Thursday, September 28, 2006

Looking down the Well

Well, it’s about time I wrote about Jacob’s Well, because it’s become a rather important part of my growth and learning here in Vancouver. Jacob’s Well defies definition in a lot of ways. It’s not a soup kitchen, although we do a lot of eating there. It’s not a shelter, although we hang out in the building a lot. It’s a place where I volunteer, but more accurately, it’s a community and a family I belong to. Words like “community” are over-used, but really, if ever there were a ministry that lived up to its mandate of being “relationally-driven rather than program-oriented”, it’s this one.

In case you haven’t heard about the Downtown Eastside, the neighborhood in Vancouver where the Jacob's Well storefront is located, let me fill you in on a few statistics (stolen from a talk I’ve Joyce Heron, the director of Jacob’s Well, give many times)… it’s the poorest postal code in North America. 16 000 people live in this 5-square block radius, mostly in SROs (single room occupancy), which are 10x10 foot rooms, usually in old converted hotels. The Jubilee is an SRO above Jacob’s Well, where 80 people share about 5 washrooms and 2 kitchens. Over half of the Downtown Eastside residents are mentally ill – this is 18% of all mentally ill people in BC, in one neighborhood. Out of the total 16 000 people, about 10 000 are drug users, and 5000 are needle users. 37% have AIDS, 67% are HIV positive, and 92% are Hepatitis C positive (also a terminal illness). This is the largest health pandemic in the Western world. By concentrating SROs and welfare systems in the Downtown Eastside and policing less aggressively there, the city is trying to contain it to one neighborhood. The Downtown Eastside is also a neighborhood with 84 non-profit organizations, of which a third are faith-based. You can get fed seven times a day, and more when Christians walk around at night passing out sandwiches.

So what do you bring to a place like this where people are already being fed and clothed and told the Gospel, but infection and addiction and death tolls are still rising? The idea at Jacob’s Well is that the method is as important as the message. The people at the Well see no biblical mandate to save or fix people – only to love them. As friendships develop between Downtown Eastside residents and volunteers at Jacob’s Well, as we live the everyday Christian life around them, and as we both serve and are served by them, God’s kingdom is announced in a powerful way. I feel privileged to have seen this in action, and to be continuing to learn what it means to follow Jesus’ example in being not a friend TO but a friend OF the poor.

In practical terms, this can look very different from day to day. Some volunteers help lead a worship service on Monday nights. Others join in Tuesday night community kitchen, when some of the 80 people who live above Jacob’s Well come down to buy food, prepare a meal, eat it and clean it up together. Wednesdays are usually days when volunteers tend the plots of land we’ve converted to community gardens. Thursdays and Fridays (I’m on the Friday team) are days when we visit friends in the hospital, deliver food to disabled members of the community, and open the storefront for coffee for whoever wanders in. We have a party every month. I have done many things on Friday afternoons, from cleaning bathrooms to baking muffins to playing guitar at the funeral of a man I’d never met, attended by five people.

There is much more I can and will eventually say about Jacob’s Well, but I wanted to post a copy of an article I wrote for their newsletter a couple of weeks ago. Visit if you want to learn more. Here’s the article:

Several months of volunteering at Jacob’s Well on Fridays have taught me to expect to be asked to do new things. Last week, as Joyce, Berto and I donned blue hospital gowns and latex gloves, preparing to enter a room in the intensive care unit at Vancouver General Hospital, I realized I was embarking on another unique experience.

Our friend Nicolai was in that windowed-in room, recovering from a back injury. When we walked in, I expected him to greet us right away, but all I heard was the electronic music of the many monitors attached to him. Then I saw the tube in his throat that robbed him of speech. Of all the people to lose their voice, I thought…

Nicolai’s voice scared me the first time I met him last year, when he wandered into Jacob’s Well, yelling loudly in his Eastern European accent. When he returned the next Friday, I remained wary of him. The other staff seemed relaxed around Nicolai, and asked him to play a song on his harmonica. He plucked it from his jacket pocket and obliged, and we clapped along. I noticed him repeating phrases he had spoken the previous week: “I’ll see you when I see you” and “So far so good,” among others. The last of my fears melted when he sang “Pretty Woman” with twinkling eyes and a mischievous smile. Later, I became a contestant in his favorite game: guessing the capital city of any European country he named. He had them all memorized. I did not. I failed miserably. (A tip in case Nicolai asks: the capital of his home country, Bulgaria, is Sofia.) As the weeks passed, I improved at the game, and gradually the voice I had feared became a voice I hoped to hear in the doorway.

