Richard Wagamese and Iggy

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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

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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.

 

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Make yourself at home

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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.

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The best medicine

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“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 🙂

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

Remembering Will

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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.

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Some thoughts on Advent hope

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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.

O come, o come

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It’s been quite a while since I last blogged and, as per usual, lots of beautiful things and lots of hard things have happened.

The camping trip/retreat that I was anticipating in my last post was a delight. The weather was cold but bright, we coexisted harmoniously (with some very minor exceptions), and we had a ton of fun. One Dale retreat first-timer could barely contain his wonder and joy, exclaiming things like “Did you see the lake?!…Did you see my cabin?!… Did you see Mars?!” approximately every 5 minutes 🙂 It was a trip to remember, for all of of us.

Another lovely thing happened a couple of weeks ago, when we witnessed what might be considered a minor miracle! “Tom”, one of the two people that we have ever barred (for a few months) from the Dale was at our Wednesday morning drop in. The community member who usually prepares breakfast was away, so I was getting things organized to start cooking myself. Tom was in a grumpy mood, which isn’t terribly unusual. He started criticizing my methods, implying that he could do it better himself. In exasperation I said, “well then, why don’t you?”… and so he did! He cooked the entire breakfast on his own, hash browns, bacon, scrambled eggs and all. And it was delicious. The hilarious part was that he didn’t want anyone knowing that he had gladly cooked for the group, because it would ruin his “bad reputation”… so he gave us all the credit when people commented on how good it was! Amazing.

These are just a couple of the very sweet things that have happened in the last few months. We’ve also baked Christmas cookies together, gone caroling, and shared many deep and/or hilarious conversations.

Like I said, though, there are some really tough things facing the community as well. As Erinn wrote about last week in her blog post, we are still waiting to hear whether or not the rumors are true that a Dale member has passed away. This friend was/is hilarious, kind and deeply caring. He was/is also the other person that we have barred from the Dale for a few months, because when he drinks he turns into someone we barely recognize who is prone to violence. My dearest hope is that we’ll see this friend around Parkdale again soon, and be able tell him how much we love him… And my fear is that the rumors are true.

A number of other community members are in the hospital, and/or needing to go to court for various reasons. I just came home from visiting a friend in the ICU, who is in a coma. I prayed for him, that he would be soaked in the light of Christ as he lay in his hospital bed. Then I looked up and noticed a crucifix over the lamp above that bed. But unlike on most crucifixes, this Jesus was wearing a robe and had radiant light shining around his head- reminding me more of His ascension than His death.

It occurred to me that this was a beautiful Advent reminder of the pain and hope inherent in His story, and ours. As we ache for the brokenness we see around and within us, we long for Jesus’ coming in glory.

O come, o come Emmanuel!

Another camp adventure awaits

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In just over a week, about twenty-five of us Dale folks will be up at Camp Koinonia, up near Parry Sound!

We missed our camping trip last year, for a variety of reasons, and the community felt it. Consequently, we’ve been fielding questions about camp since the middle of last winter! For many of our folks, this trip (which is sometimes a summer trip and sometimes a fall retreat) is the only time they get to leave the city, so they are understandably itching to hit the road next Friday.

One of my favourite things about these trips is seeing the stress melt away from the faces of my friends as we exit Toronto. Don’t get me wrong… I adore Toronto, and am so glad to call it home. But we all know that life in the city can be loud and busy, and many of our friends in Parkdale are facing the added stress of living on a low income in the midst of a rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood.

But next weekend we will be leaving the noise of the city behind, along with the advertisements for unaffordable goods and the worry about where to find the next meal. We will sing songs around the fireplace, play lots of board games, go on hikes, do some canoeing, hopefully see some stars, and breathe lots of fresh air.

Of course, things aren’t always as idyllic as all of that. Conflicts sometimes arise, people sometimes forget their meds, accidents have been known to occur. So if you think of it, please send off some prayers or good thoughts, that next weekend will be a deeply good one.

I’ll let you know how it goes!

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The gang from 2 years ago!

Extended Family

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At The Dale, we are very aware that we are a large, beautiful network of people. Our core community is comprised mainly of folks who call Parkdale home, or are in the neighbourhood regularly. We see each other several days of the week, and do life together in a fairly intensive way.

There are other members of the community who we don’t see as often, but are very much part of the weekly or monthly rhythm of life at The Dale. We see them for lunch on Mondays, or for breakfast on Wednesdays, or for church on Sundays, or for outreach during the last week of the month. These folks come from all over the city, and sometimes even from outside of town. They add to the richness of our communal life, bringing their unique perspectives, experiences, gifts and vulnerabilities.

There are other people who we know we can call upon for extra support when we need it. These folks work at places like Sanctuary, The Gateway men’s shelter, a law office, a medical clinic, or another community agency. They helps with drop-ins or outreach when Erinn or I can’t be there, provide services that we aren’t able to offer, lend a listening ear or offer insight into a tricky situation.

We also have a wonderful board of directors, made up of people who care deeply about The Dale and are committed to helping us run in a healthy and sustainable way. On top of their regular board meetings, these folks also participate in our fundraising efforts, and offer support in a wide variety of ways.

And of course, all of this is made possible by the wide network of people, churches and organizations who support The Dale, financially and prayerfully. This network is wonderful, and increasingly diverse. The Ride for Refuge, the bike ride/walk in which The Dale recently participated, provided the opportunity to invite more people into our web of support. This is so exciting and encouraging!

These various groups of people overlap in many beautiful ways, and each person is very much part of The Dale in their own way. I wish I could name every single person who we consider to be part of The Dale’s extended family, but please know that EACH of you is cherished. This Thanksgiving, I am giving thanks for you.

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What’s in a name?

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At the Dale, we go by many names. Many folks have developed their own nicknames for me, including “Captain J”, “Jo-a”, “Lorelai” (apparently I look like a Lorelai?), “Creature from the unknown” (nice, I know), “Tall Girl”, “Jojo” etc. One friend calls Erinn “Ms. Padre-ess”, many call her “Pastor Erinn” and a few others call her “Mom”. I even get called “Mom” now and again. I’ve also learned to answer to “Erinn”, since some folks can’t keep us straight!

I love having many nicknames, and coming up with nicknames for others: “Marky-Mark”, “Douglas Fir” and “Marleney” to name a few.

I’ve been thinking about the power of names lately- how they have the ability to create a sense of camaraderie and affection, or to destroy a person’s sense of self-worth. We hear some pretty awful names being tossed around, usually directed at others, occasionally directed at us. Some of our friends have recently learned the hard way that calling people certain names can cause you bodily harm.

However, I think the deepest way that names cause harm is when people apply them to themselves. I’ve often found myself telling folks that, no, they are not “just a bum” or “a dirty skid” but a beloved friend. Just today I heard a friend refer to themselves as “a wart on the ass of society”. How awful, that this precious person has been given the message that they are worse than useless, and internalized it to such an extent that they inflict that name on themselves. This is one of the saddest things I can imagine.

One of my favourite songs in the Dale’s songbook is called “I Will Change Your Name”. It goes like this:

I will change your name.
You shall no longer be called:
Wounded, outcast, lonely or afraid.
I will change your name.
Your new name shall be:
Confidence, joyfulness, overcoming one,
Faithfulness, friend of God,
One who seeks My face


May it be so, for all of us.