I’m not sure when I met Ronnie, though it was most likely more than a decade ago. I can’t remember a time in Parkdale without his bellowing voice. For a while it seemed he was everywhere: I would roll down my window as I drove past the corner of Dunn and Queen to shout hello, only to see him moments later at the Health Centre, and then again by the Library. I would tease him about how much he got around. With a twinkle in his eye he’d say, “oh, you know me- always around. I’m a fixture.”
Ronnie would routinely come to our Monday Drop-In, always sure to greet us as he entered the room. He loved to chat. I learned a lot about the art of checking-in with people because of Ronnie. No matter what he was going through (and it was often a lot), he would stop, look me in the eye and ask, “how are you, love?” He would then ask about life in general, my family, Cate, and finally, about my heart- in other words, how was I coping? Oftentimes he would chat and listen for so long that others would try to interrupt. His response would always be, “can’t you see I’m not done? I’m talking to my people”.
Ronnie also taught me about asking for what you need. He was not shy in this regard. He would follow up any request with an acknowledgement that though we may or may not be able to help, it mattered to him that we would always try. Whenever possible, Ronnie would do anything to help us too. We liked to finish conversations by acknowledging the importance of journeying together and taking care of each other. “That’s it, love: we gotta help each other”.
In 2017 Ronnie’s mobility declined. He would show up to Drop-In using a rickety walker, more often than not with a story about constantly tripping and falling down. It was clear that he needed a mobility scooter, and so in true Ronnie fashion, he asked for us to try and find one. I will never forget the day we actually got what he needed and presented it to him. We were all crying. It didn’t take him long to make it his own, including a sticker on the front that ironically said, NO FUN.
Just this past Sunday the Dale team was walking the neighbourhood. Ronnie was seated in a familiar spot, but obviously not doing very well. We talked, trying to sort out what would be the most helpful for him. As we prepared to keep walking, Ronnie grabbed my mittened hand and pulled it to his face. We stayed like that for a moment, as I rested my free hand on his head. He wanted me to bless him. We both said, “love you”. As Meg and I moved along, I shared about how that interaction was scaring me. Ronnie really didn’t seem okay.
Yesterday we learned of Ronnie’s death. I am still in disbelief. Wanting the news to be false, we have waited on sharing this until now. Oh, Ronnie. The block will not be the same without you. Thank you for everything: the check-ins, the little gifts, the laughs, the tears. You were the opposite of NO FUN. You lived life hard, and I so hope that you can now enjoy some much-deserved rest. I am very sad that Sunday was our last interaction, and yet you made our parting visit one I will never forget.
In the mid-nineties I attended a conference in Calgary called StreetLevel, for people addressing poverty and justice. At the time I was a student working with First Nations Gospel Assembly, a collective led by Joe Elkerton. Joe was one of my first mentors. He used to lead me around the streets of the downtown core of Toronto, introducing me to people I would come to count as friends, and coaxing me out of my comfort zone. I vividly remember being terrified when he asked me, for the first time, to speak to a visiting group about our work (I am sure that his confidence in me helped springboard me into what I now do). Though Joe and our team, which included Dion, was in Calgary too, I felt keenly aware of being very green as I stepped through the doors of that conference hotel.
That StreetLevel experience, along with many subsequent ones, was tangibly good. There was something amazing about being in rooms full of people doing front-line work. I learned so much. I recall feeling both challenged and motivated. Sometimes I felt riled up, but in a way that sparked conversation. At a later StreetLevel in Ottawa in I sat in sad silence with friends as we grieved the many injustices named and explored together. I remember taking the train back to Toronto from that gathering, full of emotion over StreetLevel founder Rick Tobias’ beautiful closing session. It is an honour that I now count Rick, and the rest of the original crew, friends.
It is in the spirit of StreetLevel (and with the blessing of those who have come before), that I am here to ask about what it might look like, when Covid has finally settled, to gather again. The desire is to pull together information from as many people as possible, so that what emerges is both collaborative and diverse. Some sample questions are: What challenges do you face in your work? Do you feel alone? Is burnout rearing its head? Is grief accumulating? What systemic issue(s) must be addressed? Do you want round table discussions or speakers or just hang out time? Or some combination? How about art? Music? Do you like the idea of something small or big? Is the time right for this, or no?
