Holy Ground

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This past Monday The Dale had the pleasure of hosting a group of high school students from the Belleville area. They are part of a performing arts group, and have been spending part of their March break putting on a musical about the life of Job, and spending the other part in contexts like The Dale.

When a new bunch of faces show up on a Monday, Erinn, Meagan and/or I explain the history of Parkdale and The Dale, and describe what a typical week looks like for us. We also explain the philosophy of The Dale;  that everyone has gifts to give, and things with which we need help. Humans are just humans, and we all need to eat lunch.  We invite the youth into drop-in, not to serve but to be served.

Our dear friend Steve Grant will often show up on these Mondays and graciously share his story, which includes periods of time spent living outside. We are very grateful for Steve’s ongoing generosity with his time and vulnerability.

After all these introductions and stories, we set the group loose in the drop-in space to sit down and chat. One of my favourite things about having groups of young people at The Dale is being reminded, again and again, how good the folks in our community are at offering hospitality. I’m always a little bit nervous that the sheer volume of new faces (this week there were close to 20) will overwhelm the capacity of the community… But every time, the community rises to the occasion.

Our folks chat up these new, young friends, generously sharing their stories while they pass the platter of food around the table. It’s just the best to pause, look around, listen to the hubbub, and watch the community do their thing.

We also try our best to carve out time to debrief with groups at the end of drop-in, to check in and see how they experienced the day. This week the group shared about various conversations they had, and how grateful they were for the way that people welcomed them. At the end of our debrief time, they offered to sing a song called Holy Ground, in multi-part harmony (see the video below… please excuse my shaky hands!)

This song is a lovely expression of how I feel about days like Monday – when it’s clear that God is present in the building of new, unlikely friendships, and the ground, hands and lips of all involved are therefore made holy.

 

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Choosing Joy

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One of my favourite songs, which we sing at both Sanctuary and The Dale, is called “Choosing Joy.” It starts like this:

This journey down here

has pain and fear

Lord you understand

see the wounds in your hand

 

Choosing joy, to you I run

Choosing joy for what’s to come

Choosing joy, this I do

Just because I love you.

Part of the reason that I love this song so much is that I have witnessed those lyrics in action. I’ve seen my friend Johnny produce any number of hilarious, witty cardboard signs, to make people laugh while he requests spare change. I’ve heard Marlene pray with deep and sincere joy and gratitude for the many “little blessings” that she receives from God, like the time that a dog came and sat beside her in the park. I’ve heard Peter give thanks for the indescribable joy he experiences knowing that he is a child of God.

These examples do not represent acts of denial — there’s no question in anyone’s mind that each of these friends have more than their share of struggle. To choose joy like this is not trite or flippant; it is a grateful acknowledgement that we are not alone in our struggle, and that the One who knows our pain will one day make all things right. While I can’t speak for these friends, it seems to me that when they choose joy, it is a radical act of faith.

Joy is also a choice that we can make as a community. Every February, The Dale has a big Feast and Open Mic. We have a turkey dinner with all the trimmings and lots of dessert, and then open up the floor to anyone who would like to share a song, a poem, or a dance. This tradition started many years ago, as a conscious decision to have FUN in the midst of a tough month. This past Saturday was this year’s February Feast, and it was absolutely FULL of joy. Words can hardly describe it, but here’s what Erinn wrote about it 🙂

I invite you, along with us at The Dale, to choose joy in the midst of whatever you’re facing these days.

Affordable Housing Now

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Yesterday morning I sat in on a meeting at City Hall, with Mayor John Tory and his Executive Committee. The topic was affordable housing, specifically the “Housing Now” initiative that the city staff has developed. The room was packed with people who are concerned that this initiative will not provide enough housing for those who are most desperately in need of it.

The report defines “affordable” as 80% of market rent, which is not affordable at all for most people and particularly those on the margins. Some of the units would be 40% of market rent, but only one tenth of them. There was also no mention of supportive housing, or units specifically for people exiting homelessness.

I was 24th of 27 people making deputations (3 minute speeches, stating our concerns). I’ve included my deputation below, but basically I was advocating for the many people in Parkdale who are being forced out of their relatively affordable dwellings and have literally nowhere to go in a city with ever-soaring rental costs.

Since I was near the bottom of the list, I sat for two and a half hours, hearing person after person describe their concern for the most marginalized people in our city. It was simultaneously encouraging and saddening; encouraging to be reminded that there are so many people in Toronto who care so deeply, and saddening that the response by all levels of government has been so inadequate over the last couple of decades that homelessness is now a true crisis.

