Captured moments


A couple of weeks ago, Pete, Meg and I were headed out for a walk around Parkdale. For some reason we were talking about photographs, and how some people are big into photos and albums and scrapbooks, and some people just aren’t. I told them that I was always the person in my family who would spend hours pouring over photo albums. Sometimes I would pull out a big stack and sit in the hallway, surrounded by decades worth of captured moments.

Not two minutes after this conversation, we ran into a friend walking down the sidewalk with a camera bag slung over his shoulder. This friend has been in pretty rough shape recently, so it was good to see him walking around, enjoying the day. He pulled out his camera to show us: an older, film Minolta. I asked him what he liked to photograph, and he told me that he mostly took pictures of his partner, “Laura” (who I’ve written about here); snapshots of their life in Parkdale. I told him that I thought that was great.

The next thing I knew, our friend was asking us to pose for a picture– an honour that I hadn’t been expecting. Then Laura speed-shuffled her way across Queen Street and said that she wanted a picture with us too.

I still can’t get over the beauty of this experience. Laura has told us that she often receives insults from people on the street. It was therefore such a joy to be invited into a moment where her beauty was being recognized and celebrated. Our friend promised to give us a copy of these photos when they are developed, and I can’t wait. They’ll be kept in a safe and treasured spot, as will the memory of those moments.

Being seen


People sometimes ask me, “When I see someone panhandling, should I give that person money?”

I always say that the choice to give money or not is a personal one, and that I don’t have a yes or no answer. However, I also say that, in my mind, the bigger question is how best to respond to the humanity and inherent dignity of the person in front of you. While money is what someone may be asking for, each of us also needs to be acknowledged as a human.

When I see someone I don’t know who is panhandling, I do my best to look that precious person in the eye and smile, and say “sorry, not today” if I choose not to give money (which is my default). I also try to ask how their day has been so far. Sometimes people feel like chatting, and sometimes not. But being seen and heard is important. It’s hard on us when we are not acknowledged, and if that’s someone’s experience all day, it really takes a toll.

One of the reasons that I LOVE doing street outreach is that I am not in a rush to get anywhere and therefore have all the time in the world to stop, ask my friend (or someone new) how they are doing, and engage in a conversation if that’s what the person is wanting/needing.

A couple of weeks ago Erinn and I were on outreach, and a friend beckoned us over. He took the bottle of water that we had with us, but was clearly more interested in having a chat. We sat in his favourite panhandling spot, and shot the breeze. Eventually we got up to go, and he said, “I like that you talk to me like I’m a person person.”

That’s what we all want — to be seen for who we really are: people people. So the next time you wonder whether or not to give some change to someone who is asking for it, remember that the deeper need is to be seen.



Monday moments


This past Monday, during our staff check-in before drop-in, we as a team acknowledged that we were feeling tired. There are a number of folks at The Dale whose lives are particularly tumultuous at the moment, a trend that we often see during the hot summer months. Between intense mental health struggles, housing (or lack there of) troubles, traumatic events and interpersonal conflicts, there are a lot of tough things going on in the lives of our friends.

With this in mind, we prayed for God’s peace and joy to rest upon us and our community, especially during that day’s drop-in. We prayed for glimpses of the Kingdom shining through. And this prayer was answered in so many lovely little ways:

  • A white haired woman, “Sarah”, was at drop-in for the first time ever. She saw people leaving the building with food, and thought she would come and see what was going on. She kept saying things like, “this is marvelous! I had no idea this place existed!” It was so encouraging to see our drop-in through new eyes — to be reminded that it’s a good and lovely thing that we eat a big healthy lunch together every week, seated around tables with friends, both new and old. That finding a safe, welcoming space is a delightful thing.
  • Two women in the community, who have a complicated history including a fair amount of conflict, were both on our annual trip to camp two year ago. Things came to a head, and some serious de-escalation was required. On Monday, one of them came up to us and said that she wanted to pay for the other one to come up to camp this year (we request that people contribute what they can towards the cost of the trip)…!
  • A friend, who has a quick temper and as been known to blow up at us with little warning, asked to borrow my phone. This is a common request, and I sometimes (ie. often) lose track of who has my phone at any given moment. I also absent-mindedly leave it lying around, and people are always finding it and returning it to me. So when I couldn’t locate my phone right away, I wasn’t surprised. This friend followed me around as I searched, and I was expecting him to lose his cool at any moment. Instead, he said “what colour is it? Oh, green? Like this one?” I turned around to see him smiling impishly and holding out my phone (which he’d had all along). He told me to keep a closer eye on it, then went peacefully on his way after we shared a chuckle.

