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There's Something about Harry
The outpouring of public support for an unabashedly evangelical pastor who is dying of pancreatic cancer is inspiring to behold.

Harry Lehotsky is not expected to live very long. In mid-May the well-known Winnipeg pastor and social activist learned he had inoperable pancreatic cancer. Since then his life as been a whirlwind of activity as a very public man prepares for a very public death. Fundraisers and speaking opportunities abound. Energy is harder to come by. Pain is constant.

Harry Lehotsky

At a gala affair at the Fort Garry Hotel attended by Winnipeg's political, business and social elites on June 9, 2006, the 48-year-old Lehotsky joked that if he lived, he wouldn't be giving back any of the money raised for a variety of the inner-city projects he champions.

The outpouring of public support for an unabashedly evangelical pastor is inspiring to behold. Harry and his wife, Virginia, came to Winnipeg from New York nearly 25 years ago and moved into one of the roughest neighbourhoods in town where they bought a home, planted a church and raised a family. He often wore a clerical collar, unusual for a Baptist minister.

With New Life Ministries as his base, Lehotsky began taking on a host of core-area problems. He's mixed it up with street gangs, shut down crack houses, cleaned up pawn shops, pestered politicians, blasted slum landlords and got in the building and restoration business.

The community is feeling the benefits of his efforts. New Life organized and maintains 100 suites of transitional housing. It has rebuilt 22 derelict homes and is renovating others. It provides employment through a cafe and theatre. It operates a free voice mail service for people without phones who are looking for work.

In 1999 Lehotsky contested a seat in the provincial assembly. As he prepared to formally enter the political realm, he told me that "being a pastor" was his core identity. "Pastoral care for people has motivated the style of my involvement," he said.

And at the base of his platform was a pastor's understanding of poverty. "Some people are poor because of oppression (someone else's fault); some from calamity (no one's fault); some because of personal sin (their fault). There's no way of dealing with the poor through just one of those perspectives. You have to spend enough time with them to know, and that informs the way you work with them."

Difficult work

Working with and on behalf of the poor does not make for an easy life. In one of his newspaper columns, and again at the gala, Lehotsky acknowledged his own battle with despair. "Early in my ministry at our church, not much was happening the way I had hoped. I was here to start a church, but not many people were attending. I was working hard to change things in the neighbourhood, but felt frustrated at every turn," he wrote.

"One evening I came home grumpy and tired. I remember getting into a stupid argument about something really insignificant. I felt overwhelmed in my frustrations, totally absorbed in my own disappointments. As a preacher I told others to have hope, but felt my own hope waning.

"I remember going out to the garage feeling tired of everything. Tired of fighting. Tired of trying. Tired of failing. Tired of feeling tired. I started the car with the garage door shut. I wasn't looking to pass an angry message. Not looking to leave anyone with a guilt trip. Nothing personal. I just felt like quitting.

"As the car idled, my mind ran back, reviewing my life. Somewhere in the jumble of thoughts, I imagined meeting God. I wasn't comfortable with that thought. I wanted to skip to something else. But I couldn't. I pictured Him looking at me with a simple question: "Is this how you're choosing to come to meet me?"

"Even through the exhaust, I realized there were things more important than my own doubt and despair. I had a wife who loved me, young kids who needed me. Friends deserved better than my surrender to self-pity. There was lots more work to do."

Pancreatic cancer is an ugly killer. Lehotsky is facing this challenge as directly as he's faced many others. The Spirit that empowered him is alive and enduring. The work will go on.

Doug Koop is the editorial director for Fellowship for Print Witness, publishers of ChristianWeek and the ChristianCurrent family of newspapers.

Originally published in Christian Week June 23, 2006.




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