For me, I can’t help but grin at the potential of being a part of a gathering of people again. I long for places to come, to be, to explore, to wrestle, to imagine- together. Being able to share our stories is important. Whether seasoned or green like I was back in Calgary, we have something to learn from one another. And just like front-line work, and life in general, whatever we do promises to be both messy and beautiful. Please hear the invitation to speak into what could be. I want to hold space for you to share whatever you are comfortable with. I hope that we can come up with something together.
If you are game to have a chat, please let me know at email@example.com and we can make a plan. Looking forward to connecting.
When my daughter Cate was a toddler, she would routinely remind me to not “forget my imagination” when we were leaving the house. I remember the first time she said it. I was rushing around, going through my list of things we would might need, like snacks, water, and wipes. She looked up at me, touched my hand, and out spilled those timely words. According to Cate, the day would not be complete without some creativity.
As we enter another year, I have been reflecting on her three-year-old wisdom. I, like everyone else I know, has Covid fatigue. If I never have to see another rapid test, I will be a happy person. The inner-city front line has been a challenging place to be for the last two years. As a community we have felt on guard as the police drive by to monitor our meals-to-go. People with no home have been told to “stay home” and that repeatedly washing their hands is necessary, even though no public washrooms are available. One day the staff team was able to access our old Monday drop-in space and it was like a time capsule. Things were exactly as we left them in March 2020. As we surveyed the room, we couldn’t help but think of all the people we’ve lost over the pandemic and would never sit at one of the tables again. Given all the challenge, how do we not forget our imagination?
For me, I am noticing a longing to use the strange space created by Covid for exploring and nurturing ideas. At The Dale we are planning ways to celebrate our ten year mark, I am getting ready to record some songs with a long-time friend and musician from Sanctuary- an offering that we hope will benefit both of our communities, we are finding new streams of funding and listening for ways to become more deeply engaged with other organizations, and we would like to gather stories and art from community members for the building of a book.
I don’t know where this will all go (which is true of life in general), but I’m trying not to worry about that right now and enjoy the process. It’s not that the weariness has left, or that injustice has ceased to be. The tears come with frequency. Somehow though there is a renewed desire to experience the refreshment and excitement of generating new things. Beautiful things do come out of the dust. When I leave the house tomorrow, I will do my best to not forget my imagination.
It’s nearly January 15th, which for most means the middle of the month. For me, it is the day my mom sprung into the world. Elaine Clare Grant, nee Muirhead was a jewel. I have missed her since the moment she left in 2017. When I was preparing to speak at her funeral, I remember thinking, how do I capture a life in a speech that will last just a few minutes, especially when that life belonged to your mother? Knowing that was, and continues to be impossible, I still love to share parts of my mom’s life and hope it honours her.
Elaine was born to William and Helen on January 15, 1947 in Sudbury, Ontario. She was the first of four girls, to be joined by Linda, Susan, and Laurie. Mom always described her home as a happy one. Her parents carried themselves with a calm that was striking. That same calm has also always been evident in the girls, oftentimes referred to as the “Muirhead glow”.
I have vivid memories of my Grandparents house on Roderick Crescent, located right by the shore of Lake Ramsey. Mom loved being from Northern Ontario. I remember her teaching us to dive off the point and swim deep so that we could grab handfuls of clay from the bottom of the lake. We made countless little pots out of that clay, some of which she sentimentally kept. Mom never tired of the northern landscape: the ruggedness, the birch trees, the sprinkling of blueberries, and the water.
Mom’s parents later built a cottage (though we always called it the camp) in Killarney. They also had a boat they kept across the channel in town, called the ELLSMUIR, a clever moniker that incorporated the initials of each girl and the first syllable of their last name. Every summer we would gather as a family there to spend countless hours in the water, read multiple books, and share meals. The big treat was to have Fish and Chips on the dock in town, and if we were lucky, ice cream cones after. Mom loved the laughter that accompanied those times together. She had a great laugh.
