Friday, December 10, 2010

Dreaming... of an end to violence and exploitation

I had a dream last weekend.  In my dream, someone placed a very small child in my arms.  Something was different about this girl - at least, I think it was a girl.  Her face had bird-like features: her eyes were enlarged, and her nose was shaped more like a beak.  But as I gazed down at her, I was suddenly overwhelmed with love for this delicate, vulnerable creature.  "You are... beautiful," I said to her.  Hearing the sincerity in my voice, she looked up at me and whispered, "Does that mean I'll be safe?"  An odd exchange.  When I recounted it to Danice the next day, it sounded creepy, but I assure you, this scene was actually quite moving in the dream.

I don't often remember dreams, and when I do, there often seems to be a reason for it.  I had been wrestling with a lot of insecurity, and as I prayed the next morning, I saw myself as the child in the dream, looking for security and safety, listening to hear God tell me I was beautiful and loved.  I thought I knew why I had dreamed it... but there was more to come that day.

That afternoon, I attended a public forum about violence against women in my neighbourhood, the Downtown Eastside (DTES).  Three female politicians, representing the three levels of government, sat on the panel - a city councilor, our MLA, and our MP.  They gave brief speeches, but generally expressed a desire listen to us.  There were other women on the panel who represented various womens' organizations in the neighbourhood.

As the people in the crowd began sharing their experiences and recommendations for curbing violence against women in the DTES, one of the first issues to come up was prostitution.  I learned that almost every woman on that panel, including each of the three political representatives, supports the decriminalization (legalization) of prostitution. 

This is a divisive issue in my neighbourhood.  Good people who care about women and their rights come to opposite conclusions on the topic.  I have often avoided talking about it, especially in conversation with other activists in the DTES, because I have wanted to focus on things we agree about - the need for housing, for example.  But after sitting through this intense 3-hour public forum, and dreaming this dream, I am convinced that I need to write about this and explain where I stand right now, and why.

Many women spoke up at that forum.  Some of them were friends of mine, like Michelle Miller (with REED - Resist Exploitation Embrace Dignity), and Trisha Baptie (with EVE - Experiential Voices Educating), two women for whom I now have even more respect.  They spoke courageously and passionately, affirming that violence against women will not end until prostitution is abolished, not only because many of the missing and murdered women in the DTES have been prostituted women, but because prostitution itself is inherently violent.  They spoke in favour of the "Nordic model," pioneered in Sweden, and now also in Norway, Iceland, and Bulgaria: decriminalizing the women being "bought," and instead criminalizing the men who "buy" them and the pimps who "sell" them.  Since these laws were passed ten years ago in Sweden, prostitution has decreased significantly.  In countries that have gone the other direction, by legalizing prostitution (e.g. the Netherlands, Australia), the sex industry has expanded, demand has increased, and so has sex trafficking (forced sex slavery, often bringing in women and children from other countries). 

I had heard these arguments before, and I had heard the counter-arguments: this talk of abolition is just moralistic guilt-tripping; if two consenting adults want to have sex then we should let them; women should have the choice to do "sex work" and should be able to do so in a "safe" environment (a brothel).

But what I hadn't heard before were the voices of the First Nations women.  I watched the subtle ways these marginalized women reclaimed their power at the forum, whether it was by standing up and standing behind one another in support, or speaking with their backs to the panel, addressing only the crowd, blocking out the politicians.  Some were very controlled and composed, some were very angry, some were grieving, but they had one thing in common: every single one of them wanted to see prostitution abolished. The Aboriginal Women's Action Network (AWAN) opposed legalization of prostitution, and the Native Women's Association of Canada (NWAC) had also just voted unanimously to oppose legalization (thanks for the edit, Trisha!).  They spoke of the vast over-representation of Aboriginal women in street prostitution, and the ways that sexism, racism, and classism play into the violence inherent in all prostitution.  They described prostitution as "the continuation of colonization - the colonization of our very bodies."  Most importantly, they told stories.  Stories about their sisters, their cousins, and their daughters, some exploited and abused, some missing, some dead.

