Today approximately 45 high school students from Milton joined us at PNC. We split them into groups and rotated them through three experiences: walking the neighbourhood with Joanna, participating in the drop-in with me and listening to the story of a man named Steve Grant.
I was thrilled that Steve got to share what living on the streets had been like and how his life is now, living in an intentional community house. I count it such a privilege to have been a part of his journey and to call him my friend. He is a teammate to Joanna and I. Steve helped break down barriers today. Those students understand a bit better that becoming homeless can happen to anyone, that none of us are immune.
Some of the students confessed that at first they felt as though they might be intruding. Interesting that by the end of the day this feeling evaporated. I was so heartened (though not at all surprised) to hear that our community truly hosted them. PNC folks wanted to make sure that the students didn’t “leave hungry”. People who are so used to wondering where the next meal might come from showed selflessness when passing the potatoes.
I’ve written before about hoping to shift around traditional power dynamics. Today was a beautiful example of that. Today the people who some would refer to as PNC’s “guests” became the hosts.
I love it.
I’ve said this before and I will say it again: I often wonder when people are going to figure out that I have no idea what I’m doing.
Sometimes this thought creeps in to my heart when I’ve had a terrible week. Sometimes it comes when things are going surprisingly well. In truth, I think it resides in me on some level all the time. I’m on a steep learning curve.
PNC, especially over the past year, has been one wild decision after another. No money? Okay then, we’ll get rid of our building. No food for the drop-in? We’ll call Second Harvest. No place to put our stuff? We’ll get rid of it. On and on it goes.
Here’s the amazing part: we’re still here. And we’re not just surviving, we’re thriving. Not thriving in the ways some might expect: we are still the church without our own walls with very few belongings. I still take a load of files and a little laptop to any number of my offices (read: coffee shops) along the Queen Street West strip. Joanna and I had our staff meeting on a park bench last week. However, our Monday drop-in is ever-growing; our friends at the Salvation Army Thrift Shop are making the Coffee Corner LARGER because our people are packing it out; we’ve started an art drop-in at the Health Centre; our plot in the Community Garden is secure; we have a committed team out on the streets every Wednesday night; our worship service is developing and we’re even about to change our name. And those are the things that are fairly easy to describe. Some of the best stuff is happening in the little moments stolen with our friends: the conversations around a table, the accompanying someone to court, the sitting on a curb and hearing a person’s life story, the holding of someone’s hand as they make the decision to get clean.
While these things are going so well, I still have frequent moments of wondering how the next bit of money is going to come or how I’m possibly going to find new supporters. I was reminded this week that what we need often comes in very unexpected ways. A country club called The Boulevard Club decided to raise funds for us through their annual tennis “Calcutta”. Who knew that could happen? Just today a pastor told me his church is prepared to support us in any way they can, this a full year after hearing my impassioned plea for PNC and our need for help at a conference. I am constantly reminded that while I need to do everything I can for this place, I also need to just get out-of-the-way and let it happen. God’s timeline is not necessarily mine.
So I fumble along, fully aware that at any moment I could fall flat on my face. Which is okay, because this was never really about me to begin with. I’m just a piece of the puzzle that is PNC. I’m confident too that when I land on the ground, one of my friends will be there offering me a hand, maybe gently teasing me about the fall and telling me to “get on with it…this place is about us and that us includes you”.
I speak from experience.
It feels like spring is finally springing. I walked around today without a coat, knelt by some crocuses and took a deep breath. It occurred to me as I sat in the dirt that this spring I am feeling rather reflective.
Much of this is rooted in that I’m watching my little girl grow up so quickly. In some ways it seems like yesterday that I first held wee Cate or watched her crawl or walked her to Junior Kindergarten. Now she is in grade 5 and about to graduate to middle school (she even had a grad photo taken. Ha!). Though she is rapidly changing, she is still so much a little girl. She doesn’t seem eager to be more than ten years old. I love this.
At the same time I am keenly aware that she has already experienced much in her youth: a Dad with MS, a Grandpa who died too soon and a Gran who has to live in hospital. Through the work of her parents she routinely sees street life, mental health challenges, substance addiction and even more tragic death. Lately she is learning some tough life lessons at school. Not easy stuff.
I’m thinking though that there really is something to being able to experience true joy because you also know what it is to grieve. In a sense you cannot have one without the other. And Cate definitely has the ability to be joyful.
Our afternoon went something like this: Cate ran out of school, laughing and skipping, surrounded by some of her best friends. They all ran to our home, gobbled up a snack and proceeded to jump on our neighbour’s trampoline for more than an hour. They made up silly jokes and later even convinced me that I had to jump too (quite a sight I tell you). This evening we’ve been sitting together with music on, occasionally dancing, only breaking to eat cookies and drink tea. Now she’s back outside and singing, though not before savouring pretty much every bite of that chocolate chip cookie.
My prayer for Cate (and I’ve told her so) is that she would retain the ability to hold grief and joy in balance: that she wouldn’t be fearful of experiencing either one. I hope she will always dance without inhibition, savour cookies, cry when she needs to and find the spring in any season.
A year ago we decided that it might be time to change Parkdale Neighbourhood Church’s name. This wasn’t a new idea, it just finally felt right. While we are very truly “church” for people, we don’t function as a church organization, meaning we are not supported by our members. This has been a huge stumbling block for us. We’ve long thought that maybe a name change would help people understand the scope of our work.