Always an artist, mom decided to study at what was then known as the Ontario College of Art in the 60’s. She studied material arts, a program she chose because she wanted to play with different media. It was at the OCA that she met my dad, Barry Grant, an aspiring interior designer. One of mom’s first jobs out of school was designing fabric for bathing suits. She went on to do a variety of things throughout her career: hand charting at the Bank of Nova Scotia, pen and ink renderings of homes, making jewellery, painting and firing porcelain, and in her later years, drawing with her remaining ‘one good finger’ on her iPad.
It was in 1969 that Elaine and Barry got married. I then came along, followed by Logan. Some years later our parents made the difficult decision to divorce. While this impacted all of us in a variety of ways, it was always clear that the two of them endeavoured to make their parting as good as possible. We lived with our mom and saw our dad frequently. I know that until his death in 2008, dad sought to take care of all three of us in the best way he could.
It was in the early 80’s that my mom came to know Jesus. She often described the experience as one where she moved from darkness to light. Mom’s faith became central to everything she did and it showed. We joined Grace and Peace, a little church that proved foundational to our family. There we were surrounded by a group of friends who nurtured our faith and became our circle of support. Subsequent church families also had a deep impact, all of which helped us understand the power of community.
The kind of home my mother created was warm, inviting, and safe. Our house was always filled with a mixture of antiques, family heirlooms and what mom affectionately called her “meaningful piles”. She would occasionally try to go through those piles, usually only successfully making different ones. We could easily put our feet up and feel comfortable, as could anyone visiting. I know it was a struggle for mom to balance her desire to be a homemaker, along with life as a single working mother, but she never seemed to complain. She did all of it with a serious amount of grace.
Mom loved food and could easily sit around a table for hours. She was the slowest eater I have ever known, preferring to savour every bite and bit of conversation over having a hot meal. She liked to cook, though didn’t fancy herself a gourmet- we ate a lot of what she called “cheesy macaroni” (I’m sure she would use an entire very large block of cheese). She often joked about how the picture of her displaying a pie was necessary because it was possibly the only one she ever made. For our family Christmas dinner, she would be delegated the job of preparing potatoes and inevitably peeled 20+ pounds of them, fearing there wouldn’t be enough. There were ALWAYS leftovers. When she lost her ability to eat food through her mouth, mom sought to maintain a connection to food, primarily via the Food Network (she would often call to rhyme off a recipe she thought I should try) and what we came to call her “aroma buffet”, a plate full of food that we would pass right under her nose (which always amazed me).
In 2004, after a few years of declining health, my mother agreed to have surgery to remove a brain tumour that was both benign and wrapped around the base of her brain stem, though there were massive risks involved in such an invasive procedure. Mom slept at our house the night before so we could get up together and leave for the hospital at a very early hour. I was with her right until they took her into the operating room, even helping the doctors with prep by being the one to shave the back of her head. Then I joined other family members and friends in the waiting room.
I had a hard time sitting still that day. I remember excusing myself for a brief walk through the halls. I found a quiet spot, leaned against a wall, and through a barrage of tears began to repeatedly pray Psalm 23, a passage my mom often turned to: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil…The Lord IS my shepherd.” My mom survived that surgery. The valleys frequently returned in subsequent years: her journey was marked with paralysis, infections and near death experiences in the ICU. Somehow all along she held fast to the Shepherd and made her home with Him. Though she lost much and certainly grieved, my mom refused to define herself as a “sufferer”. She was known for her patience, hope, love and joy, something her care-team at the hospital always noticed.
On the Friday night of the May long weekend in 2017 we received a call that Mom was not doing well. Logan and I walked together to be with her, thankful yet again to both live so close. The next day we were told to gather family and friends. So many of us were able to spend time with her throughout the weekend, taking turns to sit at her bedside, singing songs, telling stories, praying, laughing, and weeping. I slept beside her on Sunday night. By Monday it was clear that death was drawing close. We were confident of mom’s wishes and longing to rest, and so while the thought of her leaving was heartbreaking, we trusted it was time. At approximately 10:25 pm that night she died, surrounded by us. We toasted her with wine served in little Styrofoam cups (all we could find) and ate chips in her honour- two things she loved, and always together.