But in that unfurnished and profoundly lonely hospital room, I barely recognized Nicolai. I had never seen him clean and shaven; his skin was a new colour. His old blazer and cane were hidden somewhere, replaced by a white gown. It made me uncomfortable to see this calloused, gruff man so vulnerable; I had a strange urge to cover him back up with his familiar stubble and dirty clothes.

Nicolai mouthed words to Joyce, the best lip-reader in the group, asking her to scratch his head. She did, with her latex-gloved hand. Sudden childhood memories surfaced; I recalled my father rubbing my head to help me fall asleep. At that moment, eyes closed and smiling, Nicolai seemed just as childlike as I had been. I couldn’t believe I had once feared this man. “Nicolai,” Joyce said, “they usually only let family members visit patients here. We told them we had become your family down at Jacob’s Well, and they let us see you.” Still rubbing his head, she told Berto and I how she and Nicolai had met at a bus stop, how he became part of the Jacob’s Well family. Nicolai interrupted often, mouthing out his own memories, visibly proud that his story was being shared.

Joyce suggested we sing, so we sang “Great is Thy Faithfulness” for Nicolai. As the familiar lyrics left my mouth in a shaky harmony, I wondered whether I would trust God’s faithfulness if I were in Nicolai’s place. Did Nicolai know God’s faithfulness? Would our visit communicate it to him? Would he understand our love?

We prayed together for God to bring him wholeness and peace. The room seemed less lonely and cold than when we had arrived, and Nicolai was calm as our visit ended. He told us not to worry about him. We assured him that we would, and that we’d keep praying. We said goodbye.

“I’ll see you when I see you,” he mouthed to us, with that familiar mischievous smile.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

In defense of staying put

Permit me another entry in a similar vein to the last. Let me first tell you about the event that spurred this thought – another close encounter with the sea otters this morning. At the first sign of them, I was off my Rock, running to the water’s edge, my binoculars bouncing against my jacket. Three of them again – the same three? I realized what’s so eerie about them – every time they surface, they’re looking right at me. Seals turn their heads a lot, looking around in every direction, but the otters fixed me with their eyes, and seemed to express both an annoyance that I was there and a challenge or taunt for me to chase them. I followed them until they went under the bridge, and then, surprisingly, they sauntered out of the water onto the land under the bridge! I watched their silhouettes as they slunk around in the dark, secretly fearful that they’d run out and attack me. Then they slipped back into the water on the other side of the bridge, and I ran around to watch them for several more minutes. And get this – I did some research tonight, like the geek that I am, and I discovered that they are not sea otters! They are river otters, despite the fact that they hang out in the ocean. Sea otters live further out and rarely come on land, but river otters, which live in fresh and saltwater, spend 2/3 of their time on land. They can also hold their breath for eight minutes…

So for those of you I haven’t lost in my biological ravings, here’s the deep philosophical thought I’m getting to… part of me really doesn’t want to travel much. Part of me wants to stay put until I know a place. And how long does it take really know a place? Last year I sat on the same rock down at the beach just about every morning for seven months, which is about 210 days. This year I’ve returned the last 14 mornings, and in that short time I’ve seen three kinds of animals I didn’t see last year (including the river otters, and one tiny bird unfortunately called a bushtit… Chris has renamed them t-cups). The place I thought I knew is now surprising me again.

