By Becky Benoit
When you think of the Salvation Army in Fort McMurray, you most likely think of the many social services the organization provides to those less fortunate in the city. From a warm bed in the shelter for those down on their luck seeking work, to a hot meal and a cup of coffee provided by the outreach van, to the gently used clothes and toys that can be found in the thrift shop, the Salvation Army is busy in the city’s downtown core providing a hand up to those who need it.
But the beating heart of the Salvation Army isn’t the well-known shelters or thrift store downtown. According to Major Stephen Hibbs, the hub of the organization is the church itself, tucked away in Thickwood. The Salvation Army church, which celebrates 36 years in Fort McMurray this month, is home to a relatively small congregation of only 150 members, but Hibbs says it is still the pulse of the Fort McMurray Salvation Army itself.
“Our church is a ‘welcome home’,” Hibbs explains, quoting the sign on the downtown shelter wall that welcomes everyone in. “There’s a social component that’s very important to everybody. We’re a small congregation, but we’re very multicultural and unique. To see people from the east coast of Canada sitting down with people from faraway lands – it’s very cool. It really is a place to belong, to meet new family and friends.”
It was the need to make new friends and build new family networks that led to the creation of the Fort McMurray Salvation Army in November of 1977, says Hibbs. “A group of people had come here for work, and their background being Salvation Army, they got together and decided, ‘Hey, we’re here as a group, let’s have a church services,’” Hibbs says of the organization’s beginnings in the city. “So 45 of them gathered in the senior citizens’ hall at Heritage Park. Pretty quickly they outgrew that, and they decided they had enough people in the city by now, it was time to get the wheels turning and become a recognized church.”
The primary need for members at that point was social, Hibbs says. “[The church] represented a social point, a connecting point and a sense of belonging,” he says. “When people came here, they came to work and that was it, to provide for their families,” he explains. “Eventually they brought their families here, and they felt there had to be a spiritual community to raise their families in. That sense of belonging, of feeling appreciated was very important for the community itself.”
From out of that need for camaraderie and friendship grew the church itself, and from there, the many social services that have always been so needed in Fort McMurray. With the city’s prosperity and growth came the need for a shelter, outreach and counseling services to minister to those who were struggling.
“With prosperity, there always comes that vein through all of our cities across North America of people who struggle, whether they end up on the street or they’re the working poor,” Hibbs says. “As the population grows, so does that vein of people who struggle and battle throughout life, and we offer help with no judgment at all.”
Today, the Salvation Army’s social services are well known. For the working poor and those who arrive in the city seeking work with no family or place to go, the organization offers a “dry” shelter with 32 emergency beds which Hibbs says are full every night. During the coldest months of the year from September to May, the Salvation Army also provides the MAT program, a “wet” shelter which offers a place to sleep for homeless people who are struggling with alcohol and drug addictions, and who might otherwise be turned away from a regular shelter.
The thrift store collects gently used clothing and other items from the community and resells them, while the outreach vehicle travels the community in search of those in need who don’t use shelter services, providing sleeping bags, hot meals and coffee to homeless people living on the street.
The Salvation Army partners with various other organizations in the community, including the Baptist church, helping run the soup kitchen that provides nutritious meals to the needy.
“All of that grew out of this little group of people that met back in 1977. It’s quite a story they have,” Hibbs says.
The Salvation Army has ambitious plans for its future. With both shelter programs running at full capacity every night, and more than 80 people per day utilizing the soup kitchen during the peak winter season, the organization has outgrown its current space, and is investigating potential locations for expansion in the downtown core. “Our facility is maxed out right now. We’re looking for new properties to do an expansion, both to our shelters and our thrift store. We’d love to have a furniture bank and a retail furniture store,” Hibbs says. “The community support we receive is phenomenal – we ask and they provide. It’s a matter of physical space for us right now.”
Plans for expansion hinge on whether the proposed downtown arena will go ahead or not. Hibbs says that maintaining the Salvation Army’s location in the downtown core is essential. “All of our resources – mental health, social workers, social access points – that’s where our work is, from the bridge to Walmart,” Hibbs explains. “It’s very important for us to be [in the downtown core]. In all reality, it will likely be another year or a year and a half before we’re able to expand.”
In the meantime, the Salvation Army is counting its victories, not the least of which is the celebration of 36 years in the community. This weekend will see the arrival of some of the Salvation Army’s top brass, leadership from the national and provincial offices, to celebrate the Salvation Army’s success in Fort McMurray.
The anniversary weekend will kick off with a dinner at the Quality Inn on Friday evening, for which tickets can be purchased from the Salvation Army office. The region’s MLAs will be in attendance, along with representatives from the mayor’s office, the fire department and RCMP, and ministerial associations.
On Saturday, the church will host a gospel concert showcasing local musicians, and on Sunday the anniversary will wrap up with family worship at the church. Hibbs encourages those interested in celebrating to purchase a ticket for Friday’s dinner, and welcomes anyone and everyone to attend the concert on Saturday and worship on Sunday.
“We want everyone to come in and have a relaxing time – it’s a time of inspiration,” he says. Hibbs also encourages anyone who wants to share their story of how the Salvation Army has helped them out to do so via the Salvation Army’s Twitter feed or on the organization’s Facebook page.
For more information, or to purchase tickets, contact the Salvation Army office at 780-791-3234.