When I left City Hall, I went to Parkdale and joined Erinn and Meagan for an hour of helping a friend de-clutter her home before a housing inspection. She acknowledged freely that if she is evicted, she has nowhere to go.

After that, Meg and I were walking through the neighbourhood and ran into both halves of a couple, one after the other. They were both in a pretty bad way, having lost their housing (we think), and feeling pretty desperate and helpless. We encouraged them to go to one of the temporary shelters that are relatively nearby, but don’t know if they will go.

A couple of blocks later, we ran into a friend who was busy working on a project. We stopped to check it out, and he told us that he was building a house for “Sam” a mutual friend who has slept outside for quite a while now. This house consisted of a cage on wheels, covered in a tarp and lined with sleeping pads. Our friends are so creative, resourceful and kind… And this should not be the last resort. It just shouldn’t, in a city like Toronto. But this is the reality that faces our friends.

I pray and plead that the eyes, hearts, minds and wallets of all levels of government will open, and that this housing crisis will be addressed as the emergency that it is.

____________________________________________

As promised, my deputation:

Good morning, Mayor Tory and Councillors Ainslie, Bailao, Crawford, Minnan-Wong, Pasternak, Nunziata and Thompson,

My name is Joanna Moon, and I am speaking today on behalf of The Dale Ministries, a community organization and church in Parkdale that places at its core those who are often pushed to the margins. The Dale operates without its own walls; we run all of our drop-ins, outreach, services and special events in partnership with other community organizations.

As Parkdale gentrifies, we have seen a sharp increase in the number of people of low income being evicted, and their units being rented out for double the price. Many of the members of the Dale are facing the stress of being pushed out of places that they have called home for many years, compounded with the bleak reality that there is nowhere affordable to go. Our colleagues at Parkdale Community Legal Services have done, and are doing, great work in fighting back against these evictions, but now the legal clinic itself being evicted.

Many of our people in Parkdale have been on the waitlist for subsidized social housing for a decade or more. Now, not only is subsidized housing a far-off dream, but the stock of rooming houses and relatively affordable apartments is decreasing at an alarming rate. When our friends are forced out of their homes, the only other option is the shelter system that, as you know, is overwhelmed.

The only emergency shelter in Parkdale is a women’s respite center on Cowan Avenue, which is over-crowded, inaccessible to those with mobility issues, with cots on the floor and no showers. The next closest option is one of the windowless Sprung structures, in Liberty Village, which feels far more like a warehouse for humans than a home. We’ve been told by multiple people that the other respite center in the Queen Elizabeth building in the Exhibition Grounds is a pretty dismal place to be, and that food rations are totally insufficient. While these temporary shelters have been necessary this winter and last, they are not a long term solution. They are far from dignified, and give our friends the impression that they are a problem to be dealt with, rather than the inherently precious people that they are.

We are glad that affordable housing has become a priority for this committee, and we are deeply concerned that the plans outlined in the Housing Now initiative will not benefit those in most desperate need of affordable housing. We urge you to require that the housing developed on the 11 designated properties be truly affordable, with at least 50% being rent-geared-to-income units. These 11 sites must include supportive housing, and housing for people coming out of homelessness.  Also, least 10% of the units must be dedicated to indigenous housing providers.

Additional surplus city-owned sites in Neighbourhood Improvement Areas (such as South Parkdale must be added to the list of 11 properties. And finally, meaningful Inclusionary Zoning MUST be put into place, to ensure that development does not lead to the displacement of people who already live in neighbourhoods like Parkdale.

Toronto needs to be a place where everyone has a place to truly call home, regardless of their socioeconomic status.

Thank you for your time.

Make New Friends and Keep the Old

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Longevity in relationship is important.

I have the joy and privilege of being in touch with friends that I made in elementary school, high school and university. I am still connected to people in the church that I was born into (Bethel Bible Church in Kingston), and the church in which I grew up (Ferndale Bible Church in Peterborough). I have family friends that I held when they were as young as three hours old, and are now adults. I am also deeply privileged to have a network of family members who have known me my whole life, or I’ve known them their whole lives. I do not take this for granted.

While many of these relationships look very different from the times when we were in close geographical proximity, shared history matters. Stories from “back in the day” are told and retold, and those memories matter.