When will I know it? Every time I successfully make it down the steep and often slippery hill, I stand at the entrance to my “land” and survey it for a minute, forcing myself to notice the uniqueness of the scene every day. This place changes with the seasons, as the leaves change color and fall. I have never seen it in the summer. I saw it snow-covered only once. It looks different depending on the tide level. Sometimes I sit on the Rock and look out at a vast landscape of barnacle-covered rocks scattered with purple (ochre) starfish, and other mornings I have to jump on the Rock from behind because the ocean is covering the front of it, and all I see is water, and it slowly recedes as I sit there. The water holds the most secrets - I never know what will surface next - and it is also the biggest variable. Depending on the weather, it can be a gray, frothy mass or an expanse of still blue glass, or anything in between. The weather also changes the appearance of the mountains in the distance, and the strength of the wind affects how many seagulls are out and how many of the sailboat masts clink together.

I experience the place in a different way when I’m in a bad mood than when I’m afraid or when I’m at peace. I have yet to sit there for a long time with a friend. That would change things for sure. I have yet to bring a dog, like the majority of people who visit the beach. Maybe the dog would make me see it in a new way. And I have yet to sit there in the middle of the night. So I guess I don’t really know it. There is plenty left to sound the depths of, plenty of hidden parts to uncover and layers to peel back, things to experience there, things to delight in. Will God ever exhaust all ways of surprising me with joy there? And if I do ever really know it, will I get tired of it? Will I want to go somewhere new? Suddenly I feel like I’ve been talking about marriage…

And when do you own a place? When does it become yours? A lot of times I treat my Rock and surrounding area as my own. When people walk past me, I usually feel like I’m graciously allowing their passage through my territory, even though they don’t realize it’s mine. Why do I feel such a sense of ownership? It’s not a selfish ownership – I never lose the sense that it’s a gift to me, and a gift to be shared. But I get upset if there are beer bottles lying around. Sometimes I pick them up. And I feel that things I see were set up for my seeing. God speaks to me there. I guess I love it. I just remembered a passage in Brian McLaren’s book “A Generous Orthodoxy” that says it much more eloquently:

“I feel that I am carrying around this hilarious secret: that I actually own all things, that all things are mine – because I am Christ’s, and Christ is God’s, and God allows me to have things in the way that matters most. Not by having them in my legal possession (which has many downsides, including upkeep and taxes!) but by having them in my spiritual possession by gratefully seeing them, gratefully knowing and cherishing them. Those weren’t legally my goldfinches or my sycamore trees or my rocky-bottomed streams in the park that day, but did anyone on earth possess them as fully as me that day?”

Sometimes I’d rather think thoughts like this than study Hebrew, even though Hebrew can also be frustratingly beautiful. Which leads me to a closing quote by Bruce Cockburn (this one’s for you, Chris)…

“All these years of thinking ended up like this: in front of all this beauty, understanding nothing.”

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Surprised by beauty

I wanted to post some pictures and thoughts that began in our post-wedding trip to Banff and Lake Louise. I realized something on our first day, when we took the gondola up the mountain: I have trouble taking pictures of - and even fully enjoying - things that have already been recognized by the general public as beautiful. If there’s already a postcard of it, I don’t feel like taking my own picture. On top of that mountain, I found myself lamenting that it was all so already-discovered.
It’s like beauty isn’t as beautiful unless you chance upon it, the way Daniel and I chanced upon this tree. I remembered Sophia’s story about the old church she found in the middle of nowhere, and the way Chris got excited every time an unannounced storm appeared on the horizon, and how Claire stopped by the side of the road to take pictures of cows. Part of the beauty of these things is that we were not prepared for them – they caught us by surprise and bowled us over.

I guess I’m not a fan of crowded, expected, publicized beauty. I want beauty new, just blossomed, fresh fallen. I want to be the one to find it and name it beautiful. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful – the boardwalks and stairs and gondolas were great, but they stole something, something private between my Creator and I. They stole that moment when hidden beauty is revealed and we delight in it together.
I heard a story about a scientist (I’ve tried for hours to figure out what his name was…) who was poring over his research on DNA, late into the night, trying to figure out something to do with DNA structure. After hours of thought, it suddenly came together in his head – he had discovered the secret and cracked the code! But instead of calling all of his scientist friends to share the news, he just sat there for the rest of the night. When his friends asked him why, he said, “For those hours, only my Creator and I knew this secret. I wanted to savor it with Him.” For the briefest of moments, after hearing this story, I wanted to go into research.