As one Aboriginal woman spoke of her daughter, who had been raped not long ago, and had run half-naked down the street asking for help, only to have the cop called to the scene dismiss her as "another sex worker," my dream suddenly came flooding back into my head, and the connection between beauty and safety became clear.  This half-naked girl became the vulnerable child in my arms, whose beauty was never sincerely acknowledged, who only wanted to be safe.

I oppose the legalization of prostitution, not only because I think sex is sacred and should not be for sale, not only because I think all women and men are made in the image of God and have inherent dignity and worth that is trampled when one uses the other as an object or commodity, but because I believe I am called to speak for and defend the most vulnerable people in our society, and I can't think of a more vulnerable group than low-income First Nations women on the streets, except perhaps young women and children trafficked for sex.  If indeed there are women out there who are legitimately choosing sex work, and fighting for the right to do so, I call on them to legitimately choose another line of work for the sake of the vast majority of sex workers who are not choosing this work, but are enslaved in it, entrenched in it, or are tolerating the violence and degradation of prostitution as a means of survival.

I call on the men reading this to refuse to buy women, and to speak up about this.  I call on the women reading this to protect and support their vulnerable sisters, and to speak up about this.  I call on parents to teach their children about the dignity of every human being.  I call on the leaders of my city, province, and country not only to criminalize the buying of sex, but also to raise the welfare and minimum wage rates, and to provide more support for low-income women, especially single mothers, so that no one is put in a position of needing to sell their body in order to make ends meet.

And I call on God for mercy, as I do every time I'm biking home from work at night and I see women waiting on the corners only a few blocks from my house.  They are beautiful.  I want them to know what it feels like to be safe, safe deep down, safe in every way.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Neither a borrower nor a lender be?

I'm home sick today, which is a humbling thing.  First, because my immune system is not all I was cracking it up to be.  Second, because it's a reminder that even though I'm valued, I am not essential to the functioning of the world, or even of my workplaces.  I can take a break.  And it has been a good day to rest and let my body fight this cold.

So in the general vein of humility, I'd like to tell you a story about a recent time when I got tricked, conned, royally screwed over.  In August, when it happened, I thought I'd never tell this story, for fear that it would show me to be far too gullible and naive to live and work in this neighbourhood.  Danice knew better; she said it would make a great sermon illustration someday.

It was my day off, and I was riding a new bike to my friends' house on Commercial Drive, when I heard a man calling out in French, asking if anyone spoke French.  I thought, "What a coincidence, I speak French."  So I stopped to ask him what he needed.  He told me that he was from Quebec, but was in town with his wife and child so that his wife could get surgery for breast cancer.  He had been charged unexpected extra medical costs because the surgery was out-of-province, and he needed some money to buy some medicine and groceries.

Now, some of you are less gullible than me, and you would have said, "Sorry," and continued on your way.  And there was a part of me that doubted his story.  But a larger part of me wondered how coincidental it was that I rode along at that exact moment, and that I spoke French - I wondered if it was a divine set-up.  And he seemed like a decent guy.  So I said that I would help him out, but I needed to get cash from a bank machine.

Here was my first mistake.  I had decided how much I would give him, but at the bank machine, he asked for a bit more, explaining that he wanted to pay me back.  He was getting money wired to him from his brother in Quebec, but he needed some money to get his provincial health insurance card or driver's license printed, for ID, so he could collect the money in BC.  I complied, and gave him the larger amount.  Now you're thinking I was really gullible, and it's true.  He played on my lack of knowledge about the healthcare system in Quebec, about wiring money, and about what kind of ID is needed.  And I thought that it would be far more dignifying to allow him to pay me back, and support his family, instead of being the recipient of my charity.

So we set up a time to meet later that day.  When we met, he told me that again, he needed more money - there had been other costs associated with the wiring.  He showed me grocery receipts to prove he was spending the money well.  At this point, I really wanted my money back, and it seemed there would be no way of getting it unless he could pay the fees associated with getting his ID.  So, although alarms were going off in my head, I gave him a bit more.

