Inner City Diary
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The day I met one of our "guardian angels"
December 29, 2002
I’ve never really liked those little “guardian angel” pins they sell in stores. They seem a tacky way to profit from people’s insecurities.

But the notion of real “guardian angels” has intrigued me.

I spent my earliest years growing up in Astoria, New York City. Our family lived in an apartment near Steinway Street, the bustling main street of our neighbourhood. I loved the Saturday rush of the crowds and traffic on Steinway. I also had a childhood fascination with the traffic cops that occasionally directed traffic from the middle of the street.

My parents were caring and cautious people. Not the kind to neglect their kids. But I was a stubborn and inquisitive kid - especially that day. One minute I was with them in a store on Steinway. The next thing they knew, I was gone.

After frantically looking around the store, they ran outside. They were horrified to see me standing in the middle of Steinway Street, looking somewhat overwhelmed. Directing traffic seemed like a good idea until I got out there. I couldn’t see over the hoods of the cars, and didn’t know what to do about all the people yelling at me. My parents rushed me to safety.

To this day, they recall that as one of many events in my life which seemed to necessitate the existence of guardian angels.

Years later, a guy named Curtis Sliwa started a controversial safety patrol in New York City. Starting with 13 members in the first group, they now number over 5000 members in 67 cities. They started as a citizen’s patrol that expanded into a movement which embodied the frustration of many citizens with crime. The presence of Sliwa’s “Guardian Angels” was heralded by their red berets and t-shirts. They took pride in their self-appointed role as guardians of their neighbourhoods.

But here in Winnipeg I’ve met another kind of “guardian angel.”

He doesn’t sport wings or a red beret. He avoids media and shuns the spotlight. But for years he has been a silent guardian of some of Winnipeg’s best principles and neighbourhoods.

I still remember the first time I met Fred. I had been living in Winnipeg for about five years. I had come to city hall with other residents and business owners. We were appealing to city councillors not to drop yet another massage parlour into our neighbourhood.

It seemed like every time we missed a zoning or licensing meeting, we became the not-so-proud recipients of another business that further stigmatized our neighbourhood as a moral and economic cesspool. It got to the point that I couldn’t pray “…and lead us not into temptation…” without thinking about zoning and licensing. That’s when I started beseeching city councillors to “deliver us from evil…”

We had fought hard on this one. To the credit of city councillors, they acknowledged the concerns of residents. The massage parlour lost their attempt to locate on Ellice Avenue. It was a good day for the neighbourhood.

After the hearing, media started asking questions. More pumped by adrenalin than logic, I wondered how to answer one reporter’s question.

All of a sudden, a stranger handed me a page from the City of Winnipeg Act. He had highlighted the legal answer to the reporter’s question. I was simultaneously grateful for his help and curious about his identity.

Afterwards, he introduced himself as Fred and congratulated us on our victory. But he assured us there would be more fights. He suggested that we should talk further if I had questions about zoning, licensing and politics.

Over my years in Winnipeg, I have been amazed by his ability to dissect civic bylaws and government statutes. I have been blessed by his counsel and protected by his foresight.

This guardian angel doesn’t drive a car. He has a university degree and has tutored many students, but doesn’t have a job in the field. He doesn’t dress like a “professional,” but few people are more professional in their analysis of politics and planning.

He has done more to empower communities and build capacity of residents than a host of people who are paid to do those jobs. He hasn’t requested a penny in return for his time and effort.

I once asked him why he wouldn’t get a job working for the city. He responded that he couldn’t, in good conscience, work for a bureaucracy which is organized in such a way that it keeps you from doing what you’re hired to do. I used to chide him for his cynicism, but have since seen the light.

And I figure if we could we see our guardian angels, they would probably look a lot like Fred.
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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