While Monday’s drop-in was still pretty intense, I was so grateful when I looked back on the day and remembered these moments of peace and joy.

What we all need


The Dale’s Tuesday night Bible study is always an adventure. We are currently reading through the book of Acts, which tells the story of the early church. This week we read about the way that the members of the early church shared everything in common; those who had resources shared with those who had less, and everyone had what they needed. We acknowledged that this practice is more complicated, now that the church is no longer a few thousand people in one city, but millions/billions of people spread out around the globe.

And we talked about how we can put the principle of sharing what we have into practice. We talked about community houses, community gardens, community meals. We talked about the philosophy of The Dale; that we all have things that we can share with each other, no matter what our financial situation happens to be.

One of the quietest members of the study, “Rick”, often comes out with the most profound questions. This week was no exception. “So, what does that mean in the context of addiction?” he asked. “What are we supposed to do when someone asks us for more and more, and you don’t know what to do?”

I put the question to the group. Someone pointed out that we all have an addiction of some sort – if not to street drugs or alcohol, then to TV, too much food, acquiring more possessions, the good opinions of others, social media, etc. We talked about what it means to say that everyone “has what they need”; that what we all really need is to belong and to be loved. This love and belonging is ultimately provided by the One who made us, and is experienced in community. Someone else pointed out that when this need isn’t met, we fill the void with other things like TV, or cigarettes, or crack.

At the end of our hour together, someone asked Marlene (a wise and beautiful soul) to sing a song for us, because they know that singing is a gift that Marlene loves to share with the community. She happily agreed, and sang “Give Thanks with a Grateful Heart”. The chorus goes like this:

“And now, let the weak say I am strong

Let the poor say I am rich

Because of what the Lord has done for us.”

Gratitude for God’s grace leads people to share what they have, like it did in the early church. I love seeing this reality at work in this quirky little community, so rich in love and wisdom and authenticity. I am made richer by nights like this.



It’s been nearly two weeks now since Sanctuary’s beloved James Smith died. I haven’t written about him sooner, because I just haven’t had the emotional energy, or the desire to acknowledge that he’s truly gone.

As many others have acknowledged, James was ready to go home, and if he had died after a lengthy stay in hospital (as some of our friends have), his parting would have felt different. But he was attacked, seemingly randomly, just a block away from Sanctuary and just a couple of hours after I (and many others) gave him a hug and said goodnight. He died violently and alone, and this feels so wrong. I wish we, his community, could have been there to surround him with our love.

Over the last number of years I have spent less and less time at Sanctuary, as my time and energy has increasingly been devoted to The Dale. While this has been a natural and necessary evolution, I am sad that I wasn’t able to spent more time with James over recent years. However, I count James as one of my most important teachers and dearest Sanctuary friends, and I miss him.

James taught me about the importance of simply spending time, even/especially when the original goal of that time is not met. During the summer of 2011 I was an intern at Sanctuary. One evening Rachel (a Sanctuary staffer) and I were on outreach, and we ended up taking James to the emergency room upon his request (for semi-urgent attention). We waited with him for…a long time. Maybe 5 or 6 hours. At various points we needed to convince him to stay, but we also shared some laughs. He never ended up seeing anyone, and eventually took off. But spending those hours together in emerg cemented our friendship. James taught me that in these contexts “wasting time” isn’t actually a waste of time.

James also taught me about genuine appreciation of piano concertos. I knew that he loved classical music, and so when a friend of mine gave me two last-minute tickets to the Toronto Symphony Orchestra a few years ago, I took James. Seeing him soak in the music, and tell me his favourite parts afterwards, was such a gift. Now piano concertos are my favourite bits of classical music too.

James taught me/us about love and lament. He loved his partner Stacy with a deep love, despite all sorts of challenges in their relationship. When she died, he actively and loudly lamented during Sanctuary services. He also loved his street brothers and sisters deeply, and they knew it. When Iggy died, in particular, he again grieved and lamented loudly. James taught me that to love deeply is to feel loss deeply.

James, thank you for accepting me as a friend and sister. I love you, and miss you.



Things in my bike bag


The other day I opened up the bag that clips onto my bike, and had to smile at the wild assortment of things I had collected over the course of the day:

– two trays of wet dog food, acquired with a coupon that a Dale friend asked me to redeem on her behalf.

– two or three pieces of “Bob Art”, elaborate paper cuttings like paper snowflakes except in the shape of tulips.

– a gift card for a local Parkdale business, donated for our upcoming Online Auction (stay tuned!!)

– a piece of costume jewellery from a Dale friend, to be delivered to Erinn.

– the usual stuff like my wallet, keys, cell phone and day planner.

