Beloved Chris

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Ten days ago, before COVID 19 was the first thing on everyone’s mind, the world lost a truly beautiful soul. So, in the midst of all the pandemic news, I’d like to take a pause and share my appreciation for the life of Chris Vanhartskamp.

It’s hard to adequately describe Chris’ impact. He was such an integral part of the Sanctuary community that it’s hard to imagine 25 Charles St. East without him. I’m sure that pretty much everyone who calls Sanctuary home will have a story to share about Chris’ friendship, generosity, silliness, or faith.

Chris just had a way about him; a way of making people feel like they were really important. As an Indigenous person who was removed from his family of origin early in his life, he would have had every reason to distrust and dismiss white Christians like me. But instead he welcomed us into his circle.

I remember the first time Chris called me “Sis”, back when I was an intern at Sanctuary in 2011. I was completely beside myself; overwhelmed at the honour that he had bestowed on me, despite the fact that I was still new in the community. One of the amazing things about Chris was if he said you were “in”, you were in. But it didn’t take years of being tested and proving yourself for Chris to extend a hand of welcome. He could see when someone wanted to be his friend, and he opened his heart willingly. What a gift, and what a teaching.

Chris also struggled mightily. His heart was full of love, and full of pain. Another thing that I appreciate about Chris is that he shared his struggles openly with his church family. I remember Chris praying this prayer at Sanctuary a couple of years ago: “I love you, Jesus. And I’m just really pissed off with you… I know you love me, Jesus. I’m just having a hard time receiving it.” His vulnerability and faith in the midst of his anger and pain was remarkable.

Chris, I miss you. Thank you for opening up your heart and life to me, and SO many others. Thank you for all that you taught us. Rest well, my friend.

 

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An Ode to Coffee Time

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Parkdale’s Coffee Time is closing this week. While it may seem strange to have an emotional attachment to a B-list coffee franchise location… I do. It’s not just that Coffee Time’s closure smacks of gentrification (the pricing-out of affordable food/drink options, along with affordable housing options), which it does. Coffee Time was more than just a divey coffee shop. Here are a few reasons why:

Because it was a second (often only) living room for many Parkdalians.

Because it still had a glassed-walled section that used to be a smoker’s room, a good twenty years after smoking in public places was banned.

Because The Dale was allowed to host its (sometimes rowdy) Tuesday night Bible study in the aforementioned smoker’s room for a couple of years (until it was finally renovated).

Because The Dale was always allowed to sing Christmas carols (sometimes quite off-key) inside the store, during our annual carolling-around-Parkdale night.

Because the staff let us play Pictionary, Hangman, Charades, and/or Twenty Questions on the third Tuesday of every month, during our “taking a break from Bible study to just hang out” night.

Because it was a regular stop on our Wednesday night outreach walks, because we knew that our folks from The Dale found it to be a welcoming and non-judgemental space to spend a few hours out of the cold.

Thanks for everything, Coffee Time. You’ll be missed.

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Stories

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Last week we held another memorial at The Dale. This one was for a woman named Mary Patterson, also known on the streets of Parkdale as “Irish Mary”. She had a large personality, and considered herself to be a sort of den mother to her crew of friends. She would never hesitate to let you know what she really thought, and was so generous that she would give you the shirt off her back if she thought you needed it more than she did.

I didn’t know Mary very well; I learned most of what I’ve just written about her during the story-sharing time at her memorial. This element of Dale memorials (sharing stories about the person who has passed away) is crucial. We leave lots of time for it, and believe that it’s one of the most important things that we can do as a community. Stories matter.

As Thomas King puts it, “the truth about stories is that that’s all we are.” We honour the lives of our friends by telling and re-telling the stories of who they were and who they continue to be to us.

I’ve been reading a book recently called In the Shelter: finding a home in the world, by Padraig O Tuama. He, too, writes about stories, and how they can either create shelters for us, or cast shadows over us. Stories matter.

I’ve included parts of a poem from this book below, that I interpret to be a conversation between a human and the Divine.

