Claiming the Moral High Ground

Posted September 20, 2011 by fucm
Categories: Uncategorized

The arrest last week of Randall Hopley in Sparwood, BC  for the abduction of a three year old child and the comments made by the child’s father, raise for us a profound question.  What do we do with people who have committed criminal acts that society considers morally abhorent?  While it is true that Randall Hopley will spend a significant amount of time behind bars for his conviction, it is also true that he will not receive a life sentence.  At some point he will be returned to Canadian society. How he will be treated upon his return is a question for all of us to ponder. Paul Hebert, Kienan’s father, offers a challenging perspective.

A September 17th article in The Globe and Mail quotes Hebert:

Sitting at his home, nearly a week after the safe return of his son, Paul Hebert is no less sympathetic to Randall Hopley than he was the day he proclaimed his forgiveness for what he did. “Forgiveness is a condition of the heart,” he said on the phone. “There’s two paths you can choose when you come into a situation like ours: anger or compassion. Anger is for people who only want to see themselves as the victim. Compassion allows you to get beyond that and move on.”

That does not mean, Mr. Hebert was quick to point out, that Mr. Hopley shouldn’t be held accountable for what he did. Or that he shouldn’t be forced to get the help he needs.

“But how can you be angry with someone who needs help as much as he does?” said Mr. Hebert. “He still had the compassion to bring Kienan back and I can’t forget that. I believe there isn’t a human on earth who isn’t salvageable.”

Recent  media attention directed at First United which concerned our hiring of a man given a conditional discharge on a charge of indecent exposure also raises some important social questions that are larger than simply a question of safety at First United Church.    The outrage expressed at the actions of First United to hire a man deemed by the judge to pose no threat to vulnerable people reveals a hysteria that covers up the harder questions that we all have to deal with.  If a man deemed not to be a threat, in a court-ordered supervised treatment program, cannot hope to work in an environment where there are at least six other staff on site, a designated women’s area staffed only by women, 240 pairs of vigilant eyes plus 32 security cameras monitoring every one’s behaviour how is it expected that we can ever integrate people who have been guilty of more significant crimes back into human society?  And if we don’t integrate those people and we do not have the grounds on which we can lock them up, where do they go?  

Last week’s outrage reveals the hypocrisy in this neighbourhood.  We have heard reports of sexual violence taking place at other facilities including woman-on-woman sexual assault.  Those instances of violence don’t get the kind of attention we have received.  Nor do the policies of exclusion which limit the problems agencies have to deal with.  First United Church has been intentional over the past four years in welcoming those who are not welcomed elsewhere.   We deal with individuals and behaviours that many other agencies, including those who are most vociferous in criticizing us, are not willing to deal with.  We welcome those who have been banned from agencies like WISH and the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre.  When they can’t go to those places, they come to us.  Plain and simple.  We do this because we believe with Paul Hebert that “there isn’t a human on earth who isn’t salvageable.”   Until there is a clear policy in this city and province to deal with those who are among the most difficult to deal with, there is no moral high ground on which any of us can stand.

 

 

The Future of Faith

Posted September 1, 2011 by fucm
Categories: Uncategorized

 Two pieces of writing came together this week which help me understand the context in which the changes at First United are happening.  The first one is Harvey Cox’s book “The future of faith”  which I discovered in the “for sale” bin at Banyan Books in Kitsilano last weekend.  The second is a blog post by my colleague Bruce Sanguin entitled “Lost in Translation.”  You can find the whole thing, plus other thought-provoking reflections by Bruce, at www.ifdarwinprayed.com

Both pieces of writing are important because they frame the momentous changes that happening in religion during these early years of the twenty-first century.  Phyllis Tickle describes this time period as “the great emergence,” a seismic shift in the way we understand what it means to be a person of faith and what it means to be part of an identified religious tradition.

 Harvey Cox begins his book by asking the following question:

What does the future hold for religion, and for Christianity in particular?  At the beginning of the new millennium three qualities mark the world’s spiritual profile, all tracing trajectories that will reach into the coming decades.  The first is the unanticipated resurgence of religion in both public and private life around the globe.  The second is that fundamentalism, the bane of the twentieth century, is dying. But the third and most important, though often unnoticed, is a profound change in the elemental nature of religiousness.

