I recently spoke at a regional gathering of a network of people known as StreetLevel. Some people asked if I would share the same words here…
On a sunny day in June, nearly two years ago, I had to pull down the Parkdale Neighbourhood Church (PNC) sign from both the gate and door at 201 Cowan Avenue. For me, this act made things official: PNC no longer had its own building. That was the day we became a church without our own walls. I like to say it was when we “spilled into the streets”.
Fast forward to the present. Parkdale Neighbourhood Church is now known as The Dale Ministries. You might wonder why we would seemingly shift away from “church” by changing our name. As an organization we don’t function as a traditional church institution, for instance, we are not made self-sufficient based on tithing. Our people give, they just give out of very little. We came exceedingly close to ceasing to exist because of this. Playing with the language that had become a barrier to our long-term stability was worth it. At the beginning of our search for a new name, I asked our community members to describe what PNC meant to them. Though there were many descriptors used, the number one word was “safe”. A dale is a valley that cuts through a mountain, the place where one hides when facing a storm. Every day The Dale Ministries, or more often simply The Dale, endeavours to be a safe community for many, including me.
We are a varied group: some of us live rough outside, some in community housing and some in houses of our own. Some of us are struggling with addiction to street drugs or alcohol or television or eating too much food. Some of us have diagnosed mental health challenges that range from depression to schizophrenia. Some of us are refugees. Some of us are seniors. You get the picture. All of us are broken. We choose again and again to journey alongside one another toward deeper wholeness in Christ. We choose to be church. For The Dale this journey continues without a building of our own.
To be honest, I was relieved when the move out of our former space was finally done. The amount of “stuff” that had accumulated was, at least for me, astonishing. As we purged almost all of our belongings and packed just a few, I became thankful for the freedom from things. I also became admittedly overwhelmed, occasionally stressed and rather emotional. During that time I remember reading this: “You gain confidence through knowing that I am with you- that you face nothing alone. Anxiety stems from asking the wrong question: ‘If such and such happens, can I handle it?’ The true question is not whether you can cope with whatever happens, but whether you and I can handle anything that occurs.”
Becoming under-housed was an opportunity for me to discover if I was asking the right question. This was truly scary, for as right as I believe it was to move, it meant entering a time of unknown, of in between, of newness. In response to the question, “what is something that makes you sad?” one of our youngest community members drew a picture of many stick people carrying a large box. She said she felt sad that the people were carrying away her church. It was indeed what was happening in the eyes of that little person.
It was important to honour that sadness. I didn’t want to belittle the magnitude of the change. I joined with others in weeping. I also had to persist in announcing that as a community we could exist outside of a building. Today I am here to say we are still a community and that yes, though “church” is no longer in our name, we very much function as one. We continue to gather; to support; to create; to eat together; to question; to pray; to worship; to dance; to love.
By spilling into the streets we more fully inhabit our neighbourhood. By knocking on the doors of our neighbours we have found space (though it sometimes revolves) to run our programs: in churches, in stores, in community AND health centres- space that we don’t have keys for, but that costs us nothing. We have the opportunity to be shown hospitality at the same time as giving it. How beautiful is that?
Henri Nouwen once said, “Loving the Church often seems close to impossible. Still, we must keep reminding ourselves that all people in the Church – whether powerful or powerless, conservative or progressive, tolerant or fanatic – belong to that long line of witnesses moving through this valley of tears, singing songs of praise and thanksgiving, listening to the voice of their Lord, and eating together from the bread that keeps multiplying as it is shared. When we remember that, we may be able to say, ‘I love the Church, and I am glad to belong to it’…Without a true love for the Church, we cannot live in it in joy and peace. And without a true love for the Church, we cannot call people to it.”
In the context of this little struggling church community I am/we are reminded of God’s presence. God has seen fit to multiply the loaves and the fishes in Parkdale and I mean this literally. On days when there was no money to purchase food for our drop-in we somehow had full plates. I am no longer the only staff- we are the Dale girls: Erinn and Joanna, surrounded by a community that has heard the invitation into full participation. Two years into this wild experiment we still exist! We are HERE. And we’re thriving.
My love for the church, my love for The Dale, is a true love.