Mike

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It’s been a week and half now since our friend Mike DeWolfe died, and I still can’t quite bring myself to believe that fact to be true. As Erinn acknowledged in her blog about Mike, he wasn’t at all well near the end of his life. I can’t even remember how many different hospitals/rooms we went to in order to visit Mike. But because he had survived so many close calls, it seemed that he would always survive the next one. The finality of death is something that seems incongruous with this friend who, in many ways, seemed larger than life.

When I first started working in Parkdale I would hear stories about famous “Iron Mike”, a ring leader and neighbourhood institution. Even then his brushes with death were legendary. At that point he was living in Newfoundland, and doing really well. He was healthy,  working, and in a relationship.

Then Mike came back to Parkdale for a visit, and ended up staying. It was during this time that I got to know Mike. While I gather that the Mike I knew and loved was a dialed back version, he still had a huge amount of charm and charisma. He loved his friends, and would always ask how things were going for us at The Dale. He had a special spot in his heart for Erinn, and felt a great deal of concern for her and her family.

While I know that Mike was far from perfect and lived with much regret, he was an important part of many peoples’ lives, mine included. I was reading a Walt Whitman poem the other day about grieving the death of friend, and he used the phrase “large sweet soul that has gone”… and that made me think of Mike.

The photo below was sent to us from Mike’s son, and was taken decades before I met him. But this is how I imagine him now– with a huge, somewhat cheeky grin.

Peace to you, Mike.

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Oh, Canada…

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My Canada Day prayer:

O God, thank you for this land.

I lament the way it was stolen, and the way it has been/is being misused.

And I rejoice in its beauty.

I lament the injustices perpetuated in this country, and rejoice in the values of multiculturalism and inclusivity for which we have often been known to strive.

I lament the pain we inflict on each other, and rejoice in communities and initiatives that promote healing and restoration.

God of us all, may we seek to learn from each other, indigenous, settler and new comer folks alike. Those with a high degree of social privilege, and those with far less. Those from urban centers, and those from tiny hamlets.

In You, Triune God, we see unity in diversity. May we seek that for ourselves. Thank you for the way this land mirrors that unified diversity — majestic mountains, stretching prairies, icy landscapes, old growth forests, strings of lakes, sandy beaches, rugged islands, rolling pastures. All of these make this land what it is.

And we need each other to be fully beautiful. Help us, God, not to fear diversity, but  to embrace it as our one, shared, identity.

Amen.

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(source: https://celebratecanada.wordpress.com/2010/01/05/mock-up-of-the-2010-canadian-flag-mosaic/)

Ten Years Later

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I realized this week that it’s been ten years since I was first introduced to the idea of friendship-based street ministry. A whole decade! This was really brought home to me yesterday, when my friend Ben came to visit The Dale. He and I met each other on a trip to Halifax, ten summers ago. In fact, it was Ben who invited me to a place called “The Fish Coffeehouse” in downtown Halifax, where I first experienced the joy of friendship-based street ministry.

Ben had spent time in Halifax before and had been to The Fish: a spot for folks who were street involved to come in, have a cup of coffee, chat, and play board games if they felt so inclined. When he invited me to try it out, I was hesitant. And the first time I went I kept feeling like I should be “doing something useful”; I was coming from the worldview that people like me should be serving and giving to people who had less than I did. At The Fish I began to learn that simply being with people was “doing something useful”, and that while I may have had more social privilege than folks walking in off the street, I did not necessarily have more to give. Most of these folks were light-years ahead of me in terms of wisdom, humour, authenticity, faith and strength.

While the trip that Ben and I were part of was not focused on this style of ministry, it quickly became clear to me that spending time with people who were marginalized was the thing that made my soul sing, and the thing that Jesus tended to do (something that hadn’t really occurred to me until then). I began chatting with people who were panhandling along Spring Garden Road, the main drag in Halifax. I continued going to The Fish, and also attended a Sunday night supper at a Presbyterian Church. By the time I returned home to Ontario in August of 2008, I knew that my life would need to include time spent on the street.

Fast forward ten years, and here I am in Parkdale, introducing Ben to Dale folks who I’ve grown to love dearly over the past 6ish years. It was such a joy to show to have him at our drop-in, and see members of the community welcome him in. It was also a joy take him on a tour around the neighbourhood, bumping into Dale folks all along Queen Street. I showed him all the places we hold drop-ins, our community garden plot, and my favourite falafel spot. One Dale friend joined us for at least half of this tour, giving insights into the neighbourhood and bits of her own story.