Working in a setting in which we describe ourselves as a church but in which we function unlike any other United Church that I have been a part of, it is the third of Cox’s points that intrigues me the most. We have been intuitively seeking a model of being a church that meets the needs of this particular place in this particular time.  We know that what is emerging here can’t simply be placed in the structures that have served the church in the past nor can it be placed in structures that don’t allow space for it to reach for the fullness of its vision.  Cox’s writing helps to give a context to the changes we have felt are necessary but for which we haven’t always had the language.

Cox says that the understanding the differences between “faith” and “belief” are critical to grasping how the ground is shifting.  He writes:

“It is true that for many people “faith” and “belief” are just two words for the same thing.  But they are not the same, and in order to grasp the magnitude of the religious upheaval now under way, it is important to clarify the difference.  Faith is about deep-seated confidence. …Belief, on the other hand, is more like opinion…..We can believe something to be true without it making much difference to us, but we place our faith only in something that is vital for the way we live.  Of course people sometimes confuse faith with beliefs, but it will be hard to comprehend the tectonic shift in Christianity today unless we understand the distinction between the two.”

 The distinction between faith and belief has lived itself out in the two thousand year history of Christianity.  He describes three uneven length periods of history.

The first might be called the “Age of Faith.”  It began with Jesus and his immediate disciples when a buoyant faith propelled the movement he initiated.  During this first period of both explosive growth and brutal persecution, their sharing in the living Spirit of Christ united Christians with each other, and “faith” meant hope and assurance in the dawning of a new era of freedom, healing, and compassion that Jesus had demonstrated. To be a Christian meant to live in his Spirit, embrace his hope, and to follow him in the works that he had begun.

The second period in Christian history can be called the “Age of Belief.”  Its seeds appeared within a few short decades of the birth of Christian when church leaders began formulating orientation programs for new recruits who had not know Jesus or his disciples personally.  Emphasis on belief began to grow when these primitive instruction kits thickened into catechisms, replacing faith in Jesus with tenets about him…Then, during the closing years of the third century, something more ominous occurred.  An elite class-soon to become a clerical caste – began to take shape, and ecclesial specialists distilled the various teaching manuals into lists of beliefs…. [With Constantine’s involvement]…”From an energetic movement of faith it coagulated into a phalanx of required beliefs…The empire became “Christian, “ and Christianity became imperial.”

The Age of Belief lasted roughly fifteen hundred years, ebbing in fits and starts with the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, the secularization of Europe, and the anticolonial upheavals of the twentieth century.  It was already comatose when the European Union chiselled the epitaph on its tombstone in 2005 by declining to mention the word “Christian” in its constitution.

Cox does not condemn the Age of Belief, an Age that he acknowledges we are still living in.   He does point out, however, that the Age of Belief is passing and a new time is coming into being.   Cox describes the third age as developing in movements that… “accent spiritual experience, discipleship, and hope; pay scant attention to creeds; and flourish without hierarchies.  We are now witnessing the beginning of a “post-Constantinian era.”  Christians on five continents are shaking off the residues of the second phase (the Age of Belief) and negotiating a bumpy transition into a fresh era for which a name has not yet been coined. 

Bruce Sanguin also makes the distinction between belief and faith.  He writes:             

When Jesus used the word “faith”, he wasn’t talking about faith in God. That was a given. He was talking about faith as agency. Faith the size of a mustard seed can remove mountains, heal the sick, and bring an oppressive Empire down. When the disciples ask him to “increase our faith”, I don’t think that they were asking him to help them believe more profoundly in God’s capacity to act unilaterally to make a difference. Rather, they were asking Jesus to increase whatever it was inside of him that could make things happen for the better.  They were amazed at his agency, his capacity to imagine and then enact an alternative future. For Jesus, all things were possible through faith. This is what was lighting Paul up as well. He was absolutely convinced that the church could change the world, if the world would adopt the heart and mind of the Christ. And he gave his life to the realization of that vision.

