Interview with Agape Street Ministry
Rachel Imperial from the Lighthouse team recently met with Cinthia from Agape Street Ministry in Vancouver, BC, who shared what the organization does and how we can partner with them. Please consider visiting their website and getting involved!
Rachel: What is Agape, and how did it start?
Cinthia: Agape started about 20 years ago, it was something that the founders back then – Vicki and Pat Conroy – started up with a dream, saying “we should serve the Lord”. They started praying, and one of the inspirations that came to them was “we serve the women of the Downtown Eastside (DTES) who are prostitutes and drug addicts. We need to help them out, we need to let them know that they’re loved, that they are not criticized because God loves them, Jesus loves them. Whoever they are, whatever mistakes they’ve made in their lives, God wants to tell them that he loves them without any judgment, and to come to him for a change. That’s where the name ‘Agape’ came from. When we go out there, it’s very non judgmental, we give them compassion and care and that’s what Agape does.
Rachel: Have candy bags always been handed out?
Cinthia: Agape started out with candy bags because they needed a reason to approach the women on the streets. These women didn’t have a reason to trust those who were volunteering, they didn’t know them and the volunteers didn’t have the jackets or anything. It was just two people and their friends approaching people and having good will. They needed an idea and a reason to begin conversation, so they started using candies and approaching the women. And then the idea of prayer cards evolved. These cards had verses or prayers on them, which the volunteers read out to the women. Eventually information about resources was added onto the cards, like rehab house phone numbers and the dates and address for a Tuesday breakfast that Agape now runs. While the candy bags aren’t the main purpose of Agape’s street ministry, they are a tool for us to start conversations with women and pray with them.
Rachel: Could you explain what birthday bags are about?
Cinthia: Volunteers walking on the street realized that they were meeting many women on their birthdays who were homeless or didn’t have much. They wanted to give them something more than a candy bag to show the women that they cared for them. People started putting together present bags with makeup and other things that might be useful to them. One of the stories impacted me was from the first time that I went out there to walk. We asked a lady, “When is your birthday?” and we started to get all of her information. She told us, “My birthday is today actually.” And I remember walking out with Vicki and she said, “Well we have a birthday bag for you” and the lady said “Oh really? I’ve never been given a gift before. And I’ve never had someone give me a gift for my birthday”. When I saw Vicki hand that bag to her, and the lady received it, she was crying, and it was a very genuine moment. I went home that night thinking “Okay, I have to come back just to see and check on this girl to make sure that she’s alright, and hopefully see her again on her next birthday so I can give her another bag or just reach out to her somehow.”
Rachel: Do you tend to see a lot of the same women every week, or does it change frequently?
Cinthia: It does change. Before I started about four years ago I would see the same faces, and I was able to remember their names because of that. Now it’s become more of a challenge, just because more brothels have opened up and the ladies have gone inside, so we don’t get to see as many of them. And because of the fentanyl epidemic, I don’t see the same faces as often as I would like to. I see some of them still, but not as many as I used to. There’s always new ones out there too, unfortunately.
Rachel: Does Agape have other services as well?
Cinthia: Agape has a rehabilitation house called Sancta Maria. Women can stay there as long as they need to. Sometimes they may not feel ready to go out on their own. It’s a scary world to reintegrate back into after they have been getting clean, and they may still have some doubts. So they’re able to stay as long as they want to. They do have a place where they are cared for and encouraged and pray, and are given the opportunity to learn some skills as well.
Rachel: How did you learn about Agape and start volunteering?
Cinthia: I heard about Agape from my son’s school. Agape sends out a letter every October to ask the schools to donate their Halloween candy, and it’s on the weekly email that we get. I looked Agape up on the computer and I thought it would be nice to volunteer. But then I just put it off. Another year past, and I said, “Well, maybe this year,” and then I decided to get with my family and we donated a box of Bibles and some of the items that are needed here. And then one time when I was bringing in donations Vicki was there and I said “Maybe one time I will go out with you guys” and she said “Great”, and nothing happened. And then I was just really doubtful. I wasn’t sure how safe it was out there, that was my first concern. And then I started going to this seminar, and I remember that the sermons that month were all about helping people in need and putting your faith in action, so I felt like something was pushing me. And then the day of the last lesson, these people came, and I though “I know those people”. The priest said “these are my friends, Vicki and Pat”. And then I told God, “Okay, stop pushing me, I get it.” I felt that He was saying “Go ahead, it’s time, you can go now.” So I came, I applied and that was it, that was four years ago! And I feel like it was really reassuring the way He just sent me there, and so I said “Fine I’ll go. It’s time to stop being so scared and go for it.”