The lessons that I began to learn at The Fish ring truer every day: just being with people is doing something useful. And while I have good gifts to give, I also have much to learn and receive.

The Fish. I’m in the background chatting on the couch.

All in a day’s work

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As I mentioned in my last post, we have a couple of wonderful interns at The Dale this summer, Olivia and Ahmeda. I have been spending some time with Olivia in particular, showing her the ropes. In the process I have been able to see our day-to-day lives at The Dale through fresh eyes… and have realized anew that sometimes our days are pretty strange!

Take today for example. We had a staff meeting in a noisy coffee shop. That’s normal for us, but not for most organizations. At the end of the meeting, one of the staff people (who we’ve come to know over the many hours per month that we spend having meetings in that particular cafe), asked us what we were up to for the rest of the day. She knows that we run drop-ins throughout the week, and had a box full of ziploc bags full of snacks that she was hoping to give to us. We gladly received them, to then discover (with delight) that they were shaped like butterflies: a painted clothes peg with googly eyes and pipe-cleaner antennae was clipped in the center of each bag, so that the two halves of the bag formed wings. We, as a community, greatly enjoyed these creative snacks while meeting in the park for our Tuesday afternoon drop-in.

Partway through drop-in, a complete stranger came over and asked me to tie his hair into a ponytail using a beaded bracelet. After a moment of language-barrier confusion, I tied his hair into a ponytail with his bracelet, and he went on his way smiling. I guess we looked like a friendly enough bunch, and I had my hair in a low ponytail like the one he was hoping to acquire. So it all worked out great.

Then Olivia and I walked down Queen Street towards the home of a recently hospitalized friend. Our job was to check in on his cats. On the way we were stopped a number of times; once by a friend who was busking, but stopped mid-stanza to say hello and meet Olivia. He asked what happened to my other co-workers, assuming that Olivia was a replacement.  When I happily explained that we’ve actually grown to a team of five for the summer, he said “oh, that’s beautiful!” This from a guy who has very little time for organized religion on the whole, but seems to think The Dale is alright.

We were stopped a few steps later by a friend who had just gotten keys to a room in a rooming house- his first place to call home in a very long time. We congratulated him with great joy 🙂

When we finally made it to our destination, we fed a couple of hungry cats, and cleaned out a rather full litter box. We realized, on our way out, that we didn’t know where the garbage bins were located for our friend’s building, so asked some neighbours if we could put our bag (which happened to be full of litter box contents!) into their bin. They agreed, and we went on our way.

Later today we’ll meet up for dinner with some Dale friends at St. Francis Table, where meals are served restaurant-style for $1 (including dessert and coffee!) After dinner, we’ll read a section of the book of John, and discuss it.

All in a day’s work. As strange as these days can be, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Being let in

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Many of us humans, for many valid reasons, find it hard to let people in.

While I consider myself to be something of an open book, I’m aware that the reason I trust easily is because I have had very few experiences of having my trust betrayed. This is a privilege that I do not take for granted.

Many/most folks who call The Dale home do not share this privilege. For many of our friends, having their trust betrayed is the rule, not the exception. It’s no wonder that it can take years for trusting relationships to form in the context of community, when the assumption is that the other party involved will eventually stab you in the back.

This is why it’s a really big deal when our friends not only allow us into their hearts, but also their homes. Some of our folks couch surf or shelter hop. But others have a room in a rooming house, or an apartment in a relatively affordable building. Many of these housed friends do not consider their place to be “home”- it’s simply a place to sleep, and/or a place that becomes overwhelming due to the tendency to hoard. This tendency is understandable, when scarcity is the overwhelming trend in someone’s life.

Over the last few months and years we’ve had more and more experiences of people at The Dale allowing us into their spaces, in order to help bring a bit of order to the reigning chaos. This is always such an honour.

I realized last week that we’d turned a corner in our relationship with a community member when they allowed not only me/Erinn/Meagan (people they know well) to come and clean, but one of our wonderful summer interns (who is new to this friend). It took years for this friend to let us in, but only a week to let in a new person who was assumed to be trustworthy because she’s with us. Wow 🙂

Being let in. It never gets old.

