Inner City Diary
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Renovations as an art form...
October 27, 2002
It had been a busy week. Lots of meetings. Lots of talking, arguing and thinking. I didn't want to talk to or visit with anyone. I was ready for a break.

That night I was invited to a concert at the West End Cultural Centre. We heard an amazing band led by Walle Larsson - a local jazz musician and composer. Tension from the week faded quickly as I listened. It felt great to lose myself in the music. Several weeks earlier, we heard a singer named Sandra Stritz at a local bookstore. Last Saturday, after another hectic week, I was blessed to hear singer, storyteller Steve Bell with a bunch of friends.

Like a cool drink on a hot day, or a full meal on an empty stomach, it's great to enjoy the artistry of talented musicians.

It’s easy to think of people who compose music and paint paintings as artists. But I’ve come to enjoy the artistry of a group of people not usually seen as artists. And these are some of the creative and imaginative people who are helping us rebuild the inner city.

We like to work with certain carpenters and masons, plumbing, electrical, heating, flooring, roofing, painting, dry-walling contractors. The ones we like most are the folks that take pride in their particular art form. They’re not just working for the money. Done well, their trade transforms boxy, ugly dumps into some of the most beautiful homes in the neighbourhood. Just calling them “contractors” doesn't seem to do them justice.

We tell them, “Make this old house work again. It has to look good too. And, by the way, we need it as cheaply and as quickly as possible.”

Then there are the volunteers. John, a retired CN worker, donated some of his “spare” time to help us do the first complete home renovation undertaken by our church. He spent hundreds of volunteer hours with kids, convicts and church folk trying to renovate that first house. His work gave life to our dream of a Lazarus Housing ministry.

More recently, a fellow named Horst let us know he wanted to volunteer with our renovations. He used to run his own custom kitchen cabinet business and is now retired. A recent stroke impacted on the quantity of work he could handle, but not the quality of his craftsmanship. From installing and repairing cabinets to some amazing finishing carpentry, I’ve been impressed by his creativity and caring.

Both these men, and others, have volunteered considerable time and respectable talents. Their creativity, pride and generosity has amazed me. And the evidence of their artistry can be seen throughout our neighbourhood.

And then there's my friend, Ralph Mueller…

Several years ago, I realized that renovating homes would take more expertise than I could pretend to possess.

My father-in-law once watched me cut a hole in my house to install a bigger window. After awhile he gently wisecracked, "I hope you don't quit your day job."

Ralph, however, has been involved in one or another form of construction since his teens. He built new custom homes and renovated old ones. He understood the private sector struggle to balance form and function, ecology and economy. In his teens, he was actually one of the people who volunteered to renovate our home on Ellice Avenue. We met occasionally over the next 19 years.

I nervously decided to approach Ralph for help. I asked if he would consider committing three years of his life to helping us rebuild our neighbourhood. We talked about our shared faith that enables us to attempt “impossible” tasks. Knowing he was a young, talented guy with a family to feed, we’d try to find money to pay him. Yet I was asking for his exclusive commitment to our Lazarus Housing dream. He consented, with the proviso that we not compromise quality just for the sake of quantity. No “patch and paint” or “splash and dash.”

Occasionally brash, always witty and definitely a stickler for quality, Ralph has been affectionately labeled our church’s “Minister of Housing.”

For three years, we’ve taken on burned out buildings, derelict homes, scummy crack houses and abscessed apartment blocks. Ralph supervises the “gutting” and redesigns the interiors. He argues for permits and hunts for bargains on materials. He coordinates volunteers, trainees and contractors. Recently, he’s been praying for another full-time framing and finishing carpenter.

I’ve come to respect the business of renovation as an art form and a labour of love. And I’m grateful for people like John, Horst and Ralph who enable us to do more than we imagined possible with less than was required.
Copyright 2002
Rev. Harry Lehotsky
Rev. Harry Lehotsky is Director of New Life Ministries, a community ministry in the inner-city of Winnipeg, Manitoba.
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New Life Ministries
514 Maryland Street
Winnipeg, Mb R3G 1M5
(204) 775-4929