To cut a long story (and awful day) short, that evening I ended up waiting at a skytrain station in New Westminster, with Danice by my side, with the Quebecois guy's "work keys" in my pocket as "collateral" to prove he would show up after the wire transfer.  My hope rode a roller-coaster, swelling, falling, increasing, disappearing.  Midnight rolled around, and no one had come to pay me back.  I had been conned.  I had lost $160, and I had also lost most of my faith in the honesty and goodness of humankind.

After a couple days of punishing myself for my own naivete, I realized I'd learned some stuff.  And it was not, as Danice quipped, that "you should never trust a Frenchman."

Here's what I learned/remembered:

- I was not and am not perfect.  I screw up, fall down, get back up, and I learn.  I've got the "innocent as doves" part down, now I need to work on the "shrewd as snakes" part.

- I did not have to lose hope in all of humanity just because of one guy who conned me.  We all lie and cheat at some point in our lives, and we all have our shining moments of generosity and beauty.

- It was ok to feel hurt.  I was violated, betrayed, lied to, embarrassed, and put to shame.  I was taken advantage of and sinned against.

- I was very grateful for my friends and roommates who cared for me and didn't laugh at me, even though my troubles were the result of my own poor decisions - Danice, who sat with me in my frustration, Chanelle and Julie who bought me ice cream, and Kat, who picked me up from the skytrain late at night.

- God would continue to provide for my needs.  (In fact, although I told hardly anyone about this experience, I got unexpected financial gifts over the next couple months that totaled more than double the amount I had lost!)

- My money doesn't belong to me.  I am only a steward of  it.  In being willing to give it away to someone in need, my heart was in the right place.  However, I could have stewarded it better.

- The trouble came when it changed from a gift to a loan, when I started expecting the money to be paid back to me.

Let me explain this last point, because it has become very important as I think about my money in the context of my relationships.  I think that in some cases, lending can be good and healthy, but only when I've already built a friendship with a person, and when I'm sure that even if they didn't pay me back, our friendship would survive.  I've lent small amounts of money to friends, and my willingness to do so has proven my trust in them, and when they repay me, they have the chance to prove themselves as trustworthy.  It has often brought my friendships to a new depth, even though there is some risk involved.

But in the vast majority of cases, when I give, I should give freely, not expecting anything back, especially if I don't know the person, and I should not give more than I feel led to give.  It is good for people to have the dignity of paying back, but I should not give with this expectation.  Jesus says as much: "If you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full.  But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked."  (Luke 6:34-35).

So apparently my reward will be great!  Maybe it already has been great.  I am sobered, humbled, and I have learned lots.  Who knows, maybe it was a divine set-up all along - it might have been the only way for me to learn. I even feel like I've pretty much forgiven the guy, miraculously... and I've prayed that whatever his troubles, even if it's just the trouble of feeling the need to trick people to sustain himself financially, God will bring him to a place of honesty and relief from his burdens.

But watch out for him, if you're gullible like me.  Chanelle has run into him again, around Commercial and 1st.  She gave him a good talking to on my behalf.  :)

Thursday, September 30, 2010

On how God can bring good things from tracts, in backwards ways.

I went to a local park to eat my lunch yesterday, one of the main hang-outs for low-income folks in the neighborhood.  I was sitting on the bench, reading my book, when I saw a man out of the corner of my eye who didn't seem to fit the scene.  He was wearing nicer clothes than anyone else (including me), and he seemed to be praying over two people on the bench across from me.  Sure enough, when he was finished, he approached me and handed me a tract and a yellow lollipop.  He asked if he could pray for me.

I'm not one to turn down prayer when it's offered, so I humored him and said yes.  He launched into a generic prayer that seemed almost memorized.  I guess he couldn't help but be generic, since he hadn't even gone to the trouble of asking my name.  He did, however, make some assumptions about me in his prayer, evidenced in phrases like "Lord, free her from her addictions" and "Holy Spirit, convict her of her sin."  Amen, brother.  God knows I have addictions and sin I need freedom from, but something tells me they're probably not the ones he was imagining.