This new, unnamed era is closer to the first era, the Age of Faith, than to the Age of Belief according to Cox.  The cultural movement of people claiming to be “spiritual” but not “religious” is indicative of a directional movement that is happening.   Harvey Cox explains:

As in the past, today “spirituality” can mean a range of different things.    At a minimum, it evokes an ambiguous self-reflection devoid of content.  For some it can become mere navel gazing, a retreat from responsibility in a needy world.  Sleek ads in glossy magazines promise a weekend of “spiritual renewal” in a luxurious spa where, for a price, one can reap the benefits of a sauna, a pedicure, and a guru who will help you cope with the stress of your demanding job.  For others, however, “spirituality” can mean a disciplined practice of meditation, prayer, or yoga that can lead to deepened engagement in society.

Spirituality” can mean a host of things, but there are three reasons why the term is in such wide use.  First, it is still a form of tacit protest.  It reflects a widespread discontent with the preshrinking of “religion,” Christianity in particular, into a package of theological propositions by the religious corporations that box and distribute such packages.  Second, it represents an attempt to voice the awe and wonder before the intricacy of nature that many feel is essential to human life without stuffing them into ready-to-wear ecclesiastical patterns.  Third, it recognizes the increasingly porous borders between the different traditions, and, like the early Christian movement, it looks more to the future than to the past.  The question remains whether emerging new forms of spirituality will develop sufficient ardour for justice and enough cohesiveness to work for it effectively.  Nonetheless, the use of the term “spirituality” constitutes a sign of the jarring transition through which we are now passing, from an expiring Age of Belief into a new but not yet fully realized Age of the Spirit.

This three-stage profile of Christianity helps us understand the often confusing religious turmoil going on around us today.  It suggest that what some people dismiss as deviations or unwarranted innovations are often retrievals of elements that were once accepted features of Christianity, but were discarded somewhere along the way.  It frees people who shape their faith in a wide spectrum of ways to understand themselves as authentically Christian…

 Contemplating this transition time raises more questions than it provides answers.  If accepting certain beliefs no longer determines whether or not one is a Christian, then how will membership into a community of faith be determined?  Will membership even be important?  What is the purpose of baptism, or confirmation?  Would we even bother with transfers of membership?   Will people have a more loose relationship with denominational structures coming together for certain activities but without committing themselves to being members?  What is a church?  Does a church exist for its members or for the community in which it is located?  What is the purpose of a pastoral charge in a new structure?  How would a presbytery create such a thing?  Is a pastoral charge a thing or a loose web of relationships? What kind of governance would be necessary?

How will we make decisions about leadership?  Will we even have leadership in the same forms that we’ve had in the past?  What kind of skill sets would we need to develop in order to encourage people in this new time?  What would faith formation look like in a new model?  How would you know that you’d formed anything?  What would happen if we didn’t think about “forming faith” but already assumed that faith was present in action? 

It seems obvious to me that there will not be one answer to any of these questions nor will there be one model of being together that fits everyone.  In this time of transition, we will need to experiment with new ways of being communities of faith.  We won’t always get it right. We will try on new ways of being and discard ways of being as we sort out who and what we are. 

“Negotiating a bumpy transition into a fresh era” will be an incredibly difficult thing to do.  No, that is an naive understatement.  It will not just be difficult.  It will be painful.  In my own denomination, The United Church of Canada, there is a shadow side to our denominational identity.  Our crest is inscribed with the Latin words ut omnes unum sint  which mean That all may be one.   While we long to live into the reality of those words, there is also a deep-seated anxiety about disagreement between us and a fear that such disagreement will lead to our destruction.  We will need to confront our own fears about our life together if we are going to be able to let go of ways of being that we have cherished in the past and allow space in our being together for difference.  We will need to acknowledge the sadness of those who mourn for a way of being that is passing despite our best efforts.  We will need to celebrate the sacrifices of those who have given their working lives to serving the church in the best and only way they knew how.  We will need to acknowledge the impatient energy of those who want to try something different and who are willing to confront the possibility of their own failure. 

