peaks and valleys


One of the great privileges of being in a community like The Dale is that we see each other at our best, as well as at our worst. I often reflect on this, especially when I interact with paramedics, police officers, and other professionals who mostly see my friends when they are in crisis. I am so thankful that I get to see (and be seen) on the peaks, and in the valleys.

I’m grateful that I get to go to the Art Gallery of Ontario with Chevy, as well as visit her in hospital.

I get to hear the deeply faith-filled and profound statements of “Matt” when he is sober… and the less coherent and sometimes inappropriate things he says when he is drunk.

I get to enjoy the cheeky humour and the genuine pastoral concern of “Donna” when she has been taking her medication, and I also bear witness to the paranoia and confusion that she experiences when she hasn’t been.

Similarly, my friends at The Dale see me nearly every day, and can tell when I’m not okay. They see me when I laugh, and when I cry; when I’m excited and when I’m angry.

I am so grateful for the peaks, and for the privilege of accompanying/being accompanied through the valleys.


When things work out


I just got off the phone with a dear Dale friend, whose young son was recently discharged from Kingston General Hospital after a close shave with a serious illness.

This friend came to The Dale three Mondays ago in great distress. He had been in hospital himself for a number of months, and when he was discharged he discovered that his room had been rented out. The letters to his landlord explaining his absence had been returned, and his belongings were gone. He was left homeless, with nothing to call his own.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, he then received a phone call informing him that his son was in the ICU in Kingston. When he arrived at The Dale our friend hadn’t eaten or slept, and felt that he was about to have a break down. He had walked well over an hour on a bad knee to get to us, because he thought we might be able to offer some hope and help.

After hearing him out, we were able to secure a train ticket to Kingston for the next morning, along with a grocery card to tide him over. Thanks to the generosity of some friends from Kingston, he was able to get a cab from the train station to the hospital and back again. He spent the whole afternoon with his son, and returned to Toronto late in the evening.

Our friend called us the next day to let us know that he had made it back safely, and to express his gratitude. And very recently, as I’ve already said, he called to let us know that his son has been released from Kingston General, and will be okay. Our friend said that he’s been able to sleep these last couple of weeks, having seen his boy with his own eyes.

While our friend is still meeting with a housing worker to secure a permanent place to live, he is hopeful and highly motivated to find a space where he can have his son come to visit. I hope and pray that a space like this will become available for him soon. In the meantime, I am SO grateful that we were able to get him to Kingston; that this piece of the puzzle actually came together. And I’m grateful for our network of supporters that helped this to happen.

A Bookend kind of weekend


This past weekend I did a lot of baking.

I baked cookies for a reception held after the funeral of our dear friend Mark Roberts on Saturday afternoon. And then I baked cupcakes for a baby shower held on Sunday afternoon for a dear friend from high school who is pregnant with her first child.

Two desserts, two very different occasions.

Although, as I reflect on the weekend, I’m realizing that these events were similar in some beautiful ways. While I felt like I had a bit of emotional whiplash by Sunday night, I’m now also very aware that saying goodbye to Mark and welcoming Hannah’s new baby were both amazing celebrations/affirmations of life.

We said goodbye to a friend who we remember as being very full of life. Mark was boisterous. When he was in the room, you knew it. And Mark was genuine. Whatever he was feeling and experiencing, he was honest about it. If he was feeling silly, he cackled and pretended to be Golem with a slightly Spanish accent. If he was was feeling worn down by the realities of poverty, he told us so. If he was feeling proud of his cats, he showed us pictures and waxed eloquently about their cuteness.

And Mark was generous. He would come into our Thrift Store drop-in to say hello, then go to the food bank. When he returned he would distribute a good percentage of his gleanings with the group, and was genuinely pleased to see granola bars, cake mixes, taco kits (you name it!) go to a good home.

I really miss my pal Mark, and I’m very grateful that so many of his friends and family members were able to come and celebrate his life on Saturday.

Then on Sunday, I was able to join in the joyful anticipation of a new life about to be introduced to the outside world! We wrote down our hopes and dreams for this baby girl, and gave gifts to her mom. We affirmed the goodness of the life of this new person (as painful as her arrival will be for Hannah), just as I had participated in the affirmation of the goodness of Mark’s life (as difficult as it was, in many ways, and as sad as its ending is for us).

Bookends, marked by celebration, pain… and desserts.

Resurrection hope


Back in December, Erinn and I heard through the grapevine that a dear Dale friend had passed away. We sought out confirmation, but neither the hospital, the police, nor the coroner’s office had any news for us.

So we held onto hope that we would see him around the neighbourhood…but the days turned into weeks, which turned into months. Erinn and I both wrote blogs about him, in attempts to process our sadness that he seemed to be gone.We were contemplating holding a memorial, but didn’t feel right about that since we didn’t actually know if he had died.

