Inequality and discrimination have no place at Ohana community café

Calgary is a diverse city that is recorded as having the widest income gap in the country, which means that many individuals may struggle to find a sense of belonging and acceptance. However, a local church is taking steps to foster an inclusive community that is free from judgment and discrimination, with the help of something unexpected – coffee.

Income disparity is a common issue for Calgarians, and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives identifies Calgary as the city with the largest income equality in Canada. The most recent available statistic from Sustainable Calgary’s 2011 State of Our City Report reveals that, in 2005 the top ten per cent of Calgary families earned 37.41 times the income of the bottom ten per cent.

St. Peter’s Anglican Church is no stranger to the realities of income disparity. The community surrounding the church includes a range of low-income neighbourhoods in Kingsland, middle-class neighbourhoods in the Chinook Park area, and more affluent neighbourhoods in Kelvin Grove.

In Addition to the income gap, the community surrounding St. Peter’s Anglican Church has a wide variety of cultural and social backgrounds. This is something the Church’s youth coordinator Aaron Havens has noticed during the five years that he has worked there.

“We see a diverse variety of people such as new immigrants or Aboriginals or low-income Caucasians, people from all walks of life.”

Identifying a need, Havens was motivated to bridge some of these barriers and create a sanctuary where the community could come together in unity.

As a result, he worked with other volunteers to transform the lower hall of the church into the Ohana Community Café in 2012.Clockwise from left: Robert, Ana, Bryan, Rutvij, and Sunny. Ohana Café started with the help of an anti-bullying group at Henry Wisewood School, and students continue to foster positive relationships here.

Photo by Emily Holloway

“The name Ohana is a Hawaiian term for family, and they use that because the intent was that it would extend beyond blood relations to include adopted members,” said Judy Rois, executive director of the Anglican Foundation of Canada. “It’s a sanctuary and a safe place for students and people in the neighborhood.”

Each day, Ohana hosts 20-30 members of the community who come to hang out with friends while enjoying the comfortable living-room-style seating and vibrant, colourful decor.

Students of the neighboring high schools have even stepped up to volunteer at the café and serve items such as coffee, tea, soup, and muffins to people in the community.

One of these volunteers is Bryant Beakman. Beakman has faced many struggles in his life, including drug addiction and dropping out of high school, but since coming to the café six months ago, he says his life has turned around and he credits Havens as being a positive influence in his life.

“It’s definitely changed me, because the first time I came in here I was really shy. Now, you just can’t get me to shut up. With Aaron, he broke down my walls,” said Beakman, “and that inspiration has led me to inspire other students here.”Aaron Havens (left) has formed a caring and trusting relationship with Bryant (right) along with many other students who come to the café.

Photo by Emily Holloway

Relationships such as this one continue to motivate Havens, and he strives to be there for each person who walks through the door and shares their story with him.

“We can kind of journey together for whatever they’re going through, whether it’s sex, drugs and rock and roll or whatever it may be, or just life, just talking about teenage life,” said Havens.

Not only do students form close relationships at the café, but they also form relationships with people that social barriers may have separated them from in other settings.

“You get to meet a lot of different people,” said Nyajuok Kulang, a Grade 12 student who volunteers at the café. “In high school, there’s like different certain groups that you hang out with, but here, you get to just meet anyone.”

Kulang enjoys taking cooking classes at Ohana, and the café also holds a variety of other activities such as an aboriginal student program, community dinners, information sessions about sexual health and equality, plays, and acting workshops.Nyajuok Kulang has been coming to the Ohana Community Café since grade 10, and she loves building friendships by volunteering or participating in weekly cooking classes.

Photo by Emily Holloway

Havens is also looking forward to starting a break dancing workshop, drum circles, and hosting more student-led community initiatives.

The volunteers at the café work with everyone from upper-class to lower-class, and they even serve some people who are homeless. Regardless of race, religion, income, or appearances, the volunteers don’t refuse anyone, and this inclusive atmosphere is something that is important to Ohana’s mission.

“We’re just trying to create a really safe place for people to be who they want to be,” said Havens, “a place where there’s no discrimination.”

Although some people associate religion with judgment, Christian faith is what inspires Havens to welcome the diverse community without proselytizing to them or discriminating against anyone.

“That’s ultimately why I do what I do, to serve, both those who are poor and those who are rich, but all who are in need,” said Havens. “I’m just trying to reflect the light of Christ.”

“I think it offers a completely different model of what it means to express Christian faith as inclusive and egalitarian as opposed to exclusive,” said Rois, who believes the café is a valuable place where people can enter into a judgment-free atmosphere.

For Kulang, this is one of the lessons that she has learned during her two years at the café.

“I’ve learned about always being open-minded to everybody else, like not being close-minded. Just kind of accepting everybody,” said Kulang, “Not starting to judge based on looks, and getting to know different people and making friendships and exploring different aspects of their lives.”

eholloway@cjournal.ca

To contact the editors responsible for this story; Ato Baako at abaako@cjournal.ca; Evan Manconi at emanconi@cjournal.ca