Together we will need to commit ourselves to call forth the best in each other.  To trust that we are all people of faith,  attempting to discern a way forward in a difficult time.

Risk and Commitment

Posted August 19, 2011 by fucm
Categories: Uncategorized

The question of safety is always a question that is at the forefront in the minds of those of us who work and participate in the life of the community at 320 East Hastings.  We want this place to be safe for everyone – for those who use this place as a daily drop-in, for those who sleep here nightly, for those who participate in programs from other neighbourhoods, for those who come as practicum students to learn and share, for those of us who are staff and who are in this building daily.  We want this place to be safe.

 The question of whether First United is “safe” is a complicated question to answer.  Although it seems very straight forward on the surface, the question itself carries many layers of meaning. It cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.”   

In some ways it’s like talking about cars and safety.  We all live with a certain amount of risk in our lives in order to enjoy our lives to the fullest.  That risk is calculated risk and we all do our best to minimize the amount of risk we encounter.  When I drive my car, I trust that the guys in my local garage have done all of the safety inspections that are necessary.  They’ve checked my brakes and my tires.  My car passes all of the safety regulations put in place by the province.  I am a competent driver. I don’t drive if I’ve consumed alcohol. I drive my SMART car cautiously (especially when I go past a BIG truck) and I don’t venture out in horrendous weather.

And yet bad things happen.  We know that people die in car accidents.  Despite our best precautions, situations happen that are beyond a person’s control and the consequences are tragic for all.  I suppose that if one was making a choice between walking and driving a car one might logically surmise that overall one is safer if one walks.  That doesn’t stop us from owning, riding or driving cars.  We all live with a certain amount of risk, an amount that we deem appropriate, in order to take advantage of the benefits of car riding, to achieve our goals and to live our lives to the fullest.

Some of us can live with more risk than others and still claim their activity is safe.  Occasionally I channel-change past shows which feature car racing like the Indy 500.  I assume that race car drivers believe that their race cars are safe.  I have to assume that for the activity that they are involved in that they have done all of their safety checks and that they are good drivers. I have to assume that they know what they are doing and that they are in their right minds. The fact that most of them make it around the track time and time again suggests that perhaps race car driving is safe.  I wouldn’t be comfortable doing it, though.  It carries a risk factor that’s a little higher than what I can comfortably live with.     So when we talk about “safety” it’s important to know something, first of all, about levels of risk and secondly, about the purpose of the activity before we can fully assess it.

Working with those who have been chronically homeless and who are struggling with physical and mental health issues carries with it a certain amount of risk.  We know that First United is not a risk free environment.  But like my image of a car, we have worked carefully to put in place the correct policies and procedures to minimize that risk and to help people be safe.  We have committed significant financial resources to increase the number of staff who are on the floor at any one time.  We have worked with BC Housing and all departments of the City to make sure that we meet all building safety, health and fire codes.  We have hired additional women to staff the women’s area, an area that we have had in place since the first winter we opened.  Most recently we have increased the size of our women’s area and created women only, men only and couples only areas.  We have worked out a clear policy with the Ministry of Community and Family Development to make sure that we know what to do if a person under the age of 19 should want to sleep at First United.  We have continued to do training with our staff about how to de-escalate situations of potential violence.  With help from BC Housing we have installed additional security cameras throughout our building.  Our staff are trained in first aid.  We have been very intentional in working with the Vancouver Police Department to make sure that whenever there is criminal behaviour, that we have done our best to support the efforts of the police. We support the presence of the police in our building because we want this place to be safe for everyone. 

 Despite our very best efforts we have had violence in our building.   It is the hard reality of this neighbourhood and those with whom we are in community.  The chaos of personal lives spills over into relationships with other people and sometimes conflict erupts or those more vulnerable are taken advantage of.   When incidents occur,  we take it very seriously because violence between people violates the very goal of building community to which we remain committed.   Our staff respond to provide care and incidents are reported to the police.