Memory-making and long-term relationship building are big parts of what we do at The Dale. To be a community, to be a family, is to have shared stories. It’s important for us to be able to say “remember that time, when we had a picnic by the lake on a perfect summer day? When someone spilled olive oil all over the floor at drop in? When we went caroling and Mark yelled “Ho, Ho, Ho” during every single pause between, and within, songs? When people from all over the city came for Will’s funeral?” Having a shared history means that we have a narrative into which we can welcome new community members/characters in the story.

As this New Year begins, I look forward to maintaining existing friendships, and nurturing new ones. As the song goes, “make new friends, and keep the old. One is silver and the other gold.”

Such beauty, and such riches.

Voicemails

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I give out my number pretty freely at The Dale. I never guarantee that I will answer my phone, and almost always keep it on silent overnight, but I know that sometimes people just need to speak things aloud and that leaving a voicemail will do the job.

I’ve come to expect a certain type of message from certain people. If “Paul” calls, it’s almost always to let me know how he’s doing, and to tell me that he’s praying for me and the rest of us at The Dale. He will encourage me in my role, and remind me to trust in God.

If “Maureen” calls, it’s usually to confirm that we’re meeting at a certain place at a certain time; since The Dale is a nomadic church she likes to check to make sure she has the right spot.

If “Trevor” calls, he’s usually had a bit to drink and will leave a few messages in a row. These voicemails are usually a combination of his own renditions of popular songs, philosophical/theological ramblings, as well as a bizarre mixture of over-the-top compliments and patronizing insults. I don’t take either of these things personally, as I know that they come from his own history of pain.

So, when I saw that I had a voicemail from Trevor yesterday, I was expecting more of the same. I should know by now that assumptions are very often incorrect; this message from Trevor was clear and compassionate. He thought that he saw me walking down Queen Street with a friend the other day, and was sure that I was crying. He wanted to check in and see if someone I loved had died, and if so, who? And if so, he was there to listen with an empathetic ear. He has lost many friends, he told me, and so knows the pain that he thought I must be feeling.

While I have been known to walk down the street crying, the person he saw the other day wasn’t me. But I was humbled and grateful that this friend took the time to check in with me and offer a listening ear. No compliments, no insults. Just empathy.

As per usual, God chose to show up in a moment I least expected, knocking down my assumptions and opening up my heart anew.

The Hard Path of Love

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The Dale’s Tuesday night Bible studies are always interesting. Sometimes we go off on pretty wild tangents, and I have a hard time knowing which way is up. Sometimes people come out with such profound insights, questions and prayers that I’m brought to tears. Almost always someone presents a perspective on scripture that I never would have come up with on my own. I love it.

A couple of weeks ago we read John 13, where Jesus washed his disciples feet, predicted Judas’ betrayal, let Judas go to do what he was going to do, and then spoke to his disciples about the new commandment to love. After showing his friends what love looks like, he asked them to follow suit.

After these verses were read aloud by someone, I asked the group what they thought about this commandment to love. A newcomer to the group stated the bald truth right away: “loving people is hard!” She gave the example that simply choosing to say hi to someone against whom you have a grudge is difficult.

Another member of the group agreed, saying that loving sometimes just means not punching someone in the face– which is hard enough! Other examples of difficult, loving actions were given: listening to each other, cutting each other some slack, etc. As these things were named off, we agreed that loving is HARD!

I am so thankful for the real-ness of my community at The Dale. We all know that sometimes the only loving thing you can do is not punch someone in the face… But folks in our little Bible study are honest enough to say it!

Love isn’t always/often glamorous. Sometimes it means washing each others’ grimy feet, choosing to let go of a grudge, or sitting and listening. It’s hard. But it’s the one thing that Jesus asks of us. Lord, give us the strength to walk in the hard path of love.

Light and Shadow

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about God as Light, in whom there is no darkness at all. I’ve also been thinking about the darkness that pervades so much of the news these days, and the lives of so many of my friends.

It can be easy to dwell in the shadows of climate change, senseless violence, the mocking of abuse victims, the threat of evictions, and a host of other dark things happening in our world.

AND it is possible to step into the brightness of the good things; to allow our eyes to be dazzled by Light. To do so is not to be in denial about the darkness, but to acknowledge that shadow and light both exist, and that we don’t need to be overcome by the dark.