And then, through the persistence of another dear friend, we discovered that he was alive, and safe!! Erinn and I went to see him yesterday, and it was like seeing someone who had been raised from the grave. While he isn’t well physically, he is living, sober, and still very much his hilarious, grumpy self. It was SUCH a joy to see him, and I can’t wait to go see him again.

As Easter nears, I am so grateful for this reminder that resurrection hope is real. While this friend will eventually pass away, along with the rest of us, death does not have the final word. Hope will not disappoint us.


Richard Wagamese and Iggy


I was listening to the morning news a couple of days ago when I learned that Richard Wagamese, one of my favourite Canadian authors, had passed away at age 61. While many of the other news stories were saddening, this piece of news broke my heart.

I heard Mr. Wagamese speak at my sister’s graduation ceremony at Lakehead University a couple of years ago, and was struck by his humour and his humility. I went home to Toronto and immediately read his novel “Medicine Walk”, and then “Indian Horse” and then “One Story One Song”. These books have shaped who I am, and how I think. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of his books in the coming months and years.

I am so grateful for Richard’s courage in sharing his perspective and experience as an indigenous person, and for gently inviting others to understand things from his point of view. He had a beautiful way of sharing really difficult content in such a way that you felt invited into becoming part of the solution.

Today is the second anniversary of the passing of my friend Iggy. Like Richard Wagamese, Iggy experienced a great deal of trauma in his life, simply because he was aboriginal. And, like Richard Wagamese, he had an incredible spirit of humour and humility. I learned so much from Iggy about community and vulnerability, and it was a true honour that he considered me a friend. Like Mr. Wagamese, Iggy shared deep and painful memories of his own past, but (usually) in such a way that we, his community, felt welcomed into his healing journey.

I am grieved that these two men are gone, but deeply grateful that they both left behind such wonderful works of art – literary art, visual art, and the beauty etched on our hearts.


Richard Wagamese

Iggy with Greg Paul (pastor at Sanctuary)

A typical Tuesday


I wish you could have been a fly on the wall at the Salvation Army Thrift Store this afternoon.

If you had been, you would have seen a very motley crew gathered around a table in the back corner of the store, where they keep the books. You would have heard raucous laughter, several animated conversations happening over one another, and, at one point, a youtube clip of Lady Gaga leaping off the roof at the Super Bowl halftime show.

You would have witnessed a game of Scrabble being played and a lot of coffee and donuts being consumed. The topics of conversation you would heard ranged from plans for the mass production of the masterpieces created by one of our resident artists, to the menu at today’s lunch meal at a local drop in, to hypothetical scenarios involving mountains of chicken balls and oceans of sweet and sour sauce, to opinions of Phil Collins, Adele and Justin Bieber.

There was some yelling, but today it was [pretty much] all good natured yelling. One friend, who is hard of hearing, sat smiling and sipping his coffee in the middle of the mayhem.

Near the end I went to the sink to do some dishes, and noticed a mom with a stroller browsing the kids toys and listening to us with a look of bemusement. She said, “What’s going on here? Is this some sort of support group?” I laughed, explained The Dale to her, and invited her to join us any Tuesday between 1 and 3pm. She said she thought it was great.

Afterward I told Erinn about this encounter, and she laughed too. Then she said, “Yeah, that IS what we are! A support group for each other!” I love that. A chaotic, motley, bizarre and beloved support group.




Make yourself at home


Today, after our worship service, Erinn and I walked into the kitchen of the building where The Dale meets on Wednesdays and Sundays, and found one of our friends making himself a pancake.

This wasn’t just any pancake… It was massive (the size of the entire frying pan), and had strawberry jam and mini marshmallows incorporated right into the batter. After it had been flipped over (which was no easy task), he encased the pancake in a tortilla. Essentially, our friend had taken a look around the kitchen, and made himself a meal from the available ingredients.

While we generally discourage such pillaging, this was actually a really sweet moment. It turned out that our friend, who is currently living in a shelter downtown, had heard some gruesome news that had him feeling pretty freaked out. So he came to the place he knew we would be, and made himself a “home cooked meal.”

I know how much comfort I find in cooking, baking, and puttering around a kitchen. And I love that our friend, who very rarely gets to cook for himself, found comfort in our kitchen today.


The best medicine


“Ben” is a friend from The Dale who has experienced much struggle, sadness and sickness, but has managed to regain his phenomenal sense of humour. He makes me laugh all the time, and one rainy, dreary afternoon I decided that I needed to start writing down some of his material. So I started a memo on my phone called “Ben jokes”.

