasing this property in 2013, we’d have folks coming to our offices and Church asking for food or gift cards, asking for help with paying their bills because the lights were going to be turned off. This was around 2018, and at this point we had very limited staff, we were operating a food bank at the time and the need kept increasing. So, a couple of us in the plaza who were facing the task of dealing with the homeless situation got together. From that, two Councilors from the Town of Ajax started a homelessness task force.
At this time the Library opened its doors during inclement weather to house individuals who were homeless. They had to have security, so it presented some challenges for them and by then we had individuals sleeping over at the Town Hall, sleeping in a lot of the alcoves in the business area. So, we decided to open our Church where people could come in, get some food and use the bathrooms. In 2019 we went full-time as a drop-in center, from 9PM to 6AM so that the unsheltered could have a place to stay out of the cold.
Up until March of 2020, before the pandemic hit we were able to extend our drop-in program. But once the stay-at-home-order was declared, we had to let everyone go. It was hard, because everywhere was closed — there were no bathrooms, no shelters, so people had to go back to the street. The Region of Durham came alongside us, and offered us funding so that we were able to hire trained staff which gave us the ability to open an emergency shelter. With that, we were able to develop a program which we did alongside an agency called First Light, Foundation of Hope located in Oshawa where we operated out of Camp Samac from May to September.
MJ: This has been really heavy, it’s amazing though to be here and to see how you’ve all bounced back. Despite all of the closures and barriers. This really shows the strength of the team, that’s a lot of endurance. You all have a lot of endurance…
I’m curious then, as a Faith based organization, what does outreach and the community mean to you?
PF: So, community is everything. In a community it takes all of us to become that. Our vision is transforming lives, impacting communities. To us this means acknowledging the wellbeing of every individual. So whether they believe in faith, or don’t, it’s about humanity. We are faith based and we proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. But, our work is not just based on those who are faith based, it’s helping the community to be all that it should be. Which is the basics of life, food, shelter, and the general care of the citizens of that place.
MJ: Yeah putting, or centering yourself in that. To me, it’s very eye opening to not think individually but to be community focused. Because I’ve come to realize that as we grow, each of us hold a certain history with us that grows with us as we find our space in society.
MJ: Pastor Shirleen — with all this said, how would you summarize your year in one word?
Pastor Shirlene: Unstoppable!
MJ: Why unstoppable?
PS: Well, you know, we’ve lived in a society with this pandemic going on. But, I feel that we have been unstoppable. We haven’t allowed that to stop us from doing the work of the Lord, from outreaching, by connecting and from serving the community in terms of the present needs and all those that have been happening before.
MJ: As a youth, I find that I often struggle to empathize with a lot of people. Especially when I don’t have the life experiences and awareness, to see the multiple ways that these issues often affect people. So, for people who are youth and are at risk of homelessness, and are coming from very difficult circumstances, how can they come in contact with CFOC to get support? Have you seen a lot of young people coming to the Outreach Centre over the past few years?
PF: So we do see a lot of youth, mostly in the shelter program as well as in our Church services. As you mentioned, a lot of youth are suffering more directly because of the pandemic. You see it more, it’s more prevalent. You find that at home, there are more conflicts and there are more challenges they are facing. Sometimes we get calls from young people, who are working but simply don’t have a place to stay.
For anyone in need of help, CFOC is in the 211 in the area and work in conjunction with many agencies in Durham. We can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, calling us at 905–619–1109 or walking into our offices in Ajax. We’ll put them in contact with a worker, or volunteer to help them navigate the system.
As we continued to discuss, the depth of sensitivity surrounding our conversation truly began to sink in. While some of the details could not be disclosed, due to confidentiality, having the opportunity to sit with key decision makers in my community truly left me speechless. Although I sat on behalf of Urban Minds, I wondered what this discussion would have felt like had there been more youth, or more perspectives and more voices from folks who are at the center of our conversation and most impacted by the topic at hand.
After my time with Pastor Fedrica and Pastor Shirleen, I was left thinking about two open questions:
What does it mean for us to hold forms of agency, with responsibility and care for everyone’s wellbeing? As we collectively seek to support our communities, what might these efforts look like in practice — is a conversation the starting point?
Without a simple answer, these thoughts and questions will serve me as a guide as I look to the future and aim to continue learning about the undocumented stories within my local community.
I’d like to thank Pastor Fredrica and Pastor Shirleen for taking the time to sit with me. On behalf of myself and the team at Urban Minds, we’d like to express our gratitude to have been able to document one of the many agencies within our communities, who remain committed to creating equitable solutions for some of the greatest challenges.
Many thanks Marla Walters for their support throughout the process of writing this entry. And, to the volunteers and staff of the Christian Faith Outreach Centre, I am grateful for all the work you continue to provide by supporting and serving communities in Ajax and across the Durham Region.
For anyone in need of support, you can contact CFOC through email@example.com, or at the phone number 905–619–1109.