We have had many individuals and groups tell us that the solution to the problem of violence is to ban those who exhibit such behaviour.  We have declined to follow their advice.  Our refusal to ban is not the result of some misguided do-gooder refusal to acknowledge the damage that violence does.  Nor is it to shield those who engage in criminal behaviour by granting them “sanctuary.”  We have granted “sanctuary” to one person and one person only at First United-and that is Rodney Watson.  The very narrow definition of “sanctuary” which was agreed to by the Oversight Board of First United does not apply to any other individual in our building.

We refuse to ban because banning doesn’t work.  It is a band-aid solution that absolves an organization of liability but it doesn’t do anything to solve the deeper underlying problems of what to do with the really difficult, damaged people who are known by every organization in this neighbourhood.  In our case, it simply displaces the problem from inside the building to outside of it.   Rather than being a step forward in making the neighbourhood safer for everyone, it is a step backwards.   It breaks the fragile bonds that our staff have established with those who are problematic making it impossible for us to develop the kind of interventions needed to help those who are most troubled. We cannot get alongside people when we don’t know where they are. You can’t build trust if you’re not willing to meet a person’s basic needs for food, shelter and companionship.  From our perspective, it is better for us to deal with those individuals in our building than have them wander the streets disconnected from healthy human community.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that those whose behaviour is problematic are allowed to run freely among those who are vulnerable.  Nor does it imply that we don’t call the police when someone refuses to behave or that we won’t press criminal charges when needed.  We will honour a police “no-go” order if we know that there is an agreed upon plan to get someone the kind of help that they need.  We will ask for someone to be charged so that we can work with the criminal justice system to make effective change happen.  When people exhibit disruptive behaviour, their access to parts of the building is curtailed.  Through it all we remain committed to being in relationship with an individual regardless of their behaviour.

From our conversations with levels of government, the police and other service providers, we know that there is no overarching strategy in place to help those in our city who are among the most difficult to deal with.  Our mental health and addiction treatment resources are woefully inadequate.  There is no integrated response across helping professions to create coordinated responses.  Our expectations about the ability of some people to access and maintain housing, even supportive housing, are unrealistic.    In our experience, it  takes intentional and persistent effort to establish relationships with people whose behaviour suggests that they aren’t interested in help.   It takes commitment even in the face of potential violence. 

 The measures of success are often difficult to see.  They don’t show up in the reports issued by agencies or governments.   Sometimes they are encapsulated in a small story told in passing by a community worker who has a conversation with someone who has not spoken to another living soul in a year.  While the stars in the heavens might not have realigned themselves or the heavenly choruses offered a resounding “hallelujah!” each tiny step towards health and wholeness is celebrated.  For those of us who work at First, these tiny steps are enough.  They are more than enough.

 

Places of Refuge

Posted July 12, 2011 by fucm
Categories: Uncategorized

 I used to think that the Mayor’s focus on street homelessness, ( as opposed to the broader category of homelessness), was just an easy election ploy to avoid dealing with the bigger issue which is the need for affordable housing in this city.   I wonder now whether I’ve been unfair to the Mayor and his team.  In retrospect, the focus on street homelessness is actually a far more challenging target because it focuses on those who are really difficult to be with – the chronically homeless that few people are able or want to house.

 When First United opened its doors three winters ago (at the request of the Mayor) and called its space a Place of Refuge rather than a shelter, we were going on a gut feeling that part of the reason why there were so many people sleeping rough in this city was not only because there weren’t enough shelter spaces for them but that the rules around shelter living were in fact a barrier to their participation. We guessed that the issues of chronic homelessness were more complicated than simply a lack of housing in the city and that individuals who were chronically homeless had issues that had somehow not been dealt with through their engagement with staff in the city shelters.  Having sheltered people in our pews for more than a decade, our staff were familiar with many of those who were homeless in the Downtown Eastside.  Our staff knew that many of the individuals who slept on the pews at First United during the daytime were walking the streets at night or were sleeping in the doorways of neighbourhood buildings.  For whatever reason, those individuals were not choosing to use the shelters even when there was space open for them.  The death of a 47 year old woman known as Tracy,  who burned to death huddled in her shopping cart despite offers from the police to transport her to a shelter, confirmed for us that something was missing for this particular group within the homeless population.  It became clear to us that we needed to be here for people like Tracy who preferred to take her chances in the bone-chilling cold rather than go inside.  In our conversations we identified a need for:

