The Sun Came Out!

sunrise mural

This week-end marked a new pattern from the usual, eat work, sleep routine. I was off for 4 days for the Easter long week-end. The weather was beautiful. Sunny, clear blue skies, warm weather.

The most perfect weather for Easter sunrise services, gallivanting by bike around the city with my toddler in tow, and planting a new crop in the backyard garden.

One amazing thing about beautiful weather is not only the ability to lift one’s spirits, but also to bring people together.

Since being introduced to Christian communal living 10 years ago in the Downtown Eastside living out the call of radical hospitality has been one of the main ways my family expresses our faith. This call is taken literally from Jesus’ teaching when he was confronted with the role of power and prestige in his day.

Jesus challenged the privileged of his day “When you give a dinner or banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a fast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just”. (Luke 14:12-13).

All winter it seems that I have been living for myself; socializing with the people at work I get along with, visiting family, dutifully going to church. But this week-end was different. This weekend I felt alive again because I was able to live out Jesus’ call of inviting people into our home for dinner who cannot pay us back.

This happened on various occasions every day where friends from our church here in the inner city came and dropped in. I was able to be present most of the time and share friendship and a few honest conversations, including some laughs.

This week-end also included gathering with a few other local churches in our neighborhood for Easter Services who have similar values. I reveled in the collective prayers on Easter morning and the strength of each voice and their diverse emphasize on different parts of God’s work (salvation, creation, beauty, atonement, etc). It was incredibly uplifting to be surrounded by such a tangible cloud of witnesses.

It was enough to jolt me out of my eat, work, sleep haze and remind me that, yes, Jesus still dwells in me and sometimes, I get a glimpse of what it is to live in the Kingdom of God.


Working in your own neighborhood

Although social work has its roots in community development, and being “with” people, with the strengthening of ethics and the discouragement of “dual relationships” many people find it much easier to work in social work outside their own neighborhood, where there is less likelihood of running into their clients in the choir, at the park, at church, at the grocery store, as their children’s teachers, etc.

This is especially true when a person works in a place of authority (child protection, mental health worker who has to certify people against there will) or of confidence (therapist, counsellor).  In these positions you know a lot about people that other neighbors do not that can make interactions awkward and both client and worker may find it difficult to draw clear boundaries between work and home life.

I was recently interviewed for a position working in mental health kitty corner from my house- visual distance.  I am fairly involved in my neighborhood, helping out at a local dinner at a community house and have folks over regularly to my dinner from church who are clients of that team.  If I took that position I would more than likely see clients at the same dinner table often; this could be difficult in mental health if someone already has paranoia that someone is following them.  I loved the idea of working in the neighborhood but in the end I decided not to and chose to stay working just a 15 minute drive away at the organization I currently at, but in a different department. In the end I chose to keep my role as that of a friend and neighbor only; I want to be able to invite people for coffee without worrying that I am somehow breaking a rule by inadvertently inviting in someone who is already on the mental health team and I may work with in filling in for a colleague. I want to be able to fully participate in the community without drawing my curtains in or relaxing in other parts of the city for fear that if I leave my home I will be actually working at not working.

In some ways I want to break this tendency to want to completely separate work and play as it seems kind of artificial.  It perpetuates differentiation in the class and status of worker and client.  For example, if I was in the neighborhood my clients would see my two year-old having a tantrum on the sidewalk; I would feel a little embarrassed, similarly I might see them in the soup line across the street from my house or working as a prostitute at a nearby street corner.  Perhaps this would make all of us a little more real and humble.  Hard to say.



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

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.

Through the eyes of a Friend

I want to tell you about the most interesting thing that happened in therapy with a client. I was working with a man who has experienced significant trauma in his life and we were doing a safe place visualization where he imagines a safe place and I ask him questions to enrich the visualization.

One of the questions I asked was “who is there with you”. He answered a friend, a childhood friend. This man reports having no friends and no close family, and no social support in his life but was able to go back to his childhood and find a loving and kind friend. When I asked him about this friend after the visualization I found out that he and his childhood friend both had a similar name.

What a discovery! Inside of himself was not just a friend, but a kinder, gentler, more accepting part of himself an alter ego of sorts, a companion to the blaming, negative “self” that has crept in to dominate his vision of himself accusing  of failure day in and day out. It is incredible what an experience with a good friend can do for a person, even if the friendship is no longer present. It is similar to the experience of the therapeutic relationship; it gives a person a chance to build an alternate reality than they are accustomed one that is trustworthy, and stable that can disrupt older patterns of thinking that have gotten a person or family stuck.

It reminds me of my and my friends personal journey with people in our neighborhood who struggle with addiction and have had abusive childhoods.  For many years we plod along, not perfectly, but trying our best to be loving friends to those who are not always easily befriended, and who need a lot more than we can give.  It can be easy to dismiss these relationships as of such a small value in their overall healing journey.

Afterall, our love for one another pales in comparison to the amazing love and forgiveness that God offers to each of us.  But for some reason or another God chose us to live in relationship with one another and be the bearers of His love for the world to each other.  It would seem a lot more effective that he could appear in visions with bright light and angels announcing his love to each person, but instead he works in mysterious, gentle, and sometimes quiet ways through our broken selves.

Let us find encouragement that through the loving gaze of a friend this man could feel love and acceptance that he would not otherwise feel toward himself, and that our commitment to love can go a long way.

A Vision

Today I had a vision/idea. I have had this idea in my head for some time, but it is now taking shape.

I’m very interested (like most social workers) in the influence of trauma in a person’s life.  The ACE study (Adverse Childhood Experiences- found that adverse Childhood experiences correlate with negative long-term health in generally, poor mental health and even a shorter life expectancy.

In the Downtown Eastside it is hard to find a person who has not experienced trauma.  It seems like drug addiction has become an ingrained coping method that effectively masks the emotional hurt of the past.  We have many health clinics, and outreach teams, and church missions in our area.  However, I wonder how much treatment for trauma is actually taking place.  Pharmaceuticals help with the pain, but I think there is more that can be done.

One of the obstacles in providing any kind of help here is the chaotic nature of people’s lives- which begs the question how much healing can take place within an environment that often recreates trauma (like our neighborhood).  I have a neighborhood friend who I have spent time on and off for the past 4 years.  It is hard to even make an appointment with her to do something fun like go swimming.  How hard would it for her to go to counselling, or even focus in a session?

I wonder about clinically skilled, but harm reduction outreach counselling for those at the margins?  Also: I would love to do this from a Christian perspective as I believe that God has an amazing unpredictable power to heal and comfort that even the best counsellor cannot provide.  I will have to do some research but for now I’m getting in touch with friends who are knowledgeable in this area of work in the neighborhood, and researching online.

I think especially the integration of horticultural and art therapy would be really neat to accompany first stage trauma treatment. When I say first stage trauma treatment I mean teaching skills like grounding, containment, and journalling (see Lori Haskell’s book  This step is one that some suggest to provide a sense of safety and self-awareness  before they are ready to tackle intensive therapy for trauma like Cognitive Processing Therapy or EMDR with a skilled therapist.

An idea.  Let’s see where God takes it.  I love dreaming.