Breakage

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I’ve been struggling to find words to share here today; there are stories from the community rolling around my head, but they all seem too unfinished to write down… yet. Instead, I’d like to share a poem that I read this week, which resonates with this feeling: that I need to slow down and seek to understand people (including myself!) in our particularity before I can make any sense of the bigger story.

 

I go down to the edge of the sea.

How everything shines in the morning light!

The cusp of the whelk,

the broken cupboard of the clam,

the opened, blue mussels,

moon snails, pale pink and barnacle scarred—

nothing at all whole or shut, but tattered, split,

dropped by the gulls onto the grey rocks and all the

moisture gone.

It’s like a schoolhouse

of little words,

thousands of words.

First you figure out what each one means by itself,

the jingle, the periwinkle, the scallop

full of moonlight.

 

Then you begin, slowly, to read the whole story.

– “Breakage” by Mary Oliver

Snow crocuses

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Back in October, I wrote a post about planting bulbs. I was hoping that I would start to see some signs of life in mid March… but it wasn’t until Easter weekend that little green spikes started to emerge from the earth. I was pumped, especially considering the symbolism- new life and our celebration of the resurrection all in one weekend!

And then April happened: wild fluctuations in temperature and weird precipitation patterns, culminating in last weekend’s ice storm and dump of snow. My heart sank for my tender little shoots, assuming that they’d been crushed under the weight of all that ice and snow. My mom (the seasoned gardener that she is) assured me that they would be fine, but I’ll admit that I had my doubts.

And then (oh, me of little faith), they BLOOMED! It felt like a miracle, even though I know it happens every single year.

Sometimes life in community feels like this. You plant seeds of friendship, knowing that you may not see much happen for a long while. You live through some dark, wintry times. Then you see little green sprouts in the hearts of folks in your community, or in your own heart. You rejoice, and might even pat yourself on the back for your patience. Spring has come!

Then there’s a big old ice storm. It seems that all the progress you saw has been squashed. You’re reminded that you’re really not in control of this process at all, and that any hope you have for continued growth will not come from your own limited resources. The earth is faithful, and will do its work in its time.

And even though you know that all this is true, and those who have gone before you remind you that things will be okay, you still have doubts.

And sometimes things don’t work out the way you’d like them to. Sometimes your crocuses come up a different colour than you imagined, or they’re smaller that you thought they would be. And that’s okay.

As I look at my snow crocuses, I remind myself of these truths.

Love and pride

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I’ve had a line from a song by Sara Groves running through my brain recently: “love and pride can’t occupy the same spaces, baby, and only one makes you free.”

As this line runs laps around my brain I keep noticing different aspects of it, as I view it through the lenses of various experiences.

As I mentioned in my last post, we’ve had some difficult experiences with a few folks at The Dale recently. During one interaction I needed to acknowledge that I had said the wrong thing at the wrong time. I saw the truth in that Sara Groves lyric, that I couldn’t be loving and self-defensive/prideful at the same time.

In other situations it became very apparent to me that pride is not the same thing as self-respect. Sometimes the most loving thing that we can do is to let someone know that they have crossed a line and need to take a step back. In these scenarios, love and self-respect must occupy the same spaces, and to mix up pride with self-respect is to do a disservice to ourselves and the other person.

Pride vs love.

Self-defensiveness vs self-respect.

These are big topics, which we as a staff team are sorting through, in theory and in practice. The hope and prayer is that as we do, love will make all of us increasingly free.

Being Family

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I was thinking this morning about the importance of family, and being with people through the thick and the thin.

I am very grateful to be part of many families. I have the deep privilege of being surrounded by a vast network of biological/extended/step family members who know and love me. I do not take this privilege lightly.

I am also part of networks of friends who are basically family. I’ve known some of these folks for much of my life, and others I’ve met relatively recently but feel like our souls have known each other for much longer.

I also have the honour of being part of the big, quirky families that are Sanctuary and The Dale. I’ve been reflecting recently on how these communities are family-like in a bunch of real (sometimes uncomfortably real) ways. Take the last few weeks at The Dale for example:

  • One of the women who volunteers in the kitchen recently lost her spouse, very unexpectedly. While this friend comes from outside Parkdale, she is very much part of The Dale family. She loves us and we love her. A van-load of folks from The Dale made the trek downtown on a Saturday morning, to attend the memorial service for our friend’s dear partner. Because that’s what families do.
  • We had some tough conversations at The Dale over the last couple of weeks, after a few explosive interactions left various parties feeling raw and frustrated. Like all families, we have some strong personalities, and everyone has their own baggage and trigger points. We work hard to communicate well, and some conversations go better than others. We’re a work in progress, but our aim is to increasingly become a family where everyone feels safe and respected.
  • This Friday our dear friend (and my fellow Community Worker) Meagan got married to Ian, another dear friend of the Dale. All week long, people were wishing Meg well, and when she and Ian return from their honeymoon we plan on having a Dale-style celebration for these members of our family.