  •  A place which were open around the clock so that people could come and go when they wanted
  • A place where people did not have to give information about themselves
  • A place where people did not have to agreed to be case-managed as a condition of finding shelter
  • A place where people could take all of their belongings with them
  • A place where people who were in the throes of their mental illness or addiction would not be banned from participating in the life of the  community because of disruptive behaviour
  • A place for those who were not capable of sustaining housing but for whom small achievements could be celebrated in community
  • A place committed to being in relationship with those who are the most difficult to be around

For the past two and a half years, First United has provided a Place of Refuge to over 300 people day and night.  We are open 24/7,  365 days a year.  Our numbers have remained consistent over this time as people have moved in from the alleys and the parks to take up residence not only in the winter but in the summer as well.  Their presence in this building has enabled us to build relationships, to put names to faces, to stabilize health by providing three meals and a snack every day, to find housing for those who have wanted housing, to support and comfort and walk with individuals in their struggles with the mental health, hospital and correctional systems.  Together we have become the community of First United Church.

In the best of all possible worlds, no one at First United would say that what exists here is an ideal living situation. It is, as Judy Graves, Coordinator of the City’s Tenant Assistance Program, says a “housing disaster response.”  This is not a purpose-built building. We struggle with an aging, decaying structure. There are serious stresses with this number of people living together. The potential for violence is an everyday reality. There are issues of perceived liability that probably cause government employees to lie awake at night.

Despite that, this is a model of engagement that works. Despite the public’s concerns about safety, men and women come here and stay.  They choose to sleep here rather than take their chances in the public parks.  By welcoming those who are the most marginalized in this neighbourhood we have found a way to engage with those who are chronically homeless. We have been able to get the kind of mental health and physical care that many people need.  We have been able to advocate for individuals who cannot advocate for themselves when they come in contact with the hospital or judicial systems. We believe that we have filled a need in this city that no one else is able or willing to fill.  If there was another model working in the City that would welcome those who are not welcomed anywhere else, we would gladly close our doors at night.  Unfortunately such a model does not exist. Until that time, we believe that there needs to be a space made on the City and the Province’s housing continuum for Places of Refuge and for the kinds of people who call First United Church their home.

Radical Hospitality

Posted June 30, 2011 by fucm
Categories: Uncategorized

Yesterday I posted on our Facebook page, a brief account of an incident that happened outside First United Church.

 About half an hour ago, a member of our community was hurt outside the building. He had accidently wandered off the sidewalk and stepped out into the path of an oncoming truck. As we waited for the ambulance to take him away, the elderly couple who had hit him stood beside their truck looking shaken.  Two women from our community, both of them damaged by addiction and years of living on the street, went up to the woman and talked to her. And then each of the women hugged her and told her that it wasn’t her fault. That it had been an accident….A moment of grace on East Hastings. 

 I’ve been reflecting over the last couple of weeks on the notion of “radical hospitality” and yesterday’s incident has added something new to my thinking.  I  came across a sermon by Gary Bagley of Hilton Presbyterian Church in Newport News, Virginia which helped to shape my thinking.  If you want to read the whole sermon, you can find it at http://www.hiltonpres.org/cgi-bin/MySQLdb?VIEW=/viewfiles/view_document.txt&docid=272

 Let me quote it in large sections because I think the writer captures some key insights and says it better than I could say myself.  In speaking about spiritual disciplines, Bagley writes:

The spiritual practices of generosity, contemplation, hospitality, worship, service, and faith development help us practice being alive, just as does walking on a beach, holding a new born child, or taking a good brisk walk or run. They develop our character. But as someone has said, “You can’t take an epidural shot to ease the pain of giving birth to character,” which is why these spiritual practices are called disciplines. The disciplines put us in a position to grow, encounter God, and develop as people of character. The spiritual disciplines not only have a positive impact on our lives, they have the power to change the world around us.