After wrapping up his prayer, he asked me two questions in rapid succession: "Do you have Jesus in your heart?" (pointing at his chest).  "Yep."  "Do you have a Bible?"  "Yep." 

This satisfied him, and without so much as a goodbye, he moved right along to a skinny girl dressed in a dirty, tattered t-shirt and sweatpants, who was sitting about five feet away from me.  I watched as she accepted the lollipop and tract (though she threw the leaflet in the garbage as soon as he turned his back).  She gently declined his offer to pray.

When the man had left the park, I caught her eye and said, smiling slyly, "At least he had lollipops."

She grinned, and said quietly,  "I didn't have the heart to tell him I'm a practicing witch."

I laughed, imagining how the man would have responded.  She continued with a story of what happened the last time she told a "Bible Thumper" the truth about her religious beliefs: "I literally got thumped with a Bible."

With that, we launched into a great conversation.  I asked whether she practiced witchcraft in community with others, and she told me about her coven.  She asked if I was a witch.  (Somehow, this was a lot more refreshing than being asked if I "had Jesus in my heart.")  I told her that I was a Christian, but I found myself suddenly reluctant to be grouped with the man we'd just encountered, so I awkwardly added, "maybe not quite the same kind of Christian as that guy." 

We shook hands and exchanged names, and talked for twenty minutes.  We talked about our belief systems, and how ancient they were, and what we had in common - a belief in the spirit world and that we were privileged to interact with it, a desire to act in love, to seek peace and light.  She told me about growing up on the streets, and how despite all the pain and temptation she experienced, she never let her "Self" be compromised, "because all I really have is myself, and if I give that up, I might as well be f***in' dead."  She told me how she gave up her crack habit for a cat habit - "it's expensive to take care of six cats, but not as expensive as buying crack every day."  She showed me a beautiful marijuana pipe she'd found in a parking lot.  She said she enjoyed talking to me, and hoped we'd see each other in the park again.  I enjoyed talking to her, too.  It felt like the start of a friendship.

And that's how the ever-surprising Holy Spirit, who has a pretty good sense of humor, brought an encouraging avenue to relationship through the most anti-relational, dehumanizing, well-meaning but misguided "drive-by" evangelism attempt I've ever personally experienced.

In hindsight, as I think about the guy who prayed for me, I wish I'd thought to ask to pray for him.  I would have prayed that God would free him from his addictions, too.  Of course, I probably shouldn't do that kind of thing unless I at least know the person's name.  And maybe their favorite musician.  And maybe I'd want to know whether he'd had difficult experiences in his life, whether he had pains he was dulling with his addictions.  But by that point I'd probably feel like I had to share some of myself with him, too, and that might be too much vulnerability, and it might take too much time...

... and honestly, I have trouble interacting with people who have such different ideas from mine about sharing the Gospel.  I'd rather not admit that we're part of the same family, that we're Christian brothers and sisters who need to learn to love one another in spite of our different approaches to evangelism.  And besides, I'm far better at talking to homeless witches. 

Yeah, on second thought, I think it was best to let him go on his way.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Complexities of Incarnation and Relocation

Photo taken by my friend (and now neighbor) Hector, who stopped by on his walk yesterday.

Last night my roommates and I had a housewarming party. We have lived in our new place in Strathcona for two months now. I have had some chance to reflect on this move, and I wanted to share some of my thoughts.

First, the back story: I have been thinking about living in the DTES (DownTown EastSide) for over a year now. Our church was planted with the principles of CCDA (the Christian Community Development Association) in mind, the first of which is Relocation. Jesus put on flesh and moved into the neighborhood, instead of commuting back and forth between heaven and earth, and from the beginning, Jodi and I wanted to follow that incarnational path by moving into the neighborhood where the majority of our congregation lived.