So, yeah. In sadness, in frustration, in joy, we’re with each other. Thank you to all of you, who by your support, prayers and readership, are part of our extended Dale family. We’re in this thing together.

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Keeping Parkdale Awesome

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*Sorry that this post is longer-winded and more academic than usual! This stuff is really important to me, and I wanted to do it justice…

 

Over the last number of months I’ve gotten more involved in community organizing in Parkdale, surrounding the issue of gentrification and the resulting displacement of folks who are marginalized. This neighbourhood is changing so rapidly, and it saddens and angers me to know that the people who are being most negatively impacted by these changes are my friends who live on low incomes and already struggle to get through each month without the stress of losing their housing.

This story has repeated itself over and over, in cities all over the world. A low-income neighbourhood becomes a desirable spot for young people and artists, because it is affordable and “edgy”. Gradually rents begin to increase, and independent, affordable stores and restaurants are replaced by higher-end shops. The rooming houses that have provided many people with affordable (if inadequate) housing are bought up and turned back into single-family dwellings. People who have rented apartments at an affordable rate are evicted (often illegally), and landlords jack up the rental price for new tenants. As these sources of affordable housing dry up, the wait times for subsidized housing (which are already ~10 years long in Toronto), get longer and longer. Eventually condominiums are built, which people on fixed incomes could never dream of affording. People who have lived in the neighbourhood for many years (or decades) are forced to take whatever affordable housing they can find, miles and miles away from the place they call home.  This is the current story of Parkdale.

When I first came to this neighbhourhood, 5+ years ago, I knew that gentrification was happening. But it seems that, in the last year or so (perhaps due to the general acknowledgement of the unaffordability of housing in Toronto), there is a growing urgency in the collective consciousness of Parkdale; a determination to do what we can to stop/mitigate the harmful effects of gentrification.

Back in the Fall, I attended a public meeting about the proposed development of a 706-unit luxury condo at the south east corner of Parkdale. It was clear in that meeting that this condo was unwanted by people who call Parkdale home, for a whole variety of reasons. I attended a boisterous but peaceful rally at the proposed development site early one Wednesday morning (pictured below), and wrote a deputation that was read at a committee meeting at City Hall. Despite the overwhelming disapproval of Parkdale residents, and the apparent regret of many City councilors, the proposal for two towers of luxury condos was approved.

In January, I joined with a number of other people from the neighbourhood at City Hall to speak about the proposed regulations around Inclusionary Zoning (a set of policies could allow the City of Toronto to require that developers ensure that a certain percentage of new housing units be affordable.) This could be an amazing way to generate more affordable housing, but the policy that was written by the province was very weak. So I represented The Dale at City Hall, urging City Council to demand a stronger policy. By the end of the meeting, it was clear that City staff and City Council intended to do just that, which was encouraging.

Last Saturday I joined a group of people (many of whom were also at the public meeting, rally and City Hall meetings) to help develop the mandate for P.E.R.N., the Parkdale Eviction Resistance Network. The idea behind this network is that people in Parkdale are often evicted illegally because they don’t know their rights as tenants and/or they don’t have the support they need to stand up for those rights. The hope is that P.E.R.N. can help to educate our friends and neighbourhoods about the due process surrounding eviction, and provide support for those times when an illegal eviction is taking place.

I’m really glad to be engaged in this kind of community organizing in Parkdale; I’m encouraged by the solidarity and camaraderie that is being generated, and I believe that small groups of people can do great things.  And I am still very concerned about the future of this neighbourhood. I’m worried that my friends on the margins will no longer be able to live in the place that feels like home.

If you’re interested in learning more about how you can be involved in this work, please contact me at joanna@thedale.org

And if you don’t have the time, energy or inclination for direct involvement, please join me and others in praying for the shalom of God to rest on this beloved community as time marches forward and changes develop.

In hope that Parkdale can be kept awesome,

Joanna

 

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