Until I realized I didn’t have to be in research to experience this. For example…the other day, early in the morning, I was down at my Rock alone, watching a few ducks and a goose splashing in the ocean. Then, in unison, they all calmly stepped onto shore and stood there. I felt like they knew something I didn’t. Full of anticipation, I looked out at the water, and sure enough, there were three heads poking out over the surface of the water. They looked like beaver heads, but beavers are freshwater animals…no…they were sea otters! The first ones I’d ever seen in the wild! I think I shouted something original like “Sea otters!” and took off running down the beach, chasing them along the shore. They dove and surfaced again, snorting water through their whiskers. I saw one catch a fish and eat it. They saw me – they seemed to look right at me and extend their necks far above the surface. I was in awe. At that moment, only God and I were enjoying those beautiful, playful animals.

Later that day, this group of leaves just popped out of a tree at me – all red and yellow, they seemed to be on fire, lit up with colour, like a signature. Again, I wanted to burst into song. These are my favorite moments – I’m sure they’re happening all the time, and I miss many because my eyes aren’t open wide enough. They’re why, whenever possible, I have my quiet time with God outdoors. I’d like to think He draws sea otters and leaves on fire towards me, placing them in my path, and then whispers, “Here, Beth. I want to share this with you – let you in on this secret. I want you to share my delight in this. My gift to you…”

Loren Wilkenson, my prof for “Christianity and Science,” read us a quote by E.O. Wilson, where he wishes God would take him to a new planet so he can spend years just discovering and exploring and being the best kind of scientist. I’m more optimistic. I don’t wish – I am confident – that this will be my experience when God makes the new heavens and new earth…I will spend eternity in endless discovery, with beauty always fresh and waiting, and hundreds upon thousands of secrets to be shared.

Friday, September 08, 2006

From one familiar to another

One thing about living here is that it forces more space into my life. I have to take time to walk to the bus stop, to sit on the bus, to buy groceries, to cook food, to wait for our slow kettle to boil water for tea… all things I didn’t have to do in Saskatoon. Space is good but it tends to foster a lot of thinking.

So during these spaces, I’ve been trying to sort out how to describe my state of mind in the last few days. I’m generally content, occasionally excited. I haven't cried at all yet. But I have felt a little... strange. Maybe my problem is that I flew. Sam and I once discussed airplane travel, how you jump so quickly from one bubble into another and don’t get the sense of distance. That’s what happened to me. I jumped from one familiar into another familiar, and it’s jarring, like skipping from one plot line to another. From a lake to an ocean.

It doesn’t feel like it did last time I arrived in Vancouver. Then, it was new, dazzling, something to get used to, something to feel my way into. Now, it feels too normal to live here, too easy to slip back into. It’s little things that haven't changed…like the fact that we still don’t have enough spoons. Our living room is still cold and my room is still hot. We still have the crazy patterned rug on the floor from whence nothing dropped shall ever return. One of our bathroom sinks is still plugged and drains slowly. The number 4 bus runs on the same schedule as before. My rock is still there, and the seal, the heron, the kingfisher, and other friends have already stopped by to welcome me back. Talking to Chris on the phone, with plenty of silences – that felt familiar too. My Regent friends, my Jacob’s Well friends… they’re here, and they don’t seem to have changed much. It feels like I’ve jumped back in time to last April, and this whole entire summer was just a brief dream I had one night.

Maybe that’s why I keep forcing this summer back into my mind. Forcing faces to appear, half-believing that person sitting in front of me on the bus might be Rachel, or Chris, or Robin, or Sophia or Lesya or Olya or Terice or Claire. Remembering them and praying for them. And I’ve been reminding myself that even though Vancouver feels familiar, I am not the same as I was in April. It was no dream - I have had experiences and conversations and developed relationships over the summer that have changed me and caused me to discover new things about myself, hopefully for the better. The old Vancouver will have to catch up to the new me. And I will have to keep learn that my identity is not tied to where I am but to whom I belong to. I will have to work to love people, near and far. It will be a difficult and sweet adventure.