Jodi moved right from the start. It took me a little longer. When we started the church, I was living in a great place on Commercial Drive with some incredible roommates, and I didn't think they would want to accompany me to the DTES, since their friends and churches were closer to Commercial. I told them my reasons for wanting to move, and we all sat with the idea for a while. On the evening when we planned to meet and make a decision, I lay in fetal position on my bed, cowering. I was so afraid that I would be forced to choose: either follow God's call to relocate, or live with my best friends.

To my surprise, and by the grace of God, all three of them were willing to move with me! I couldn't believe it. We started searching for a place to rent in the DTES area (or perhaps between the DTES and Commercial Drive, as a compromise). For a month and a half, we followed the very few leads we found on Craigslist, but the spaces were either unlivable for four people, or had already been scooped up by the many other people looking for housing.

Then one day, we got an e-mail back from a guy who said we could come look at a duplex in Strathcona, a neighborhood in the eastern part of the DTES. We did a rushed, five-minute walk-through, and filled out an application. He called a few days later and said that even though he'd had 30 other applicants, he had a good feeling about us, and we reminded him of his own daughters, so he wanted to let us have it! The rent was exactly the same amount as we were paying on Commercial Drive. The location was great from the point of view of my church work - it's at the intersection of the two streets where all the social housing buildings for families are located. It seemed (and still seems) like a clear gift from God.

The night before we moved in, we drove over to take another look at the place, and we stood in awe. It was beautiful. It was built in 2002, had a dishwasher (life changing for our household!), black appliances, two bathrooms (we all shared one bathroom at our other place!), laminate flooring, a large open-plan living room and kitchen, and a little porch. The landlord had paid to have it all re-painted and re-finished before we moved. For the same price, it was much, much nicer than our old place. Heck, it even had a white picket fence.

I walked around the empty house with mixed feelings. I was definitely happy that I didn't have to worry about my roommates making huge sacrifices to continue to live with me - they were so excited about the house! But it was so nice. When I had thought about moving to the DTES, I had expected to live more sacrificially, to have to give up some comforts and privileges and live more like my friends in the neighborhood. Instead, I was moving somewhere more comfortable and polished than our Commercial Drive space. Our street didn't even feel like the DTES - it felt like a nice little oasis one step removed from the DTES. Admittedly, only 48% of Strathcona residents are low-income, unlike 60-80% in the other neighborhoods that form the DTES. Some people don't even include Strathcona in their definition of the DTES, even though the city does.


I know that some of my self-sacrificial desires were idealistic and unrealistic, tied up in pride and the social-justice-image I wanted to project, with my dreams of a "Mother Teresa"-style martyrdom, suffering alongside the poor. But I genuinely did want my friends from the neighborhood to feel comfortable in my house, to feel like equals, to know that I want to be counted among them, to understand their reality and to be "in it" with them. And even more than that, I desperately didn't want to be counted among the "gentrifyers" in the DTES.

I only learned the word "gentrification" a couple years ago, when I heard it was happening in the DTES. It's what happens in lots of cities when developers buy property that has been used to house low-income people, and build market-type housing instead (in Vancouver, this is usually condos). Lower-income people can't afford these new places, and are often displaced or left homeless, with richer people gradually replacing them in the neighborhood. The lower-income folks who remain in the neighborhood find themselves surrounded by more expensive stores and security guards, and less of the services they depend on (because these non-profit services can no longer afford to stay either, with the rising property taxes). This process is dressed up and even defended with fancy words like "revitalization," "balance," and "social mix," but at its core it really represents a power grab by the rich, and does nothing to improve the lives of the marginalized. (The best summary of gentrification I've found is in Appendix A of CCAP's report "Assets to Action," read to learn more!)

