Community and Growth in the Downtown Eastside

This past week while at my practicum I picked up a copy of the metro newspaper to read about Ric Matthew’s, former minister and executive director of First United Church in the downtown eastside of Vancouver.–new-way-forward-for-ex-first-united-reverend

He and a number of other staff parted ways with First United over imposed occupancy limits, and policies around implementing barriers in terms of behavior.  However, it is much more complicated than that (likely more than I even know)- there has also been controversy about women’s safety and ultimately liability issues by the United Church presbytery.  There are also conflicting visions about what First United should be and can be to the downtown eastside community.

Out of the wake of this parting of ways Ric Matthews and others have come to have a new vision and have created an organization, called the New Way Community Society,  that aims to be a truly inclusive community for the most marginalized.  They are basing this on some of the ideas and visions of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Mary Jo Leddy (of Romero House in Toronto), and Jean Vanier (of L’Arche).

My connection to this story is :

1) I volunteered many years at First United- up until I was quite pregnant with my first child.  I used to do Foot Care and games and just talk to people.  What attracted me to this place was how First managed to integrate marginalized folk into its operation in a way that no other place in the downtown eastside managed.  For example, when I first volunteered there in 2003 I remember being a volunteer to serve lunch and people who were being served lunch would grab gloves and half the time I would end up being served and talking with those at my table.  It was a beautiful thing.  Granted I have theological differences with First United- but I do think they have/had a role of welcoming the most marginalized in a way that were very casual and community oriented, and was not present anywhere else.

2) I and the Christians I am connected with who live in our neighborhood and share a vision of building community amongst the most marginalized, not too dissimilar to that of Ric Matthews.  Most people who have done this here find it a very slow process and quite mundane, humbling and stretching.  It sounds quite romantic but results in trials like: bed bugs, break-ins, things stolen left in plain sight by visitors to our house, fatigue, exasperation, and discouragement.

3) I too have been inspired by Jean Vanier and L’arche.  I have met him personally and heard him speak a number of times.  I have visited the L’Arche community in Trosly, France and I have read a number of his books including Life Together and Community and Growth, the title that I have plagiarized for the title of this post.

I’m excited for Ric and his vision to have more than housing; a community for those on the margins based on Jean Vanier’s principles.  Ric Matthews wants to move away from service provider driven projects- I agree with him completely on this.  However I do have a few comments on his vision based on my own experience.

1.   It will be very hard to have a project with the very most marginalized of the downtown eastside that does not become service provider driven.  Why?  Chaos and a need for safety.  For all.  Community needs trust and it is hard to trust those who you fear will steal from you or hurt you.

2. Rev. Ric and his friends have articulated in some articles that I have read that they stopped trying to use consequences for breaking rules/crossing boundaries as it seemed fruitless and also hard to enforce.  In this community, if it is to be more than a place of refuge (first United) to ensure safety and trust people need to know that there are limits that will protect them.  I wonder how this will work and if it will conflict with their values and risk turning into a service provider relationship when these need to be enforced.

3. As I wrote before I have found building community takes time and requires everybody’s buy-in to the vision.  Maybe it is us who need the time to feel ready to share our lives with the marginalized rather than they needing to change or alter their behavior.  In our lives we have been good friends with a number of folks and if resources were available (i.e. a bigger house) we would like to be able welcome those into our homes and live a shared live, but we would likely choose people who we feel safe and trust and who are more stable in their lives.  There goal was to have housing for 50 people- I think that could take some time to achieve.  However, I know that the organizers of this new society are well-known within the DTES and have a lot of respect from local residents; perhaps they already have a fair number of folks who are on board and ready.

4. I believe that a community must be not only inspired by Jesus but reliant on Jesus.  Only God can make a new creation in people; we are only partners in this through his Holy Spirit.  Though we may take the steps God empowers in his time and will.

When Jean Vanier started his vision it involved him living with two men who had been in institutions.  That’s all- that grew to a movement that spread around the world. In his book Community and Growth he writes about the marginalized:

“The liberation of marginal people from their darkness may involve a long struggle. The reference  person and the community have to know how to accept the violence into themselves, so that they can transform it into tenderness and gradually liberate the marginal people from their anguish. The role of a community of reconciliation is to break the cycle of violence and so lead people to peace.” Vanier, p. 277


Happiness :)

On Friday while taking my sick toddler for a walk I bumped into a friend from the neighborhood who I have known from my original days in 2003.  We garden together, have been known to play scrabble, used to drink red wine together (she is now in AA), and have heart to heart discussions.  Eventually after walking down to the nearby beach and back we got to the topic of the purpose of life for us, and for most people.

