‘Soul Man, will you pray for us today?’ Priest takes the gospel to the streets of rural Ontario

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A motorcycle club member is baptized in the waters of Lake Huron by the Rev. Stephen Martin. Photo: Contributed

A diocese of Huron priest is reaching out to the unchurched by giving services from the back of his SUV in the parking lots of southern Ontario.

Since June 2018, the Rev. Stephen Martin, part-time incumbent of St. Stephen’s Anglican Church, Stratford, and missioner for the diocese of Huron, has been delivering Church on the Street—a program intended to bring church to people where they are. Twice a week, Martin hits the road and visits communities across the diocese in his specially equipped Ford Explorer—a sort of mobile chapel. He pulls into roadside coffee shops and makes his presence known, talking with anyone who wants to about God—or about anything at all—and even performing services.

“I carry my communion stuff with me,” he says. “I can actually put a table into my trailer hitch so I can sit back and make it what we call ‘tailgate church’.”

He also sometimes refers to it as “St. Timothy’s of Hortons.”

“I carry my communion stuff with me,” Martin says. “I can actually put a table into my trailer hitch so I can sit back and make it what we call ‘tailgate church’.” Photo: Contributed

Martin’s ministry of outreach actually began three years ago when he proposed Our House—a project intended to build relationships with unchurched people living in the area by giving them a place to have a cup of coffee, chat, play pool and, if desired, worship—to then-diocesan bishop Linda Nicholls. Nicholls supported the idea, and space was given for Our House in St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Clinton.

Our House eventually proved unsuccessful, and was folded last spring. But in the meantime, Martin had been beginning a separate ministry, one based on the age-old idea of the itinerant preacher. He stuck “Church on the Street” and “Deus Volens” (“God Willing”) decals on his Explorer, had the vehicle blessed by the local archdeacon and began traveling across the region, getting out into the towns and villages of Huron, especially where churches have been shut down.

“What I found in rural territory is that a single location does not work—you need to be on the move from community to community to community,” he says.

Martin’s approach is not to aggressively evangelize, but to be present in the community he’s chosen and wait to be approached.

“I just put the back door up, put the tunes on, put my table up, put my chairs down and just hang,” he says. “The people who come to visit—they bring the agenda to the table, not me; I’m just a presence…. Ninety-five per cent of the time, when conversations come about faith and faith issues, they bring it up—not me.

“If I try to put an agenda to it, it falls apart.”

It’s a job that can involve a lot of waiting. Sometimes people will approach him; sometimes not.

Occasionally they come wanting to know the meaning of the Latin motto on his truck—which “sticks out like a sore thumb,” he says.

Church on the Street is open to everybody, but does much of its of work with bikers, partly because of Martin’s many links with the Ontario motorcyclist community. He has been involved with ministry of one kind or another to bikers for two decades, serving—among other roles—as official chaplain to the Ontario chapter of the Association of Bikers for Awareness, Training and Education (ABATE), a group for motorcycle enthusiasts, for 18 years until his retirement this year. He worked hard over those years, Martin says, to overcome the bikers’ distrust of religious authority, setting up coffee, water and first aid stations at motorcycle rallies, focusing on building up relationships. Eventually, some club members started asking for blessings and services.

Archbishop Linda Nicholls, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, joined Martin for a ride on his three-wheeled motorcycle this August. Nicholls was also serving as bishop of the diocese of Huron at the time. Photo: Contributed

It was on his very first day with ABATE, Martin says, that he earned the nickname by which local bikers still know him.

“I’m walking to one of their meetings…the very first day, when the guys all [sang], ‘It’s the Soul Man, badapa-badadapa!’” he intones, to the tune of the 1967 Sam & Dave hit. “And the name stuck forever.”

When motorcycle club members do show an interest in Christianity, they tend to be seeking an unfiltered encounter with the scriptural Jesus, and the idea of living life by a new covenant.

“They don’t want to hear a watered-down version of the gospel,” Martin says. “They want to hear the real deal….They want to hear what it means to be a Christian, and what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.”

Before coming to the biker community, Martin did street ministry in Toronto for Sanctuary Ministries, a Christian charity offering a variety of services to homeless and other marginalized people.

“It’s my passion to work with people on the fringes of society, who just have no connection to church at all, and meet them on their ground, where they have their rules and I have nothing,” he says.

Martin’s work brings him into contact with people from all kinds of religious background: various Christian traditions, Indigenous spirituality, Wicca and other New Age movements. Atheists also often show up to talk with him, he says.

What these people tend to have in common, he says, is that they’re not involved in organized religion. But few have lost their interest in the things of the spirit.

“They’ve lost their religion; they haven’t lost their faith…. The typical congregational ministries do not work for them anymore,” he says.

“The majority of people I deal with have had a church background of one kind or another, but just got sick and tired of the politics, got sick and tired of the B.S.—I could use other words, but I’m not going to—the dogma of it all. But they still have a genuine faith, you know?

“But to put them into a building is not going to happen any time soon. There’s a trust issue.”

For various reasons, Martin says, the people he encounters find the idea of crossing the threshold of a church intimidating.

“That’s a huge hurdle for them, for whatever reason—their hurts or their past experiences, being turned away or whatever it is,” he says.

The reluctance of many people to step into a church, he says, is why Our House didn’t prove popular.

“Most of them felt guilty, most of them felt weirded out by it, most of them felt like, we don’t belong here,” he says.

“They bring the agenda to the table, not me; I’m just a presence,” Martin says. “Ninety-five per cent of the time, when conversations come about faith and faith issues, they bring it up—not me.” Photo: Contributed

Martin says he’s done baptisms, weddings and funerals from the tailgate of his Explorer. But much of his ministry consists in building up trust and relationships with people simply by being present and talking with them.

Sometimes they want to know whether you need to go to church to be a Christian, or they want to talk about their experiences with religion.

“They don’t have to cross a threshold, all they have to do is walk over and start a conversation, and we’re on,” he says. “They hang out and they talk. About what’s going on in their world. There’s people who will come up to me at a stoplight: ‘Soul Man, will you pray for us today?’ ‘Anything in particular?’ ‘No, just to get a prayer.’ ‘Okay.’ And off we drive to the next light.”

The next big step for Church on the Street, Martin says, is getting a new-and-improved mobile chapel ready to hit the road to replace his SUV. It’s a 24-foot cube trucked recently acquired by the diocese, which Martin is renovating into an actual mobile sanctuary, complete with altar, baptismal font and other furnishings. Once all the necessary paperwork has been filed with the government, Martin expects it will be consecrated by the bishop, and then ready to hit the road by next spring.

Martin says he’s always happy to talk about his ministry to anyone who is interested. He can be reached by email at: stevemartin@diohuron.org

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Tali Folkins
Tali Folkins has worked as a staff reporter for the Law Times and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. His writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail and The United Church Observer.

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