Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Youth for Christ: Myth vs. reality

Sorting the wheat from the chaff in debate over Christian centre

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It was learned last week that Youth for Christ, an evangelical social-service organization, is building an $11-million youth centre on Winnipeg's infamous Main Street strip. Since then, it has been impossible to sort out who is going to be doing what to whom.

On the one side, opponents portray YFC as a band of religious extremists using political connections to jump the queue for taxpayer money.

On the other side, an A-list of supporters including Mayor Sam Katz and Public Safety Minister Vic Toews accused the critics of discriminating against an organization with legitimate political and religious beliefs.

It is often said the truth lies somewhere in between, and never has that been more true than in this story. In fact, the only way to get a fix on what's really going on is to break it down, myth by myth, in search of the reality.


Myth: YFC and their political supporters subverted due process

Reality: Organizations that have good contacts, know how to fill out grant applications and lobby government are often subject to the scorn of those who don't know how to do any of those things.

Through evangelical churches in Manitoba, YFC is well-connected to politicians at all levels of government and that produced more than $7 million in public money, one of the sweetest deals ever offered a social-service agency.

Is the project worthy? YFC is building on an unwanted piece of land at Main Street and Higgins Avenue that has been empty for years. No doubt YFC's willingness to occupy land at the most infamous intersection in Winnipeg helped cement this deal and makes some of the critics sound like their mouths are full of sour grapes.

Should the deal have been vetted through a city committee before it goes to council for a vote? Absolutely, but sudden and surprising is par for the course in the Katz era of local politics.

The YFC deal is proof positive that funding decisions are governed not by what people know but whom they know. And YFC knows the right people.

That became patently clear in 2005 when YFC overcame local protests to build a residence for youth with substance abuses in Brandon. YFC used close connections to Brandon Mayor Dave Burgess to quash the local opposition and get the project built.

In Winnipeg, YFC and the evangelical community are well-connected to Toews, Katz, and chief administrative officer Glen Laubenstein who, not coincidentally, was CAO in Brandon when YFC battled the locals and helped organize weekly evangelical prayer meetings in city council chambers.


Myth: YFC is a front for a potent evangelical political machine

Reality: When NDP MP Pat Martin attacked YFC, Katz told reporters Martin would ultimately regret what he had said.

Katz did not elaborate, but political insiders know evangelical Christians are a political force in Manitoba.

The big-box Christian churches peppered around Winnipeg regularly mix politics and religion. They identify politicians worthy of support, donate money, work campaigns and show up to vote in large numbers. They also know how to fight fire with fire.

Brandonites who opposed YFC, including the Brandon Sun, found out just how formidable the organization can be. A Sun column that called YFC a "Bible-brandishing" organization prompted a complaint to the Manitoba Human Rights Council, the Manitoba Press Council and Brandon police. When it comes to battling the secular world, YFC is clearly in it to win it.


Myth: YFC brainwashes youth into becoming born-again Christians

Reality: Winnipeg is heavily populated with religious-based organizations that provide social services. However, few actively proselytize. In its mandate, YFC makes it clear it is all about converting youth to evangelical Christianity. The group's annual report includes figures on the number of youth it has converted in a given fiscal year. So there should be no doubt that "discipling" as YFC calls it is a key element in the group's modus operandi. YFC leadership insists no one is turned away for resisting conversion.

The media and most mainstream politicians tend to blanch when too much religion mixes with politics. It is a safe bet that a majority of taxpayers would prefer that funding go to groups that provide the social service first, and the religion second or not at all.

However, groups such as YFC know that while there is probably a silent majority of people who do not want to fund evangelical pursuits, they have the comfort of knowing their people have long memories. And they vote.

The YFC centre will likely go ahead. A long-empty lot in an infamous area of Winnipeg will be filled.

And the debate about politics and religion will continue.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 22, 2010 A4

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