Up with Hope

Recently he sat beside me saying, “Erinn, I’m sick in the head. There’s no getting better. I’m dying from the inside out”. I didn’t have any words, so I continued to listen. I heard descriptions of the torture done to him as a child at the hands of people who should have been his protectors. I was told about decisions that once landed him in jail. I had to sift through some non-sensical things thrown in the mix of our conversation, mostly born out of his mental health challenges. It was all desperately sad. I couldn’t help but cry with my friend, who I’ll call “Trevor”.

At some point along the way I asked if there was anything I could do for him right now. “Buy me some alcohol? Or score me a hit?” I declined. I asked again, explaining the resources I had available. Looking at the ground Trevor quietly said, “play a game with me, kinda like you would with Cate (my daughter)?” That I could do. For the next ten minutes we played a game that he won. That seemed to be all he needed, so we gave each other a hug and went on to do some other things.

Just this week I saw Trevor again. He was writing on a scrap piece of tracing paper with a purple pencil crayon. I sat beside him and asked what he was doing. “I’m making a list that I want you to see”. Together we went over what was actually a list of goals, things like: open a bank account, buy a notebook from the Dollar Store to keep track of spending, finish school (“even though school sucks”), get a haircut, and so on. At the bottom of the page, with me looking on, Trevor drew a picture of himself with a smile and the caption “up with hope, down with dope”. I know Trevor didn’t coin the phrase- I  also know he meant it, because for Trevor one follows the other.

Honestly, seeing Trevor feel even the slightest bit of hope made my heart swell. I know that his battle is a hard one: he fights a variety of voices in his head that repeatedly say he’s not worth it. He uses substances to try to manage his pain and regularly admits it isn’t working. There are days when he is lucid and more days that he is not. I count it a privilege that Trevor is willing to share his life with me and really does invite me to share mine with him.

When asked about what ‘success’ looks like at The Dale, I usually point out that it comes in a variety of forms. In Trevor’s case, I want to celebrate the success that it is for him to move from utter despair to a moment of hope. My prayer is that when the darkness seeps back in he will see there are people rooting for him; that he will find the folded up list of goals; and that when all else fails he will remember how playing a game with a friend is actually good therapy.

Ten Years

It has occurred to me a few times since the beginning of this year that as of February, I have been working in Parkdale for ten years. I can’t believe that it has been a decade, which is maybe why I repeatedly forget to even mention it. Cate was in senior kindergarten at the time. Now she’s in high school. Needless to say, a lot has happened since 2007.

Over the years I have persistently felt a deep sense of call to my work, even when (or maybe especially when) I would rather hide under a blanket and never come out. In some of my darkest times, it has been God’s still small voice inviting me to stay that has kept me going. When I was asked to re-vision the ministry of Parkdale Neighbourhood Church I was terrified. Now, five years into being The Dale Ministries, I am entirely grateful that I decided to try.

The building of friendships in Parkdale has been slow, steady work. I have walked the strip of Queen Street West between Dufferin Street and Roncesvalles Avenue countless times. I know good shortcuts through alleys. If I can’t find a person in their usual spot, I can often guess where else they might be. I have sat with people in ambulances, accompanied many to the ER at St Joseph’s Hospital, and kept vigil in its ICU. Week after week, year after year, I have fallen in love with the people of the village-like neighbourhood that is Parkdale.

Being at The Dale has taught me a lot. I have learned about delegation, diffusing conflict, and decision-making. I now know how to identify bedbugs, safely dispose of needles, and administer Nolaxone. I can write a partnership agreement. I have come to realize that while I want to please everyone it is impossible to do (and that’s okay). I see my weaknesses. I better understand the beauty and blessedness in brokenness, and that in sharing our wounds we can begin to heal.

Sometimes I get overwhelmed. The amount of death experienced in this work is too much. Having to ask people for the money to cover my salary and the general fund of The Dale is daunting and downright hard. By the end of certain drop-ins my head is spinning because I’ve heard my name called easily one thousand times. And then a person walks up to me and reminds me of how I am valued and loved, and that The Dale is necessary and a primary source of community for so many people, including me. In that moment I take a deep breath and think, “I can’t imagine doing anything else”.

Being close to people who know poverty has helped me see the ways in which I am poor myself. Together we remind each other to take each day moment by moment. Often it is a Dale friend who pulls me back when I’m worrying about a future that has yet to happen. We are journeying toward a deeper understanding of God and the ways that Jesus transforms us. It’s far from neat and tidy AND it is so good.

As I reflect on ten years in Parkdale and nearly twenty-three in street ministry, I am reminded of the words of Isaiah: “Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.” I have the honour of working at The Dale, a place that has spilled into the streets. It is exciting to imagine how each little bit of repair we are involved in is leading us to hope. There is a Sara Groves song that says, “That’s a little stone, that’s a little mortar. That’s a little seed, that’s a little water. In the hearts of the sons and daughters…this kingdom’s coming”. I believe that to be true.