Here is my paradox: can I really have two homes, Andrea? My soul is more tied to Saskatoon than ever and my soul is more at ease in Vancouver than ever. I knew I was missed and loved in Saskatoon, but now I return to find I was missed and loved in Vancouver, too. This brings me a melancholy combination of pain and joy no matter where I am. Each “glad to see you again” is counterbalanced by an “I wish you hadn’t left”. If one of you had the chance, you might tell me to stop living with one foot in each place. I don’t think I can help it.

Monday, September 04, 2006

My girls

Having covered the wedding, I will move backwards to summarize the rest of my summer for you – the camp part. What I feel about it is hard to express because it’s overpowering. Mostly the feeling is… fulfillment. Yes, there were difficult times along the way, especially in July. But I felt like we dealt with things very well as a staff, and I’m realizing how much I learned through these struggles. So despite those bumps, I would say this summer has been my best ever at camp.

Much of it is thanks to my girls. As I’ve written before, the largest chunk of my job this summer was meeting individually with each female staff member (usually there were 15-20 of them) for about an hour a week to discuss life, God, camp, worries, joys, or anything else that was on their minds, and also to pray together. I will never forget these hours I spent with them. Some meetings at the beginning of the summer were a little awkward, as we figured out what our relationship would look like and learned to trust each other. But by the end, I felt closer to some of them than I’ve been with people I’ve known for years. Never before has a job felt more like a gift – I looked forward to those meetings every day, and even praying for each of them became exciting as I understood them on a deeper level.

I have been given back more than I invested in these girls. They were so much FUN to be around – after a year being very mature (well, most of the time…) with people who were mostly older than me, it was so refreshing to be goofy and laugh about things that probably weren’t very funny with people who were younger than me. I enjoyed them; they were good for my soul. I felt comfortable and relaxed with myself when I was with them. They inspired me by their passion for God, and I loved being able to take pride in them. And they never held back their love for me – they always made me feel so wanted and appreciated. I am so sad to leave them. I know they need to find other people to mentor and listen to them, but I’m selfish and I want to keep on being that person. I still feel so warm inside when I think about them... man, I’m gushing. It must be late.

As a bonus gift from God, I’m now even more vocationally confused than when I started the summer. What does it mean that I got so much satisfaction from this kind of people-work-mentorship stuff? Was it just a fluke that I loved and worked well with all of them? Is this part of God’s plan for my life? How does that fit in with biology? Am I doing the right degree? Great thoughts to be thinking as I leave for Vancouver tomorrow to start school again.

This is what I was thinking at the end of camp… it is good, it is very good to be able to talk freely with people about what God is doing in their lives. I mean, with my job I was pretty much forced to talk to my girls about this. The whole set-up was designed to sidestep the small talk and jump into the good stuff. And for the girls who were there all summer, it got more and more natural to talk about God’s work in our lives – by the last couple of weeks they’d just dive right in without me even asking a question, and I absolutely loved it. But why can’t I do that away from camp, when it’s not my job? Why doesn’t it feel natural to talk about this stuff, even at Bible School, where spiritual conversations are supposed to feel normal? It still feels awkward. It feels like you’re trying to pry into someone’s life. But you know what – I’ve decided it’s worth it. I need to ask that question more often, no matter how awkward it feels. Because not only is it encouraging, it’s humbling to remember that God’s busy working on other people, not just you. And it helps you pray for them. So next time I see you, I hope we talk about what God’s been up to. If I don’t bring it up, you should.

Anyway, I feel the need to offer a tribute to the girls… especially the ones I met with more than once, who became my sisters. Here’s what they meant to me…

Claire showed me how to appreciate beautiful things like tea, candles, romance, and mannerisms, and was the best storyteller.

Tanya taught me about joy and unquestioning trust, and was a great little sister and roommate for the first two weeks.

Megan was willing to serve wherever we put her, always smiling and exemplifying humility, and loved the kids.

Lesya demonstrated every day that you can be beautiful in more ways than one, and not take yourself too seriously, and I love her.

Rimma made me want to dance and not care how I look, and also taught me the value of hugs.

Frankie impressed me with her strength of character and humble, self-giving service, and she always cared about how I was doing.

Keshia blossomed in Intermediates and gave herself in love for her cabin, I could see it written on her face, and it was a joy for me.