Mom, because of you I enjoy sitting around a table for a long time, savouring food and friendship. Thank you for teaching me and Logan to take creative risks, for supporting our choices as adults, and loving our/your families. You introduced us to Jesus and taught us about what it means to live in Him. You were always on my team and caught me whenever I failed. Thank you for being my mom, confidante, friend, and cheerleader. Your example leads me as I mother Cate. I trust you continue to celebrate with God, just as I continue to celebrate you.
This year marks ten years of The Dale. A decade. I can hardly believe it.
Rooted in a history much longer, The Dale grew up and out of what was Parkdale Neighbourhood Church (PNC), formerly Parkdale Baptist Church. Many people contributed to that chapter of life in Parkdale, and it is to be honoured. Similarly, I want to honour this most recent chapter and the journey it has and continues to be. We are excitedly planning ways to celebrate this milestone over 2022.
In 2012 we faced a decision: close or reimagine ourselves. At the time, I was invited into the role of Executive Director and Pastor. I felt a deep sense of call to say yes, though I was admittedly terrified. As the sole staff member, I was tasked with coming up with a plan. I believed the way to formulate a way forward first required listening. I met with community members. I had coffee with people doing neighbourhood work. I knocked on the doors of organizations, businesses, and churches both in Parkdale and around the city. I walked the area incessantly. It was out of all these interactions and a LOT of prayer that a plan to re-boot was birthed.
I recently re-read, through tears, my proposal to the Board. Here is a taste of it:
Informed by the community, I propose:
That PNC close all operations, excluding the Monday Drop-In and Street Outreach. We do not want this community to feel abandoned. The Drop-In is our single largest program. We can seek out a location, i.e. Epiphany and St. Mark or Bonar Presbyterian that might allow us to use space for free, one day a week. In addition to this, we can develop teams of people to be present on the street.
That we pare down our expenses to food for Mondays, a negotiated salary (that I will fundraise) for myself and a fund to allow me to take potential supporters and community members out for coffee, etc. While an office in the neighbourhood would be helpful, I can envision working on my laptop in the Parkdale library and from home. I will commit to remaining very visible in the neighbourhood. I will also commit to develop a fundraising model.
That my time be primarily used to create a working group of current community members to revision and strategize for the future, including a possible name change and rebranding (i.e. logo, website, etc.); to get ourselves organized administratively, including incorporation and further development of the Board; to meet with potential funders; to research possible partnerships with other organizations and encourage our current partners to stay the course with us; to seek out a new space in the neighbourhood; and to effectively communicate with our current network of supporters (financial and otherwise) through personal visits and newsletters.
That we plan for this process to take up to a year. However, we can establish “markers” that we will need to meet at certain intervals throughout the year. If it becomes evident that this process is not working, we can re-evaluate and begin the process of closing down.
I truly believe this is an opportunity to build upon the exciting work that has long existed at PNC. We have deep roots. We have a beautiful, resilient community. We have endured much. We can rise up. Consider these words from an Advent reading that I have repeatedly returned to:
“Think of the seed. We commit it to the darkness. And a new plant emerges thanks to what O’Donohue calls ‘the ancient symmetry of growth: root further into darkness and rise towards the sun. A life that wishes to honour its own possibility has to learn too how to integrate the suffering of dark and bleak times into a dignity of presence. Letting go of old forms of life, a tree practices hospitality towards new forms. It balances perennial energies of winter and spring within its own living bark. The tree can reach towards the light, endure wind, rain and storm, precisely because it is rooted.”
Whew! And now here we are! I can confidently say that the last ten years have been evidence to me of God’s grace and provision. This work is built on that, along with the participation of so many people. To the Board who took a chance and dared to dream, to the staff team who heard the call to come, to every partner, volunteer, and supporter who said yes, to the core community who showed us how to shed our walls and be church around the neighbourhood, to my family who understood my fear and supported me to still take the risk: thank you. Together we have witnessed a phoenix rising out of the ashes. As soon as we can, let’s have a party.