This is where the complexity comes in. It's one thing to relocate and live "incarnationally" in a low-income neighborhood that is undesirable to most people, a "waste place," abandoned by the rich. But it's a much more complicated thing to relocate to a neighborhood that every developer wants a piece of, because they're running out of space to build in downtown proper, a neighborhood where hundreds sleep in shelters already because even the cheapest housing isn't cheap or available enough. I am the rich. Despite how poor I feel sometimes, I have a grad degree, I'm white, I have a supportive community around me, and I'm (relatively!) stable and employable. Does a person like me choose a house built in 2002? Who knows what was torn down so it could be built ... in "heritage style," of course, because appearances matter. Do I contribute to this gentrifying force, in form if not in spirit? Or does a person like me seek out something more like the older, low-rent places where my friends live, and risk taking away one more unit of the only housing they can afford? And since this low-income housing is mostly available in single-room form, does that latter option mean giving up my supportive community of roommates, who really are family for me in Vancouver? There are risks and benefits inherent in both options, both for me as a minister, and for this neighborhood in crisis. The DTES is a complicated puzzle, and figuring out how to follow in others' footsteps and live out my calling here sometimes makes my head spin.

In the end, my roommates and I have taken the housing that God has seemed to provide, grateful for the gift of it. And although I have been watching myself for the dangerous tendency to defend a choice that has meant increased comfort for me, I must say that despite the complexities, I have seen some good ministry benefits of this relocation in the last two months. I have loved running into people from church and Jacob's Well on the street as I walk or bike between home and work, or in the park as I read my book. It feels so much more relationally balanced to interact in everyday-life-situations, shopping at the market or running through the spray park, instead of interacting only in a programmatic way during my "work hours" in the neighborhood. I have loved how free some of my friends now feel to drop in at our house and say hi, and I've loved having kids knock on the door and ask to hang out and play video games on our PS2. Even in a short two months, we have had several meals and parties and hosted all sorts of folks here, combinations of friends from various backgrounds, and there has been a richness in these times. We are accessible, and our friendships are deepening. Also, I've been able to join a group of Strathcona folks who are fighting some of the gentrifying rhetoric of the Strathcona Residents Association and the Strathcona Business Improvement Association. If I am among the privileged of this neighborhood, I hope at least that I can use that power and privilege to stand behind and give voice to those who lack the power and privilege.

So there you go. I'm a Strathcona-ite, I have a beautiful family of roommates around me, and I'm grateful. I pray for God's blessing over this neighborhood that I now call my own, and for wisdom to walk through the complex questions that no doubt will continue to present themselves. Nothing seems very straightforward in this work or this life... but God is good, and He is merciful.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Blessed.


I have wanted to write about a lot of things lately, but sometimes my thoughts have trouble forming themselves into the right format for this blogging genre. I have more often wanted to write sermons, and songs, and poetry, and articles, and chapters for books. I suppose I could post all of those kinds of things on here. But something stops me... a longing, a longing for my blog resemble my favorite blogs. They're the ones that give you a sliver of someone's life at a certain moment in time, like a photograph in words. You don't know the whole story, but you're grateful to just see that one moment with such clarity.

So, while realizing that a lot has happened since May, and a lot is happening in my life that would better be told in other formats, or perhaps over a cup of coffee with you, if I haven't seen you in a while... I will give you a snapshot of my "right now."


At this moment, I see my life ahead of me as one that cannot be anything but beautiful, because I am doing what I was created to do, and I'm doing it among some of the most beautiful people in the world. I feel such a deep resonance with this work, with pastoring in this context, even as I feel completely out of place on the surface level. It is an unspeakable blessing to have this deep knowledge that God has led me to do something I love and am gifted for, and I want to bless all of you with it - I pray, especially for those of my friends who are currently searching for work and calling, that you all find a place and a way to serve that so deeply fits who you are, even if it's unexpected, and even if it takes time. I am so grateful to those who helped me discern my calling.


I believe that this will also be a challenging and often difficult life, if the last couple of weeks, or the last couple of years, are any indication. If I remain in this neighborhood, which I would love to do for as long as possible, and if my life moves in a similar path as those of my colleagues in the neighborhood, I know it will be difficult.


I just attended the memorial of a man I never met, because I wanted to observe and learn how to lead memorials. I have a sense that this will be one of my primary pastoral tasks in the DTES. There were seven of us at the memorial. My friend, who led the service, had also never met the man who passed away. All of the other attendees worked in the SRO (social housing building) where the man lived. Only one had spent any significant time with him. We spent much of the time trying to piece together who this man had been. It was a privilege to be there; God was very present.