And I said to him:

Are there answers to all of this?

And he said:

The answer is in a story

and the story is being told.

And I said:

But there is so much pain

And she answered, plainly:

Pain will happen.

The answer is in the story

and the story isn’t finished.

– Padraig O Tuama

We are part of the Big Story of God’s love for the world, and the story isn’t finished. Our little stories can and do weave their way into this Big Story; Mary’s stories, my stories, your stories.

And then there were FIVE!

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I still can’t quite believe that The Dale staff team has grown to five people over the last couple of years! Meagan Knight, Pete Nojd, and now Olivia Dower have each decided to come aboard this quirky little ship; decisions that took courage and continue to require faith. It is no small thing to start a job that requires you to fund raise for your own salary, and I stand in awe that three people have been willing to join Erinn and me in doing just that.

While Erinn has blogged about each person (Meagan, Pete, Olivia) as they joined, I’d like to take a little time and space here to share some thoughts about them too.

Meg joined staff in April 2017, so I’ve had the privilege of working with her for a while now. Over the last couple of years Meg has carved out her own place and way of being at The Dale, and her absence (as she spends a year with her adorable baby girl) is felt. It was the sweetest thing to see the increasing excitement of folks in the community, as Meg’s baby bump grew and grew. While we are jazzed that Charlotte had arrived, we miss Meg. I particularly miss her quick wit, thoughtfulness, and love-filled way of praying for our community. I’m proud of the mom that she has become, and am looking forward to having her back at The Dale.

Pete joined staff in June 2019, so he’s relatively recent addition. Pete has an obvious and deep love for Parkdale, and for the folks at The Dale. I really appreciate the way that he opens himself up to people, even when it may hurt. Pete’s love for God is very evident in all he does, as are his joy and sincerity. Pete also came with a plus five– his wife Frances and four awesome kids! This family has brought much joy to our community, and I am so grateful. 

Olive joined staff in November 2019, so she’s just a few weeks in! However, Olivia was an intern at The Dale in the summer of 2018, so she was already a familiar face to the community. Olivia has jumped back in with both feet, and we are so glad to have her! She has a gentle, grace-filled way of speaking, and a quiet sense of humour that sneaks up and takes you by surprise 🙂 I learned when she was an intern that she is not easily scared off by unsavoury/glamourless tasks, and this trait continues to shine!

In the midst of all the growth and change that has taken place over the last few years, I continue to be SO thankful for Erinn — my buddy, who took that huge step of courage and faith to completely re-imagine how to keep The Dale (then PNC) going, when it seemed that it couldn’t be done. Her vision for our community, compassion for our folks, strength of leadership, tenderness of spirit, and gentleness of wisdom continue to inspire and teach me.  

And then there were five! Pretty amazing.

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[Olivia, Pete, me, Meg, Erinn]

“Joy and Love”

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This week at The Dale’s worship service, a dear friend was struggling to keep their tears at bay. They know that we are not afraid of sadness here, but still felt the need to leave the service early, unable to cope with being out and about any longer.

Such intense sadness is not unusual for our friend, but they also have stretches of time when their head comes up above the waters. Later in the week, this friend managed to make it to one of our drop-ins. Partway through their time with us, this friend was heading out for a smoke. One the way out the door, this friend said to me, “I’m having a hard time right now… But this is a place of joy and love. [My partner] wanted me to come here today, and I’m glad that I did.”

This year I have been praying more intentionally and specifically for joy at The Dale’s weekly programming. I also pray for peace, harmony, safety, etc, but because life is so hard for so many people in our community, praying for deep joy during our drop-ins felt like an even bigger “ask”. So when my friend said that The Dale was a place of joy and love, it really struck me. Joy is possible, even in the midst of the tensions, difficulties, and struggles. Thanks be to God.

ps. Here is photo of some of our Monday kitchen crew. It’s unrelated to this post, except that every person in this photo brings a ton of joy to The Dale too!

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Hooray!

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The Dale community has had some really lovely moments recently. I want to share these, because in the midst of a hurting, mixed up world, we need to celebrate the good.