Hospitality goes beyond smiling, greeting,  welcoming, and friendliness. What people need in our world is not “friendly,” but friendship.  Hospitality can be seen like a thread running through the scriptures. In Deuteronomy, God reminds the people of Israel to welcome the stranger, the sojourner, the wanderer. Why?  “For you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”(Deuteronomy 10:19)…

Hospitality has us seeing people as Jesus sees them and seeing Jesus in the people God brings before us. The letter of Hebrews cautions, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:2)…

The most powerful trait any church can have, I think, regardless of the height of its steeple, bell tower, or the size of its membership, is the characteristic of radical hospitality. Hospitality is not a program, not a single hour of ministry in the life of a congregation. It stands at the heart of the Christian way of life. It is a living icon of wholeness in God that says, “We don’t care who you are or where you’ve come from, or what your background is, you are here now and you are our brothers and sisters in Christ.”

Sometimes it’s easy for us in a community of faith to forget what we’ve received that our neighbors need…and why our hospitality is so important. People need to know that God loves them, that they are of supreme value, and that their life has significance. People need to know that they are not alone, that when they face life’s difficulties they are surrounded by a community of grace; they need to know that they do not have to figure out entirely for themselves how to cope with family tensions, self-doubts, periods of despair, economic reversals, and the temptations that hurt themselves or others. 

People need to  know the peace that runs deeper than an absence of conflict, the hope that sustains them even through the most painful periods of grief, the sense of belonging that blesses them and stretches them and lifts them out of their own preoccupations. People need to learn how to offer and accept forgiveness and how to serve and be served. People need to know that life is not having something to live on but something to live for, that life comes not from taking for oneself but by giving of oneself. People need a sustaining sense of purpose. When we give radical hospitality in the spirit of Christ, those are the doors we are opening. The power of friendship that can change a person’s life must never be under-estimated.

As I remember yesterday’s incident outside of First United, I am humbled by the example of radical hospitality offered by women in our community to the woman in the truck.  They were able to put themselves in the shoes of the “other” and imagine what it would be like to live with the memories of the accident.  They knew something of the sense of guilt that comes even when one is not at fault and they offered the gift of forgiveness.  They knew that sometimes when things are really bad, the physical touch of another through a hug helps us feel like we are not alone in our struggle.  They offered their hospitality to the stranger in our midst and through their act of generosity they created an experience of community that broke through the barriers of prosperity.    Through their witness, being a  “church” became more than being an institution.  It became the living, breathing presence of the Spirit among us.

Reflecting on the Riot

Posted June 16, 2011 by fucm
Categories: Uncategorized

I have been viewing the photos of the riot which occurred last night in our city. Everyone I have talked to at First United has expressed dismay that the reputation of Vancouver has been hurt by the senseless acts of vandalism that we witnessed on the television and in the papers. No one likes to lose a hockey game – especially one as important to us as last night’s Stanley Cup game 7 but that pales in comparison to longer term damage done to our reputation as the jewel of the Pacific Coast.

Questions have been raised on Facebook about what would trigger such anger that people, who one would think are usually quite sensible, would happily have their pictures taken by the media and cellphone as they walked out of places like London Drugs with their loot. Most people with thieving tendencies that I know (and I know a few) prefer to do their stealing when no one is looking. I think that it would take more than a copious amount of alcohol and drugs in order for people to feel so nonchalant that they would waltz out of a gutted store in full view of the world. And with the exception of a guy holding the upper torso of an unclothed female mannequin, most of the people I saw represented in the rioting didn’t look like they were particularly down on their luck. Having the cash to invest in a $140 Canucks jersey makes one think that those who were looting were not among the visibly marginalized of this city.

So what was going on last night? Why would those who appear to be among the affluent riot and those in the Downtown Eastside who are so obviously disadvantaged in this society not engage in such behaviour? No one for a moment would suggest that there isn’t violence in this community. Gerry’s murder in Oppenheimer Park two weeks ago reminds us all that violence is a part of the reality of these streets. But the violence that we see is most often one-on-one – the result of a debt not paid, a mental illness not treated, a grudge held, frustration that leads to a fight. Some of it is systemic in that there are individuals within recognized groups who have higher levels of violence committed against them than against individuals in other groups (eg. women are more frequently targeted). But even in the protests that take place in this community like the annual march in memory of the women who have died in this neighbourhood, there is rarely violence. The pack mentality that characterized last night’s activities doesn’t happen here – and that’s with the presence of drugs and alcohol in our midst.