I’ve discovered that choosing a new name is HARD. How do you capture the essence of PNC in a word or two? How do you suggest that we are very rooted in the neighbourhood?
A lot of time has been spent asking the people of PNC what this place means to them. This has very much factored into the process. Just yesterday at the drop-in I was asking people to write down some of their thoughts about PNC. Here’s what one friend wrote: “Without the PNC many community members would go hungry and/or cold!…Many of us would be lost without the PNC”. How beautiful. People consistently use the word “safe” to describe how they feel in this community. I know that I use that word too.
While it isn’t yet time to announce the fruit of our labour, I thought it appropriate to warn that this change is coming. So, don’t be surprised when we finally unveil it.
What a journey this is.
Here’s what I’ve been thinking a lot about lately: power.
At PNC we are constantly considering what it means to place people who usually aren’t, at the centre. Some of us are street involved, some are living on Ontario Works or Disability, some are refugees, some are dealing with a substance addiction, some have a mental health challenge that could range from depression to schizophrenia, some are under housed. The truth is people who struggle with these particular things are often pushed to the margins.
So what does it mean that these friends are the core? It means that we are shifting the power. Rather than it be about what I (in all my relative capacity) have for YOU, it is about what we have for each other. It is hopefully about inviting people into full participation of the community, in so much as they are able.
A piece of stone fruit has a centre, or core and is surrounded by flesh. Those two things together make a peach a peach. PNC is a place for all people, regardless of circumstance. We’re not suggesting that someone who has financial means, a house and an addiction to coffee *ahem* instead of crack has no role here. We’re just trying to turn the power structures that we are all so used to, upside-down.
In a sense we are creating space: space for us to realize that when you strip away the trappings of this world, we are all the same. And while we are fundamentally the same, we have been created with our own personalities and gifts. One could argue that I have power at PNC, and in some ways that is correct, except that I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that while I have a unique role to play, PNC is not about me. I also know that I am encouraged to bring what I have to offer by everyone there.
Power can be about the possession of control over others. It is all too often misused. Power can also be defined as the “capability of doing or accomplishing something”. That is what we long for at PNC: to have everyone contributing what they can, and in so doing, creating a very deep sense of community.
Fight Shift the power.
I was at a conference this past weekend. A spoken word artist got up and summarized the thoughts we had been batting around all morning as a group. One phrase I’ve been rolling around my tongue ever since: I am made whole though I have holes. We are whole even with our holes.
I have many holes. While I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve, the truth is some of those holes are hidden deep, deep down. I’ve come to realize that the more I share my own brokenness, the more people are willing to share their own with me. The stuff we share is painful and sad and sometimes just downright hard. Sound depressing? Maybe, BUT…
By making our holes the starting point, something beautiful happens: we are freed to discover the grace and mercy that can fill our lives. We can celebrate! We are no longer so concerned about hiding the flaws because we realize we are not alone. Being exposed has given me the courage to journey toward deeper wholeness. I’m like a broken jar of clay, except there’s light peeking out.
Today a dear friend and community member came to PNC a complete wreck. She was shaking and seeing things and seriously fearful. She laid all of it out for us to see. I ended up accompanying her to Old City Hall where she had failed to show up as an accused just days before. She was convinced that she would be placed behind bars, but knew she needed to account for her errors. On the car ride over she talked about being alone, misunderstood and living without purpose. She agreed that we should pray together once we parked. After a tearful few minutes we made our way to the office of the Crown.
Once there we made the amazing discovery that they understood her failure to appear and have given her another chance. What sweet, sweet grace. She wept again, though this time with different tears.
On our way home, my friend said, “Huh, I guess I’m not as alone or as dejected as I thought. You know what I want to do? I want to go to a movie, eat popcorn and get a huge pop, I haven’t done that for 20 years. Will you come with me? I want to get better. I want to celebrate”. She knows not everything is fixed, not all of the demons are gone. In that moment though there was a new light pouring out of her.
Yes my friend, let’s go to the movies.
I had the honour of attending a funeral for a young man named Mark Andrew Rumsby on Easter Monday. Marky lived his life with an unidentified genetic disorder. As his dad said, “he had no words, but developed a way of looking at people that transcended speech”. Marky had an incredible capacity to make people feel.
I walked away from the church tearfully longing to learn Marky’s way of communicating. Ironic I suppose that I am busy writing down these thoughts. I am so full of words. Sometimes they are helpful, sometimes they are not. Oftentimes they don’t have the effect I so desire. On Easter Sunday it got pointed out that Mary Magdalene, when greeted by Jesus himself, was so wrapped up in wanting to find the body and FIX it, that she wasn’t even aware of who she was looking at. “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” I will get him. I will fix this. All too often I am Mary.
I want to learn how to listen. I don’t mean simply to sit and listen to someone else’s words (though I want to do that well too), I mean to learn how to hear those things unspoken: unspoken pain, unspoken loneliness, unspoken regret and apology, unspoken hopes, unspoken joys. By waiting for the words I could be missing what is already being said. I need to quiet myself and attune my heart.
Maybe in the process I will become a little more like Marky.