Rev. Harry Lehotsky, who recently passed away at age 49, was invariably there when a new housing initiative opened in the West End.
When the Winnipeg Real Estate Board-established Housing Opportunity Partnership held an open house announcing another home had been renovated and was up for sale to a low- or moderate-income individual or family, he was there lending his support.
As the head for New Life Ministers on Maryland Street, Rev. Lehotsky helped establish Lazarus Housing, another affordable housing program in the West End that aimed to instill hope in people by providing a permanent address that empowered them to break the cycle of poverty.
Rev. Lehotsky knew it would take more than just one program to stem the tide and revitalize the West End and that’s why he was quick to congratulate and support others who were trying to make a difference.
Before his death, Rev. Lehotsky told the WREN that the goal in his neighbourhood was to combine “reintegration with gentrification.”
“What this means is that there is a blend of less-privileged with those who are financially secure,” said the minister, who had been diagnoses scant months ago with terminal pancreatic cancer which claimed him last Saturday. “We want people with solid jobs who are willing to donate their energy to the community.
“An integrated community provides greater security and a healthy environment.”
For 23 years in Winnipeg, Rev. Lehotsky led by example. He was untiring in his devotion to the community. For example, he was the first person seen on a TV newscast when evidence of a drug den or booze can was identified in the West End. Crime in any guise was not tolerated in his neighbourhood. Threats from drug dealers nor angry prostitutes didn’t frighten him. He lived in the community with his wife and three children that he wanted to empower and wasn’t about to show fear and thus have thugs get the upper hand and drive him away. His was an in-your-face kind of message to wrongdoers.
It was not uncommon for him to tell reporters that his neighbourhood didn’t tolerate such activity while urging the city to tear down drug houses when necessary if it would make the community safer.
As he fought crime, he also challenged those who were enmeshed in a life of prostitution or drugs to change their ways and he would provide the support.
Rev. Lehotsky had lived the life that he came to abhor. He was a former gang member and drug dealer on the mean streets of New York. As a teenager, he struggled with a heroin addiction that had led to an overdose and a hospital bed. When he accepted that it was his bad chooses that led to his dilemma, he initiated the changes needed to overcome his fall from grace that eventually led him to a ministry and Winnipeg.
While in Winnipeg, he early on recognized that safety goes hand-in-hand with homeownership — without later the former is not possible.
It may have been a reflection of his New York City upbringing that Rev. Lehotsky was a true fighter for what he believed in, shying away from no one. Although anyone who has meet him will remember his ready smile and open-hearted greetings, his smile could quickly vanish, changing into a tenacious countenance when confronted with naysayers who opposed any causes that could benefit his neighbourhood.
He could not abide those who told him that such and such couldn’t be done. A slogan best summing up his belief was, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” Anyone who said different just made him firmer in his convictions.
He had plenty of street smarts, but he also had to educate himself in the ways of politics, another mean street that sometimes defies logic and constantly throws up road blocks when ever someone seeks something better than the status quo. The bureaucratic red tape can bring down the best social reformer, but Rev. Lehotsky learned how to weave through the maze on the way to fulfilling his aspiration to help bring about a better life for others. While many could passively await the rewards of Heaven, there was still an earthly domain that needed immediate attention in order to transform it into something better.
“For years, Rev. Lehotsky worked shoulder to shoulder with people to address the challenges facing their communities,” said Premier Gary Doer, when the reverend’s death was announced.
“In addition to providing spiritual support, he was a strong voice for better housing, safer streets and community empowerment.
“Above all, Rev. Lehotsky forced all of us to be honest in our discussions of how to address the many issues facing society and our communities,” the premier added.
Mark Wollenberg, a roommate of Rev. Lehotsky during the first year of Bible College in Edmonton, when writing a comment for the Friends of Harry website, said he “heard the passion in his heart for justice — God’s justice — for the poor and marginalized. Harry was not just going to think and talk about this stuff he was going to do something about it.”
Some would have wallowed in self-pity, but Rev. Lehotsky, after being given just six to nine months to live last spring, redoubled his efforts, articulating his message of hope whenever he could.
Rev. Lehotsky didn’t have all the answers — he knew that would have been a presumptuous assumption — but he did know that evils existed on this earth that had to be addressed and they resided next door to you and me. He knew that small incremental nudges could push them aside so that those who opposed the evil in their midst could stride through and reinvigorate a community.
When he came to Winnipeg 23 years ago, the city was enriched. His departure has made us poorer, but his message of hope doesn’t have to die with him.