Bonding on the gym floor

The Rev. Rob Salloum

The Rev. Rob Salloum leads a group of fourth and fifth graders from the school bus to the church gym for after-school ball hockey.  ~McKnight photos

WAM finds its place in the Lower West Side of Saint John
By Gisele McKnight

Every Wednesday afternoon at 3:15, the Rev. Rob Salloum walks to the end of the driveway at Carleton Kirk United Church and meets the school bus.

This is the Lower West Side of Saint John, a priority neighbourhood where poverty, broken families, crime, neglect and every other social ill make life tough.

A dozen or so kids get off the bus, yelling “Hi, Rob” as he leads this rag-tag group to the church. Then for the next 75 minutes, they bond on the gym floor — fourth and fifth graders playing ball hockey.

“We’re helping foster community,” said Rob. “That’s a flowery way to talk, isn’t it? What we’re doing is offering kids a safe place to be together.”

One of his ball hockey helpers, Judy Mae Gallant, lives nearby and she knows ball hockey is a far better pastime than the alternative.

“Here, I know they’re not out getting into trouble,” she said. “It’s a poor neighbourhood, and we’re someone to talk to.”

Alyson Harrity, the Rev. Rob Salloum and Judy Mae Gallant.

Chatting before the game begins. Leaders include, in jerseys, Alyson Harrity, the Rev. Rob Salloum and Judy Mae Gallant.

Eighteen months ago Rob started reading to Grade 4s at nearby St. Patrick’s School. That led to chats with the school’s community liaison officer, who told him the kids loved hockey, but there wasn’t enough gym time for everyone.

“That’s when my ears perked up,” said Rob.

So in February 2016, he and some helpers like Judy began the after-school ball hockey for students from St. Patrick’s.

It’s a perfect fit, perhaps because they have something in common. St. Patrick’s isn’t a real school anymore. It’s housed at Beaconsfield Elementary while they wait for a new school to be built in the area. So for now, they’re sharing space and hanging onto their name.

Rob and his charge, the Westside Anglican Mission, are also sharing space. The past few years have been tumultuous for parishioners on the Lower West Side.

In 2012, the parishes of Victoria (St. Jude church) and Carleton (St. George church) amalgamated to form the Parish of West Saint John. But the union proved unsustainable and the parish was dissolved in 2015. What was left was a mission, not a parish.

Since then, WAM has shared space with Carleton Kirk United, just up the street from the old church. That’s where they worship, where Rob’s office is, where WAM outreach programs take place. Somewhat like St. Patrick’s, they have everything but a building.

Judy Mae Gallant

Judy Mae Gallant drops the ball and the game begins.

Evolution of a mission
There is no doubt WAM is sailing in uncharted waters. At Diocesan Synod in 2015, they sent guests, not delegates, because there was no provision in canon law for members of a mission to be members of Synod and vote.

That was addressed, and this year WAM delegates are full members.

Change has been their constant, and it continues. Without a building, they met at the Seafarer’s Mission for much of 2015, followed by the move to Carleton Kirk United. Since then they’ve held a Saturday evening contemporary service and traditional 9 a.m. Sunday morning said service.

While their main base of operations will remain at Carleton Kirk, as of June, the Saturday service will switch to Sundays at 10:30 where they began — the Seafarers Mission. Time, space and parking were determining factors.

“There’s been good fellowship here,” said Judy of Carleton Kirk. “But it’s hard for seniors to get out after dark, and we wanted to go back to Sunday mornings.”

The space at the Seafarer’s Mission was small and intimate, and the months spent there were special. And with fewer people, they’ll fit quite nicely now.

Yes, WAM has fallen from about 35 to 25 regular worshippers. To some, that’s a red flag. But WAM sees it differently.

“We’re down to our core group,” said Judy. “We enjoy each other’s company. One day at Bible study, I was having a hard time with my mother’s death. We had no bible study that day. They prayed over me instead.”

The Rev. Rob Salloum

The Rev. Rob Salloum in goal.

Rob doesn’t blame anyone for falling away. Most of the 10 are attending elsewhere. These uncharted waters — four homes in three years — aren’t for everyone, and some simply need more structure in their church home, he said.

This core group is responsible for an impressive list of mission activities. Besides ball hockey, they hold a weekly Sunday evening meal for the community called George’s Café, with help from the Church of Good Shepherd and Carleton Kirk United. Judy was confirmed at George’s Café this spring, and her 63-year-old uncle was baptized.

They have a food bank called Howard’s Pantry, a weekly prayer walk around the neighbourhood, summer barbecues for the community, a nature club at St. Patrick’s School and this summer, they’ll be holding VBS with Camp on the Road, partnering and hosting counsellors from Camp Medley.

Their choir can often be found at area nursing homes, and this fall, the bible study group is tackling the Book of Revelations, which Rob figures will take them to next spring. It’s a busy place.

Back to the game
At the church gym, kids choose a stick and Judy passes out jerseys.

The jerseys, green and white with the Westside Warriors crest on the front, were donated by Castle Funeral Home. Lester’s Trophies designed the crest. It was a community effort.

Alyson Harrity of Carleton Kirk joins them as a helper and player. They divide into teams and the game begins. With each goal comes high-fives, hugs and chest bumps.

“It’s pretty hard-core!” says Rob.

Alyson Harrity and Judy Mae Gallant

Alyson Harrity and Judy Mae Gallant (mostly hidden) serve the kids snacks during a break in the game.

It’s break time, and the kids have earned a rest. They line up at the kitchen for Alyson’s Rice Krispie squares and lots of water. They chat and rest before the final 30 minutes of play. The last half sees Rob in goal for his team, Alyson in goal for hers. Judy is the referee.

“We get to know the kids,” said Judy. “We don’t push or ask a lot of questions, but now they’re coming to us.”

This may look like a game of ball hockey, but it’s much more.

“There’s a lot of mentoring and parenting,” said Rob. “I can’t tell you how many times a kid has come up and said ‘I’m having a bad day.’ The ball hockey is incidental.

“Good role models are needed, especially good male role models,” he said.

On prayer walk days when there’s no school, both Judy and Rob can expect lots of high fives and a few hugs as well. They’ve gotten to know a lot of children in the community, since each school group rotates out every six weeks to make room for another.

In this neighbourhood, a church with willing hands is needed more than ever, so WAM carries on — serving, nurturing relationships and living out the verses of Matthew 25: “For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you took me in; I was naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you visited me; I was in prison and you came to me.”

“We have sensed the bishop’s support and he has our back,” said Rob. “And we’ve made a buzz in the community.”

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