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.

http://www.metronews.ca/vancouver/local/article/1128937–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

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