I said most people want to live the good life, that is be financially secure (ideally earning increasingly more money), have a house, a family, be respected and admired by others, and experience frequent times of fun and happiness (often in the forms of vacations, hobbies, music, entertainment, etc.).  Nonetheless many are unhappy.

While we strive for increasing achievement and “happiness” people around the world are in economic slavery, are raped in wars, die violent deaths.  I think of the case of Tori Stafford- I have read the chilling accounts in Canadian newspapers about how this elementary school aged girl was brutally murdered.  What a horrible way to end such a beautiful life.  With the Kony 2012 campaign I have read how young girls are used as sex slaves in places of war- what kind of short life is that? Likely not one filled with happiness, especially with our culture’s definition of happiness.

When bringing this up in our discussion we also noted that our being or feeling unhappy or despair over the injustice in the world isn’t doing the situation any good.

For years my friend had engaged as an activist against gentrification in our neighborhood, and against war around the world.  It didn’t seem to matter how much frustration and angst she directed towards these issues- it felt as if the world continued in its ways.  What she and I reflected on was that being unhappy and up in arms about a situation and denying ourselves joy in life didn’t advance our causes anymore than those who still managed to speak up for those who needed justice but actually stopped to enjoy life.

Today my friend earns a very modest income but is content with the small things of good she does: mentoring a sponsee, speaking words of encouragement and wisdom to those who are seeking it, spending time in the wilderness up at a cabin, and tending our shared garden.

She reflected that in years past she inherently thought that to live out the gospel it had to hurt (being persecuted for righteousness) and if it didn’t than she wasn’t truly living it out.  Today she allows herself simple joys of life.  She is not chasing after bigger and better but is looking for meaning where she is at.  Bigger or better either in a material/financial realm, but also in the realm of living out Jesus’ teachings.

I, too, often can caught up in trying to live out the gospel so much that it hurts.  And then I stop and think- oh when did I last truly take time to do something that helped me feel joy.  It can be quite hard as a mother of a toddler and a full-time student. Because each moment I have free I have to make choices between school work and relaxation and also being there for others.

However, happiness is not always found in “me” time.  For example, tonight at home group my husband was looking after our little girl and for I truly got to listen to the thoughts of others on what it means to be a child of God from a number of people: an older nurse, and an older lady with mental and physical disabilities and I felt truly humbled and honored both at once.

There is a lot of emphasis on achieving happiness in our culture and in psychology.  There is an idea that to be happy everything in life should be going right (i.e. the above noted recipe for the good life).  However, this definition of happiness does not coincide with a gospel definition of what a life in Christ looks like where we face persecution, and are willing to give up everything for the cross.  But living out life in difficult circumstances (i.e. not being upwardly mobile) does not mean that we must face sure unhappiness or that we should not seek joy and happiness in whatever lot we find ourselves.  I have to remind myself- especially in my predicament of juggling a number of different roles- that I do not have to wait until my life is all “together” to enjoy it but can decide to seek out happiness in the moments and life path that God has given me.

Intentional Christian Community, i.e. “New Monasticism”

About 9 years ago I first moved into a christian intentional community in the poorest postal code in Canada.

It was a house teaming with children, singles and marginalized folk.  Dinners happened almost every night and anybody was welcome who made it up the steep flight of steps. The leaders were radicals in many ways, trailblazers, visionaires.  The nightly conversation was contentious, debates heated, and friendships deep.  People visited who were addicted, mentally ill, curious Christians from the local seminary, young high school students stunned, and regular anybodies. 

 I can never forget being blessed by a crack-addicted friend with schizophrenia while having coffee. 

 I scavenged their bookshelves for the likes of Oscar Romero, Dorothy Day, and the like.  I also fell in love- sort of – well that love story happened after I moved out- and yes, I’m married to him now. 

This inspired me to start my own little Christian community in university, not quite as intense- but with some spiritual commitment to each other and to welcoming others. 

Since getting married we found a rented place down the street- we have always had people living with us although our house has never reached full community state.  We continue to open up our house to those who want to talk, have coffee and join us for dinner although it is no large scale endeavor.  Our rhythm of prayer and shared meals has fluctuated.  However, as I’m nearing a close on my schooling we want to renew our vision towards community.  Towards committing to pray and meet together and support each other in the teachings of Christ to welcome those to dinner who can’t invite or pay you back (we still do invite those who do reciprocate and do love when anybody helps with dishes or anything around the house). 