A few weeks ago, two community members had a misunderstanding that quickly escalated. The details aren’t important, but let’s just say that it wasn’t pretty, and one of the two community members was asked to take a couple of weeks off from Dale programming, to cool down. This past Monday was the first day that this friend was able to return, and things seemed to be going okay. Near the end of drop-in, Erinn caught my attention from across the room, and pointed toward the two folks who had been in such intense conflict a few weeks before. They were chatting, then hugging, then laughing. Amazing grace in action.

The day before, on Sunday, a dear friend made a big announcement: after 8 months on the street, she had found a room to rent, just a 15 minute walk away from Parkdale! The folks that typically gather for our Sunday service have been keenly aware of this friend’s journey of eviction and subsequent homelessness, so there was much rejoicing when they learned that she would be inside before the winter weather hit. Even though it is simply a room in a basement with shared facilities, in the current housing crisis this friend’s discovery truly feels miraculous.

Back to Monday: I was jogging along a Parkdale sidewalk, in search of a missing ingredient for our big lunch. I was stopped by a few friends who wanted to chat, and one who really wanted to show me something. “Look!” he said, “it’s my portrait! You know… because I’m always smiling!” I asked if I could take a picture, and share it with the wider Dale community (ie. you, dear reader!) So here’s Ronny, and his portrait. Hooray 🙂

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A rare and beautiful house blessing

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A few months ago, a dear Dale friend’s name finally came to the top of a waiting list for supportive, rent-geared-to-income housing. This was/is a huge deal, because these wait lists are incredibly long. Soon after moving in, our friend asked us to come and pray over her new home.

So, of course, we did! Meg, Pete, Erinn and I gathered in her living room, which was full of natural light from multiple bay windows. We received her offer of hospitality in the form of delicious cookies, and chatted for a while. Then we took turns praying blessing over her and her home.

This experience was wonderful, on many levels. It is always a privilege when we are welcomed into a friend’s space, whether it be a cramped room in a rooming house, a square of pavement outside, or a lovely apartment like this one. And it was encouraging to see a friend move from an unhealthy living situation to a much better one.

However, it is also heart-breaking and anger-inducing to know that this experience is all too rare, and takes far too many years to come to fruition for most people. It is beautiful and just and possible for people on the margins to be housed in a dignified and appropriately supportive manner. And it is not happening nearly quickly enough for the thousands of people who are waiting.

With an election around the corner, I hope against hope for real change in the affordable housing crisis. And I know that there are faith leaders in this city who are also meeting to discuss how to use their land/resources best to help provide more affordable housing. This is an issue that will take grassroots, organizational, and political will to address… and it is worth it.

Musical Chairs

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At The Dale I sometimes find myself in a conversation with someone where I need to work pretty hard to track what is being communicated. I believe that these conversations are important, even if I fail to follow my friend’s train of thought, because we all need to simply be heard.

Yesterday I was in one of those conversations, with a relatively new friend. This person is typically very quiet, tending to observe their surroundings rather than interacting in a verbal way. I wasn’t even sure if they were able to communicate in this manner.

But, lo and behold, while I was eating dinner at St. Francis’ Table this friend plunked themselves down and started talking to me! I needed to lean in close and ask them to repeat themselves a number of times, but quickly realized that there were a number of deep and earnest thoughts being communicated to me. Again, I needed to work hard to track these thoughts, but near the end my friend came out with this beautiful statement:

“Life isn’t a game of musical chairs… There is always a place for you. It’s not a game of musical chairs. There’s always a spot for you in God’s hands.”

This thought has really stuck with me, given the reality of so many people these days: people facing eviction, folks being pushed from one temporary shelter to another, people who have been homeless for a long time, refugees, people facing deportation, people who are made to feel that there is no place for them in society or the church because of who they are… The list could go on.

My friend is absolutely right; there is always a place for each one of us in God’s hands. My hope and prayer is that we will all work hard to make our cities and communities feel less and less like a game of musical chairs.

Captured moments

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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

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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.