I don't know if you can bless someone after they're dead. I don't know if this dead man was in any way touched or affected by our short service, as one woman thought he would be. But I do know that blessing people, calling God's attention to them in some mysterious way, recognizing their inherent worth and dignity as image-bearers of God, praying peace over them, is one of the little-known benefits and joys of this pastoring thing. Especially when your job is to bless a bunch of beautiful people that others seem to curse, when your job is to name and call out the beauty in them. I think this amplifies the effect. It definitely amplifies the effect on me. I need to remember these times. I will try to write about them more often.


I have the best job in the world.


In closing, a quote from Marilynne Robinson in Gilead, which Amy Hunter told me to read (thank you!), which says it better than anything I know...


"There is a reality in blessing... It doesn't enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is a power in that. I have felt it pass through me, so to speak. The sensation is of really knowing a creature, I mean really feeling its mysterious life and your own mysterious life at the same time. I don't wish to be urging the ministry on you, but there are some advantages to it you might not know to take account of if I did not point them out. Not that you have to be a minister to confer blessing. You are simply much more likely to find yourself in that position." (23)


Wednesday, May 19, 2010

A Franciscan Benediction

My friend Lauren sent me this on the occasion of my graduation from Regent. It's a benediction from the Franciscan community. I think it's beautiful.

"May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half truths, and superficial relationships, so that you may live deep within your heart.

May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom, and peace.


May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, and war, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and turn their pain into joy.


And may God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done."

I'm grateful for friends like Lauren, and for those Franciscans who have walked this path before me.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Go fast to fare well

Rarely does a whole neighborhood have a monthly rhythm to it the way the DTES does. For most residents of the DTES, their entire month is structured around today, welfare Wednesday, or as most residents call it, “cheque day.” If it’s not cheque day, they’re living in the two weeks after it, spending the money, or in the two weeks before it, longing for it to arrive. This is the ebb and flow of the neighborhood.


Many of my friends will stand in line for a cheque today. If they are housed in one of the SROs (the bottom rung of housing in Vancouver), they will receive the little that is left after their rent is deducted. This amounts to about $6-7 a day for a single adult. This doesn’t sound like much, and it isn’t. It’s even less when you’re in a cycle of addiction, and every cheque day presents another irresistible opportunity to spend all of your money feeding those cravings and numbing the pain (or paying back the debts you owe to the people who have funded your addiction since last cheque day).


Yes, the welfare system helps many people survive. But it also keeps many people poor, poor in every way. The only social role of someone on welfare is that of a passive recipient. In fact, even if they want to use their skills and gifts to help their communities, unless they are on disability, they cannot earn a dollar without that dollar being removed from their welfare cheque – in other words, a tax of 100% on earned income. BC is the only province in Canada that does not allow welfare recipients to keep some of the money they earn.


So my DTES friends are disempowered from reciprocally contributing to the well-being of the community and the city. They are denied the dignity of offering something. Their gifts and abilities are wasted, and they lose hope. Many of them develop a “taking” mentality, a sense of entitlement that can poison their worldview. And on the other side of the city, working taxpayers develop either a smug satisfaction in “helping the needy” through the welfare system, or a deep resentment toward the “lazy” people who are using their tax dollars to feed their addictions. None of this brings the rich and the poor any closer into relationship with each other, which I believe is the only way both the rich and the poor will feel loved enough and have enough hope to break out of addiction patterns, and to live more whole lives.

The system isn’t working. So today, I’m fasting.


I’m fasting to participate, in a backwards sort of way, in the monthly rhythm of a neighborhood I love, to acknowledge the hard realities and pray about how they are playing out the lives of my friends.


I’m fasting to stand in solidarity and experience a bit of the hunger many of my friends on the DTES have felt and continue to feel, hunger not only for good food, but for love, healing, freedom and belonging – hungers we all share as flesh-and-blood humans.