I feel like this assortment accurately depicts an average day in my life at The Dale – running strange errands, garnering support for our little community, receiving and cherishing the various gifts that our folks have to offer.

#justanotherdayatthedale, and I’m loving it.





I love birthdays. I always have, probably because I come from a long line of birthday-lovers.

This week happens to contain not one, two, three, four, five or six, but SEVEN Dale birthdays! One on Saturday, three on Tuesday, two yesterday, and one today. This means multiple cakes, birthday cards, birthday songs, and lots of expressions of love.

While I’m a firm believer that any day is a great day to tell someone that you are glad that they exist, there really is something special about doing so on the anniversary of that someone’s arrival. This is especially important when that person hasn’t always been assured of their great worth, or has been told that most harmful of lies- that they are not worth of love.

There are folks at The Dale who have been told all kinds of lies about their worth over the years. My hope and prayer is that, as we go through life together, celebrating each other along the way, all of our friends will know that they are beyond precious to us and to the One who created them.



I’ve known “Laura” for a number of years now. She and her partner used to be spotted all over the city, double-riding on an e-bike. They would zoom around to various drop-ins, always ending up back in their home base of Parkdale.  While they had their ups and downs, they were relatively independent and mobile.

These days Laura is not doing as well. The last few times I’ve seen her she has been in a pretty desperate space, keenly panhandling or simply wandering Queen Street. Seeing her like this breaks my heart, and leaves me feeling a bit helpless.

This past Sunday, Erinn preached about the tears of Jesus in Luke 19, and the other instances in the gospels when Jesus weeps. Laura had wandered into our service during the passing of the peace, and decided to stay. While Erinn spoke about the tears of Jesus, Laura began to weep audibly. She allowed me to sit with her and put my arm around her shoulders (an unexpected privilege, based on my experience with Laura). While she often expresses distress and sadness in public, these tears felt unique; like Laura was weeping alongside Jesus, or that Jesus was weeping alongside Laura.

Laura stepped outside for a cigarette during our time of Communion/The Lord’s Supper/Eucharist, but happily received the bread and cup on the front steps of the church. I told her that she was loved, and she said “Does God actually love me??” I did my best to assure her that God does, and sat on the steps with her for a bit.

After the service, Laura stuck around, and was warmly welcomed by a group of German students who have been spending time at The Dale recently. At one point I looked over and saw their heads bowed in prayer for Laura. Afterwards, she told me that these young people had made her feel extraordinarily accepted, just as she was.

Laura is a psychiatric survivor, and until Sunday that was almost all I knew about her. But after receiving the Lord’s Supper, and the love and prayers of some new friends, Laura opened up and told stories about her early years. We learned that she was an actress during high school, a swimming instructor at summer camp, and that she has an amazing laugh! She told me that the next time I go into a cafe and someone asks me how I like my coffee, I should tell them that “I like my Coffee Crisp!” 🙂 In all my interactions with Laura, this was the very first time that she laughed, let alone told me a joke.

While I’m sure that Laura has many ups and downs ahead of her (as we all do), it was a very precious thing to be able to witness the flowering that can take place when someone experiences acceptance.

This need to be accepted is as universal a need as water, and just as refreshing.

Going with the flow


Last week we were sitting around a table at the back of the Thrift Store, as we do on Tuesday afternoons. We were well into a game of Scrabble, a plate of crackers and cheese, and a bowl of grapes. A friend was playing the guitar, relatively quietly (for us), and there were various conversations going on around the table.

A new face arrived partway through this drop-in time, and was welcomed by a community member who engaged the new person in conversation. I was aware of this new presence, and was thrilled to see how quickly they became engaged in a deep conversation.

About half an hour later, the recent arrival was somehow triggered by something the person playing the guitar had unwittingly said/done. They quietly but firmly flipped the bird to the guitar player, and asked them to take note. Understandably, the musician was rattled, having never met this person before. I encouraged my friend not to take it personally, but was inwardly fearing that the situation may explode at any moment.

But…it didn’t! The musician chose to play another song, dedicated “to the middle finger”, and the community member who had originally welcomed the newcomer suggested the song could be called “The Flying Bird”. They proceeded to make up lyrics about a bird flying right over the offense that caused, and was caused by, the “flipping of the bird”.

One thing that I love about Parkdale is the general recognition that we all have our moments, our struggles, our quirks, our trigger points. Don’t get me wrong; there are days when it seems like nearly everyone is on edge and looking for a reason to become offended. But on many other days (or those same days), people do an amazing job of diffusing situations with incredible humour and grace. Last week at the Thrift Store was a beautiful example to me of this understanding, go-with-the-flow side of Parkdale. This is the neighbourhood that I know and love.

Holy Ground


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.