Little Flowers Community Church, in Winnipeg's West End, isn't your average church. And its pastors, Jamie and Kim Arpin-Ricci, aren't your average pastors, either.
What makes Little Flowers stand out? Start with its name, an allusion to a book of the same name about the life of St. Francis.
"It's a reflection of how we want our church to be like St. Francis," says Jamie, noting the saint's decision to give up a life of wealth and privilege to live among the poor and marginalized.
It's also a metaphor for how the church sees itself in the city, adds Kim, noting that just as flowers can grow and poke up from cracks in the pavement, Little Flowers wants to add "a bit of life and beauty" in the West End.
The church's meeting place and time are also unusual; if you look for a traditional church building, you won't find it -- nothing with steeples or pews. Instead, each Sunday evening, 20 to 40 people meet in the Arpin-Riccis' home on Furby Street for a potluck supper and service.
Its goals are unique, too. "We want to be a home where those who don't feel they fit into traditional churches feel comfortable," says Kim. "We're trying to create a place where everyone feels welcome."
Many of the people who call Little Flowers home either grew up in the church but, due to bad experiences, left it, or they are people who, because of the way they live, act or dress, don't feel they'd be welcome in a traditional church, she adds. This includes people with mental illness or who struggle with addictions.
"We want to be a place where they feel at home," Kim says.
Helping people feel at home isn't just a platitude for Little Flowers -- they also want to give them a real home. That's why they are helping create safe and affordable housing for people in the area.
Chiara House, a formerly derelict apartment building on Maryland Street, is being turned into a community centre and living space for people who find it hard to get good accommodations.
When done, the building will feature two- and one-bedroom apartments, shared community space, kitchen and dining areas. The basement will have a small suite for hospitality and emergencies, as well as office and meeting space for the church. Funding and other assistance for the building have come from Mennonite Church Manitoba and other organizations, businesses and individuals.
For Jamie, the name suits their hopes for the building. "Chiara," he says, is the Italian spelling of "Clare," as in the name of the first woman to follow St. Francis. Clare went on to establish The Poor Clares, an order known for its radical hospitality and care for the sick and the poor.
"It's the perfect name," he says.
All of this is pretty remarkable, especially when you consider Little Flowers is, well, a little church. But that's not the only amazing thing: The Arpin-Riccis have to raise their own support to do all this work.
Jamie, who is from Ontario, and Kim, who is from Australia, are part of Youth with a Mission, an international volunteer Christian movement. YWAM sends people from around the world to 1,000 locations in 180 countries to provide various kinds of ministries. Those who serve with YWAM have to raise their own support.
Until recently, the couple and their five-year-old son, Micah, were receiving $3,000 a month from supportive individuals and organizations. Together with income from renting half their house, plus a bit of money Jamie earns by writing (he is author of the book The Cost of Community: Jesus, St. Francis and the Life of the Kingdom), they were doing OK. "We know how to live simply," Jamie says.
But this summer, they lost about a third of their support; the downturn in the economy and changing circumstances for some supporters, meant some of their faithful funding group had to drop out. Now, for the first time since they arrived in Winnipeg 10 years ago to serve people in the West End, the Arpin-Riccis wonder if they have to bring their ministry to a close.
"We are facing a future that is uncertain," they wrote in a letter to their friends and supporters. "Not only do we need to see more support come in if we are going to be able to remain in ministry here, but we are going to need to reimagine what it means to do the work we do with these economic realities."
Considering all the good they are doing in the West End, it would be a shame if they had to leave Little Flowers, Chiara House and the people they serve. As they put it: "We don't want to see this happen... this neighbourhood has become our home."
If you would like to support the Arpin-Riccis and Little Flowers with a tax-deductible donation, go to www.missional.ca/about or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. Or you can volunteer to help at the church. "We need people willing to share life with our community," Jamie says. "Christians who would be willing... to stand alongside our friends, to share life with us and just to share life with those on the margins."