 It can be a hard life to live and sometimes I wonder if it would be best just to live as a little nuclear family.  We actually did that as a family this past summer while travelling in the Middle East- and it was quite quiet and a bit lonely actually.  I think it is our passion to life this type of radical life in the inner city and we would like to continue with the support of others. 

In the past number of years Christians have come up with tons of new ways to describe this way of being a Christian including New Monasticism (Shane Claibourne, etc.), missional churches /living, etc.  I haven’t done too much reading on these terms but I do think our life and church life may fit those descriptions. 

In this modern age with extended families being so spread apart we need each other in the body of Christ more and more.  In that way living in cooperation with others make sense (although it more often fails than succeeds and people can get hurt this way- warning!).  It’s definitely not all easy and exciting. But it is highly reccomended if you want to welcome marginalized people in your personal life- you need support, you need help with saying no sometimes, you need people for safety – just in case.  It’s a practical reason why us inner-city christian folk live together.  We also need each other’s prayer and friendship to keep Jesus at the centre and make sure we are remembering to take joy in life.

Why I love group work

When I first began my MSW program I had a practicum at a men’s addiction recovery program where I led many groups.  I found this is where I shone.  I loved to engage the variety of people, to come up with interesting questions to spark conversation, to observe the intergroup interactions and the roles people take on.  I loved the way profound insight from one person could impact another in the group. 

Group work takes many forms.  The most commonly led group today by therapists and social workers is the psycho-educational group, although peer-led self-help groups may be the most widely practiced within society.  Psychoeducational groups usually balance a mix of education on a particular disorder or method of coping with therapeutic processing.

People often wonder about the efficacy and therapeutic value of groups.  In many studies they have been found as useful as individual therapy for certain conditions.  I have read Irvin Yalom’s The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy and have found it fascinating.  It is a good book to start with if you are interested in developing a foundation in group work.  Some of what I say will be drawn from this book and social work courses I have taken on groups.

Group therapy can allow modelling and re-enacting of relationships in a safe environment that allows learning.  Take someone who is struggling with interpersonal dynamics with others – his negative thinking  or aggressive tendencies may be observed by himself and others and processed: new interaction patterns can be formed.

In groups people are not only being treated but are contributing to the treatment of others- there is a co-operation of sorts, mutual healing that doe snot come from a hallowed/wise person (a therapist) but comes from the collective insight and weaknesses of those in the group.

It provides engagement and social support to those who usually immediately withdrawn.

It is a purposeful social engagement different from being a group of people at a party-there is learning to be had even if a person does not speak up a lot in group.

It helps people get out of their shells and feeling as if they are the only person in the world to feel a certain way, there is comfort, as well as perhaps, disappointment that their symptoms are not what makes them unique that they have to rediscover that part of them.

There is encouragement as well as motivation in seeing others gain insight and becoming more engaged and more well.

No doubt there are challenges in groups such as : confidentiality, conflict, scapegoating, monopolizing, silence, tangential thoughts, etc.  But if you are person who loves groups these are part of the challenges.

What strikes me about groups is that meeting together in groups is an essential blueprint of church life.  Many churches, like my own, have small groups that meet together.  There is no doubt that these groups, too, have great power for healing although they are markedly different in their purpose from therapy groups.  I wonder what group therapy can learn from small groups and vice-versa?  What characteristics do they share?

I am not trying to imply that church is therapy nor should be therapy.  Our goal in small groups is mutually loving one another, and discipling one another rather than learning about how to cope better in life with a certain condition. 

However, as I’ve said in the past, in my church approximately half of our members struggle with mental illness and/or addiction.  Sometimes it happens that in order for growth in Christ to happen, we may need to learn how to cope with mental illness or addiction, often with the help of therapy. 

There are many christian resources that try to help people deal with the wounds of their past from a Christ-centred way.  One of these I’ve heard of is Redemption groups which are modelled after Biblical counselling. and originate from Mars Hill church.  I have never been engaged in such a group but for some time I have wondered about having a kind of group that addresses such issues within our faith community.  It is an interesting example as it tends to borrow some therapeutic principles while being firmly planted in the church and thus separate from therapy.

What do you think?  Have you ever led group work?  What do you like or dislike about it?

Have you engaged in groups in your church or faith-based organization?  How do the principles or processes overlap?  How are they distinctly different?