Jordan McGill showed maturity in the way she served, binding the younger staff together by her unconditional friendship, taking courageous leaps in her commitment to Christ.

Gen opened herself to me, honoring me by her trust, and impressed me by her perseverance and growth this summer.

Maja made me want to ask more questions, and her eagerness to do everything with as much enthusiasm as the campers was rewarded by deep relationships with them – a true cabin leader.

Lydia made me (even me!) want to express myself artistically and also challenged me with her love of and thoughts about the Bible.

Chantelle never hid anything from me; she made me feel wise because she sought out my advice, and I knew that no matter what she was dealing with, she was putting her campers first.

Sarah was so wonderfully and humbly herself, and blessed me with both her seriousness and sense of humour.

Danee was everything I hoped she’d be at camp, and more – I was inspired by her dreams and her purity, and the way she’d throw herself into things like dress-up meals, without caring how she looked.

Robyn H. made me feel needed, trusted, befriended, and even heroic, which is crazy because she’s so unique and hilarious and cool and real, and I felt that she was more of a gift to me than I to her.

Terice became a true friend this summer, listened to me, and affirmed me constantly; she had an incredible amount of passion for her campers, and it came out every time she prayed for them – God will continue to use her to speak to children.

Sophia has pretty much changed the way I see the world, inspiring me to write and be more spontaneous, and most of the time I wished our meandering conversations could have lasted three hours instead of one.

Olya is similar to me in many ways, she has light in her eyes and it’s hard not to smile when she speaks, and embarking together on the adventure of listening to God remains one of my favorite memories this summer.

And Rachel was my true sister, my best, the one who held me up and brought me down to earth, who made me want to burst with pride and made this summer perfect.

This is not to mention Shalisse, Kelli, Carley, Anna, Chrissy, Claressa, Kylie, Moraya, Chelsee and Vienna, who I saw less of but was no less proud of. And I can't forget Robin P. either, who I learned the most from and saw the most courage in. Girls, I'm not coming back next summer unless you're all there, and unless you all e-mail me this year...

Ok. Enough. Tomorrow, it's back to the Couv. Here I come again, Regent...

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Something old, something new

A week ago to this minute, I was sitting in our van outside Grace Baptist Church with my sisters and Laura Lottes, all decked out to the nines, waiting for the signal to enter and walk down that aisle. We had just spent five hours preparing our hair and faces and the rest of ourselves, mostly relaxed and fun, until the tense last few minutes when we were rushing to finish, putting on our dresses and lacing up Sarah’s, pulling our bouquets out of their vases of water, brushing something shimmer-y on our arms. I thought about the days we’d just had together, filled with apple-decorating, way too many episodes of Gilmour Girls, Rachel and I putting the finishing touches (beginning touches?) on the song we’d written, tons of laughter and good food. Everything leading up to that moment at the doors of the church... yet for me, the moment didn’t feel climactic in a make-you-cry sort of way. It just felt like another step along the way, a good step, with a tangible intensity of meaning that skipped over sappy emotionality and landed somewhere in deep contentment.

I walked down that aisle and did not trip. The ceremony was one of the best kind, with just the right balance of light-heartedness and taking-it-seriously, simple and lovely. Sarah was the epitome of a bride, calm and joyful, relaxed and gorgeous; I was in awe. What a woman she’s become. At the reception, I told everyone that she’d taught me about moving through change gracefully. The wedding really was proof of this, because although I know our sisterly relationship has changed, I feel very little grief, very little desire to linger on what we’ve lost, and much more desire to embrace the wonderful now, to love this change, because it is above all a gain. I have a new brother. I have a sister who loves him and who has become more lovely because of him. I feel joyful and graceful.

The only thing I hated was having tons of people I knew and loved in one room, and not having any time to move past superficial conversation with any of them – it makes you a strange sort of tired. This is the reality of weddings, I suppose. Other than that, I really don’t see how anything could have gone better. I’m glad I still have the paint on my toenails to remind me of it. Nick and Sarah Hawkins, blessings upon you. I love you both and I see the love both of you have to give each other – may it overflow.

Check back soon… I have more to say and finally, the time to write it.