In this spirit, I’d like to share a couple of stories from The Dale this week:

  • Our trip up to camp was lovely. The weather wasn’t great, but we had a fire blazing in the lodge all weekend, played lots of games, ate good food, and experienced a true retreat. While some of our folks had a difficult time transitioning back to the city and its stressors, the time that was spent up north was good for all of our souls.
  • During our Monday drop-in, a friend came in to tell us that he’d had a beautiful dream in which three of our deceased dear ones were happy, relaxed, and cheering for him. He attributes their applause to the steps toward health he’s been taking recently. He was so encouraged by this dream, and so were we.
  • During the same drop-in, another friend came by (after a long absence) to let us know that she’s doing well. She is still experiencing homelessness, but has also been taking steps toward health and wholeness, has a supportive partner, and is hopeful that they will be able to find permanent housing outside Toronto soon. While we would miss her, this would be a good thing for her mental and physical health. So we’re thrilled.

I’ve realized recently that all of my favourite paintings at the Art Gallery of Ontario make dramatic use of light and shadow; they mirror the reality of our shared, beautiful, painful world.

Life is hard. And often dark. And lets not forget: there is Light.

Copyright: The Thomson Collection © Art Gallery of Ontario

Hellos and goodbyes

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Last week was a beginnings and endings kind of a week.

On Wednesday morning, we at The Dale said goodbye to our dear friend Mike during a memorial service. Tears we shed and stories were shared. While the loss of Mike still seems surreal to me and others, communal grieving was a necessary and helpful part of the process of letting him go.

On Wednesday afternoon, a few of us went down to the shores of Lake Ontario and participated in the baptism of our friend Kim. It was her desire to be baptized outside, and then to have a tea party on the beach to begin this new stage in her life. So that’s exactly what we did.

On Thursday morning my cousin Laura gave birth to a baby boy, and named him Clarke Thomas. Clarke is the name of our grandfather who died when I was an infant, before Laura was born. We have heard so many wonderful things about this man over the years, and I wish that my sister, cousins, and I had the chance to get to know him. Thomas is the name of our cousin who died in a car accident when he was 11, along with his sister Meredith who was 8. I’ve written about them here.

On Friday morning I attended a memorial service for my great-aunt Kathrine, who recently passed away at the age of 93. Many, many members of her immediate and extended family, as well as a large number of friends gathered to remember her life and celebrate her legacy of love. I will always remember Aunt Kathrine for her thoughtfulness in the form of birthday cards- nearly every year, the first of my birthday cards to arrive in the mail would be from her. This is astonishing, given that she had several grandchildren of her own, let alone all her grand-nieces and nephews!

While I’m still processing all that happened last week, I am struck by the beauty of welcoming new life in the midst of saying goodbye those who have died. In particular, I’m struck by Clarke Thomas, this new little creature, who is named for two beloved people to whom our family has had to say goodbye.

Hello to new life! The new, baptized life of Kim. The new presence of Clarke Thomas, as well as Peyton, Julie and Rosslyn (all born this year into the extended Moon family!)

Good bye to our beloveds. Goodbye Mike, you larger than life character. Good bye Aunt Kathrine, also larger than life in your own gentle way.

Last week really was a beginnings and endings kind of week.

Back to school (a little bit)

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For many people, September is synonymous with “back to school.” And for most of my life I’ve been one of those people, except for the last six Septembers.

When I graduated from Wycliffe I had a feeling that I’d like to do more schooling at some point, but didn’t know what form that would take. And for the last six years, learning to be a Community Worker and community member at The Dale has been schooling enough! I’ve been pretty much constantly challenged and stretched, supported and humbled, encouraged and changed.

Over these six years I’ve participated in some one or two day professional development courses on topics like addiction, tuberculosis awareness, vicarious trauma and polarity management. While these courses have all been helpful, I’ve been yearning for some more in-depth academic learning.

So… this fall I enrolled to audit a course at Regis College (part of the Toronto School of Theology), while continuing to work full time at The Dale! I’m thrilled that I’m able to continue learning from my community, and also make a bit of a return to the classroom 🙂

The course I chose is focused on integrative approaches to trauma, through the lenses of psychotherapy and spiritual care. While I don’t plan to become a psychotherapist, I’m interested in learning how the fields of psychotherapy and spiritual care can inform one another. The focus on trauma is especially close to my heart, as so many of my friends at The Dale have faced (and continue to face) more than their fair share of traumatic life experiences. While I’m only one week into the course, I can already tell that the readings, lectures and discussions are going to be rich and (I pray) enriching to my ministry at The Dale.

So, Happy Back to School Month, everybody!

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.