I was sprinting past him that day, as he stood on the sidewalk getting soaked. He called out to me, “Jo! It’s gonna rain today! 100% chance of precipitation!” Then he broke into his half-cackle-half-chuckle, and I couldn’t help but slow down and share a laugh with him, getting even wetter but suddenly not really caring.

Another day I was ducking out of drop-in, in search of serving bowls. One of the challenges of having multiple locations is that sometimes we forget where we last used an item, and find ourselves trying to serve a meal, for example, with 6 of our 10 serving bowls missing. At the time I wasn’t sure if they had been left somewhere, or stolen, and so when a group of guys outside drop-in asked where I was going, I said “To get more bowls… I think someone may have taken them. But why would someone want a bunch of serving bowls”? At the time, Ben was lying down and I wasn’t sure if he was even awake… but then, without skipping a beat, he lifted his hat from over his eyes and said, “maybe they were going bowling!” I nearly died.

Just a few days ago I saw Ben at one of our drop-ins. He said, completely straight-faced, “I woke up this morning kind of hungry, so I went and walked back and forth until I got fed up.” While there was probably some truth to that joke, he was looking for a laugh, not for sympathy.

I know it’s horribly cliche, but laughter really is a wonderful remedy. I can’t wait for the next addition to my “Ben jokes” memo ­čÖé


(“Ben” is on the left, with his ever-present rubber chicken dangling beneath the bench!)

Remembering Will


It’s been a year and two days since our friend Will Rohrer passed away. I miss him- his soft voice, his vulnerability, his chuckle. He had had a tough life, but he was was still such a tender guy.

I count it as one of my greatest privileges to have been there with him when he died, along with Erinn and a few other members of his “chosen family”. We gathered around his bed in the emergency room at St. Jo’s and shared stories about our friend, as we kept him company during his final couple of hours.

Erinn and I hadn’t even met some of the other people around Will’s bed before that day, but each had been his friend and an important part of his care team in various ways. As we shared in the sacredness of those hours with Will, we developed a pretty special bond. That was one of Will’s great gifts- the ability to bring people together, make connections, and form community. Even after his death, through his visitation, funeral and burial, he brought people together in a really unique and beautiful way.

Erinn and I had the weighty privilege of being chosen by Will to share the role of his Power of Attorney. This was an honour, and came with a lot of learning for me. I had never been someone’s POA before, and I quickly realized that it was a pretty big deal. As tough as it was in a lot of ways, I’m grateful to Will for providing me with that piece of my ongoing education. And I’m grateful that he had the insight to ask Erinn and I to share this role – I would have been quite lost without her experience and wisdom.

Will was a special dude. He is missed. At drop-in yesterday we lit a candle beside his photo, and played Q107 on the radio (he was a rocker). One of his friends drew a picture for him, which we put by his photo. Though he’s been gone for a year, his impact is still very much felt.

Thanks for everything, Will.



Some thoughts on Advent hope


As I watched the sun peek over the rooftops this morning, I thought about a conversation I had with a very close friend last night. We had been sharing with each other about the pain we are experiencing within ourselves and on behalf of those we love, and wondering why certain struggles seem to last SO long.

Both of us have been dwelling deeply in Advent this year, choosing to hold onto the hope that the Light of the world has come, and will come again. But last night we wondered aloud about the nature of this hope, and the joy that it brings. Advent hope feels so different from Easter hope, when our joy springs from Jesus’ resurrection – the wild, death-defying, victorious event on which we peg our faith.

Advent ends in Christmas, when we celebrate the birth of a vulnerable baby, born into a family enveloped by the scandal of his unbelievable conception, who became a refugee when he was barely old enough to walk. Then he grew into a kid who surely learned the hard way the pain of sticking your hand into a flame, turning corners too fast and a host of other things that kids have to figure out. Then he was a teenager, which was probably awkward, and then he became a carpenter, which was probably boring at times. Only after 30 years of life on earth, experiencing what it is to human (with the accompanying joys and sorrows), did Jesus enter his 3 years of public ministry. Then things got harder for him, and he ended up on a cross. (Today’s Old Testament reading from the lectionary happens to be Isaiah 53, which spells out what it meant for Jesus to be a suffering servant.) And THEN he rose from the dead! Alleluia!

So when we sing Christmas carols about joy to the world, peace on earth, silent nights and figgy puddings, the hope is real. But it’s not a quick-fix kind of hope. Oh how I wish it was! But it’s not. That’s why I cling to certain lyrics of “O Come O Come Emmanuel” like a lifeline.

O come, Thou Dayspring, from on high,
And cheer us by Thy drawing nigh;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice ! Rejoice ! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

The joy of Advent doesn’t come from the immediate victory over death, but the fact that the Dayspring from on high did, in fact, draw nigh. The Incarnation happened. God chose to be WITH us. In the beauty and the pain. Alleluia.