I’m fasting to remind myself of what it feels like to crave something, to get just a small taste of the cravings of my addicted friends, who face so much temptation today.


I’m fasting to remind myself that I’m only a community and a life-crisis away from being on welfare myself, that I’m only one pain-numbing attempt away from becoming an addict.


I’m fasting to remember that throwing money at people is not the same thing as being in relationship with people and supporting people face-to-face, life-on-life. We are all impoverished when we remain separate from one another.


I’m fasting to ask myself how I can become weak, how I can lay down my power, so that those who are now weak and oppressed can be empowered to take leadership and dream big dreams for their neighborhood.


I’m fasting because the welfare system is not helping anyone “fare” well, and it is a symbol of the ongoing class division and deep injustice in our cities.


I’m fasting to name the systems that keep my friends in bondage, and to pray for their freedom. In sum, I’m fasting to “loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke” (Isaiah 58:6).


If you have a heart for Vancouver and you long for justice, if you long to see the Kingdom of God break through, in the lives of both the poor and the rich, I invite you to join me in fasting and praying for justice on Welfare Wednesdays. Here are the rest of the dates for 2010:

April 21

May 19

June 23

July 21

August 25

September 22

October 27

November 24

December 22


Let me know if you want to join me in this – it would be good to know we’re in it together, and maybe we can even get together and pray on one of those days.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

What about the Olympics?

Hey everyone,

I know I've been away for a while, but I'm hoping to write more often now that I'm DONE SCHOOL! Forever! At least for a long time. Yep, I finished my MDiv degree (although I don't receive it until April). I'm settling into a new life of tri-vocationality: working as a pastor for "God's House of Many Faces," our church plant (which is almost one year old!), working at Jacob's Well, and doing some nannying to help pay the bills.

Some of you have been asking me if I'm excited about the Olympics, which start in Vancouver in ten days. When I first heard about the games four years ago, I was excited. But now, I'd put my mood down below "excited," somewhere around "battling cynicism." Recent polls suggest most Vancouverites feel the same.

Some Vancouver residents are upset about how much taxpayers will need to spend in the next several years to pay for the over-budget Olympics, and others are mad about the traffic challenges they'll face in the next few weeks, with road closures and thousands of tourists. But I don't make enough to pay many taxes, and I have a bike to ride to work with, so these things don't concern me much.

What do concern me are the abuses of power that have already come along with the Olympics. This has happened in the corporate sponsor takeover of the city, the multiplication of security forces (who seem to be mainly targeting protesters), the limits on free speech, and the many promises VANOC made about leaving housing for low-income and homeless people - promises they have already broken. For more facts on these issues, check out this site.

During the Olympics, I want to do something for my neighbors on the DTES. Because many of them live in 10x10 foot rooms, or in shelters, their "living room" is the street. But the streets are going to be packed with tourists, and although I hope it doesn't happen, security forces in past Olympic cities have "cleaned the streets" and moved "street people" away.

So, I'm planning on doing two things. First, I'll be spending extra time at Jacob's Well, where we'll be open long hours so that we can offer a "hang out" space, a refuge for our neighbors where they can feel welcome and safe if they don't feel that way on the street.

And second, I've decided to participate in the Legal Observer Program, put on by the BC Civil Liberties Association. With the slogan "watching the watchers," this program recruits volunteers to wear their bright t-shirts, walk around Olympic sites and downtown streets, and videotape and take notes on the activities of the police and security forces, keeping them accountable for their actions.

Here's why I'm doing this: because I believe that human beings who are given positions of authority are all tempted to abuse those powers, especially when situations are chaotic (as they will be at the Olympics) and split-second decisions are required. I cannot say what I would do if I were a police officer in some of these situations. But if I saw a brightly-dressed Legal Observer on scene as a reminder of the rightful limits of my power, it might help me make better choices. I want to make sure the rights of my DTES friends are upheld, and the decision-making skills of security forces are at their prime. Here's hoping it works...