It seems apparent from the media coverage that there were individuals who came into the core to cause trouble and that that would have happened whether the Canucks won or lost. In my world it’s a rare sporting event in which not only do I pack my water bottle, but I bring my hammer and my Molotov cocktail with me. Those who incited the riot brought the matches that started the blaze but the fuel that kept it going was already in the discontent of the crowd. I don’t think that it’s simple enough to say that that fuel was the result of alcohol and disappointment in the hockey result. What was it about the demographic of that particular group that would not only cause the violence to erupt but maintain it throughout the night?

The question deserves research because the answers will help us understand something about the culture that we live in. Through this past eighteen months we have prided ourselves on our ability to be together in the streets of this city. Last night’s violence revealed that creating real community is more difficult that we had perhaps anticipated.

Showing Up

Posted June 6, 2011 by fucm
Categories: Uncategorized

I was reading a blog post recently by United Church of Canada Moderator Mardi Tindal written in response to an article entitled “The Split in the United Church” published a couple of weeks in The National Post by writer Charles Taylor. Taylor describes the United Church as in the “midst of a breathtaking erosion in its membership“ and attributed a large part of the problem not only to the United Church’s engagement with the secular world but with Tindal’s reluctance to define what elements of Christian doctrine are essential to membership in the United Church.

Tindal’s response is quite measured and humorous, and one I appreciate. She starts out by saying that while she is pleased that The National Post still has a religions writer and that the writer is curious about the United Church, she didn’t think the writer actually understood The United Church of Canada. Judging by the responses to the article on the National Post website, it is obvious that a lot of people writing in don’t get us either. I am not sure that this is because Tindal didn’t explain herself well. It may be because the paradigm out of which this denomination, and Tindal, operates is not the same paradigm out of which the writer and his readers operate. When there is cognitive dissonance between paradigms, sometimes it doesn’t matter how clearly you explain something. Generally something else has to shift before the “ah hah!” moment happens and the person struggling with the experience of confronting the different paradigm says, “Finally! I get it!” Of course, they might get it and not agree, but that is a far easier conversation to have than simply confronting puzzlement at a belief level.

One of the key points of “not getting it” came in response to the writer’s question of what was the minimum that a person interested in the United Church should believe before becoming a part of the denomination. According to Taylor, Tindal seemed reluctant to come up with a specific doctrinal answer. For Tindal, her reluctance to answer was a result of a different way of seeing faith and church. She writes in response:

I thought, briefly, about the affirmations we ask people to make in our membership liturgies. Strictly speaking, I suppose, naming those would have been the “correct” answer to the question. I decided not to go there. How could I possibly reduce belonging and community to the recitation of a few words?

I thought, at somewhat greater length, of many good and faithful United Church people I know:

* young adults who have come for community and stayed to grow in faith
* Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and people of other faiths who, for whatever reason, find from time to time a place of safety or nurture in our pews and join us in building the realm of God
* people I think of sometimes, not flippantly but affectionately, as “the walking wounded”: people whose capacities do not fit them for success in the world but who are cared for in community, and in that same community are enabled to contribute—sometimes by setting up tables and chairs, sometimes by helping me to remember that we are all, at times, among the walking wounded

These people have “entered” the faith. They belong. Why would we ever subject them to a test?

To me, the minimum requirement for “entry” into the United Church is a desire to follow the way of Jesus, to “do justice, show kindness, and walk humbly with God.” As evidence of that desire, I don’t need a recitation. I’ll take showing up, and living one’s faith.

As First United moves forward in its quest to be recognized as a church in this denomination, Tindal’s words about what it takes to have membership in The United Church of Canada offer a challenge to any who would hold the doors closed to those who participate in our life. Membership is not simply about affirmation of doctrinal beliefs. It’s about the much harder task of living out those beliefs in the building of an inclusive community where all find a welcome. That is the Way of Jesus.