Brian: I first heard about it when I was in university. Pat and Vicki came to St. Mark’s at UBC and did a presentation. At the time I was in school and didn’t have time to commit to it. But I always had it in the back of my mind, at some point I though, “I have to do this.” So after I graduated and started working, I emailed Cinthia and asked “Can I walk with you guys?” and that’s how I got into it originally.
Rachel: What is your favorite part of doing the walks?
Cinthia: Hope. When I give out the candies I find many ladies are out there are devastated, and you can see it in their faces. When I’m handing out the candies to them they say, “I don’t want the candies tonight, I just want the prayers.” There was this lady one night who was crying and she couldn’t even speak. She was choked up, she had so much anguish, and she said “Would you pray for me?” Between this other volunteer and myself we started praying for her. And the moment we stopped her face completely changed, and it went from anguish to joy to peace, and she said “I knew that I needed to come out tonight, something told me go out tonight, and this is the reason why.” It’s nice that so many also have that belief in all the chaos they are living in, and I love going home and having that energy of “I’ll see you next Sunday” and to give them that hope. It’s not a lot that we do, I wish that we could do so much more, but to help that Sunday night whenever we can make it, and to see that you’re able to help that person dry their tears and give them a smile, it’s worth it. That’s what I take with me, that hope.
Brian: It’s not so much the giving out the candy or gift bags, the bigger thing for me is it’s just the gesture, just the act of giving is more important than what’s actually given, and the act of praying for them as well. And when you do get the few who you can actually tell were moved by the gesture, that’s what makes me want to come back.
Cinthia: And even if it’s not well received, and even if we get cussed out, it becomes a memory and an experience that later on you may laugh about. It makes the group closer. And when it is well received, we’re giving to them but at the same time they’re giving to us, and it’s beautiful to see that.
Rachel: It has been cool to see that times that we’ve prayed for somebody and then they ask “can I pray for you?” and it becomes more of a two way street rather than us just going and giving handouts.
Rachel: The guys’ role in the walks is a little bit different, could you explain how that is for you?
Brian: For me, I take a backseat role, because - I don’t know if my perspective is wrong - I imagine the men in their lives aren’t always the greatest, so it might be hard to interact with another man. So I like to think that me just being there, or them seeing that there’s a guy doing the walks, shows them that not all men are bad or want to take advantage of them. I like to think that hopefully I present well and I can be a kind face. I think that’s why it’s important to have a male presence on these walks because of that.
Cinthia: As a group dynamic, we all have different energies, we all have different personalities and they’re all needed. We all come for the same purpose, and at the end of the day that’s what matters.
Rachel: How can people get involved?
Cinthia: They can go to the Agape website and register online. The email goes straight to me, and then I will get back to them either the same day or sometime during the week. They can do a trial walk to see how comfortable they feel with it. And I understand that it might not be their time, maybe later on, like it happened to me, like it happened to Brian. We’re still here, and sometimes that’s the best way – hesitancy. And it sounds silly and crazy and doesn’t make sense, but maybe that’s how it’s supposed to be. Or if they do feel comfortable and they do like it right away, they go through an interview with me and then they set what days they can walk and that’s it.
Rachel: Does Agape just need help with the walks? Or do they need help in other ways as well?
Cinthia: We also do a lot of candy bagging and need help with that. Right now I’m working with elementary school kids and high school kids who do volunteer hours to do some of the candy bagging. Anybody can help us out. If you know how to knit, you could help us with making toques and scarves, which especially in the winter time are very needed.
You can help out with donations, items such as umbrellas, gloves, socks, toques, scarves, ponchos, Bibles, rosaries. Those are the things we give out the most. Even sandwich bags that we use to make the candy bags. Things for the birthday bags: stuffies, necklaces, shampoo, conditioner, makeup, perfume. It doesn’t have to be all of the above, but just a few things. Helping out separating the donations would also be a huge gift for us.
Another volunteer area would be in cleaning the house, and helping in the office. People could also help in the Sancta Maria rehabilitation house. If they know how to do some sewing or knitting, that’s one of the activities the ladies do there.
People can also volunteer for the Tuesday breakfast, setting up the tables, cooking the breakfast, or hanging out and making conversation when the ladies are there. This role is only for women volunteers, though.
Rachel: Anything else you want people to know about Agape?
Cinthia: It is for anybody who is willing to lend a hand, no matter how committed you are or how much or little time you have. You could volunteer once a month, twice a month, only for six months, or for four years; it could be as long as you want to give time to those in need. Nobody here would force you to commit to something you don’t want to, it’s up to you. We’re completely open, and anybody can come, anybody that has the will, and kindness and love. That’s all we’re asking for – to share the compassion that you have. And I think that’s all God is asking, to share a little bit of yourself. You’re welcome to come, whoever wants to come, you’re very much needed!