It is a moment I will never forget- being asked to step into the role of Executive Director at PNC, now The Dale. I had not aspired to such a job, though I somehow knew deep down that it was right. Despite being terrified, I said yes to the Board. I knew they were taking a risk, especially given the dire financial position we were in. Now ten years later we bear witness to the ways The Dale has risen out of the ashes. We are solvent and very active. I remain indebted to them for daring to believe in me, and the resiliency of our amazing community.
A key component of The Dale is our Board of Directors. They are a diverse group with a common purpose: to love and support our work in Parkdale by providing oversight and accountability. Their work is largely behind-the-scenes, and includes watching the finances, acting as our legal voice, supporting me and equipping the staff as a whole. I witness how they exercise care, diligence and skill in our meetings. When there are difficult decisions to be made, they work hard to talk through all the scenarios while steeping it in prayer.
I can’t talk about the Board without naming the care and love they offer me. They are a safe place to transparently share the challenges I face, both at The Dale and outside of it. When my mom died, they were at the funeral. During times of crisis, meals arrive at the door. They are always willing to hear what I need, or if I don’t know, help me figure it out. I can cry with them. And joke. And strategize. And dream big.
As we celebrate ten years of being The Dale in 2022, I think it is important to acknowledge The Board. They collectively offer great creativity, courage and compassion. Over the years they have quietly and diligently supported this kingdom work, even when it has been hard and messy. Thank you to previous members: Michael Blair, Keith Bundock, Rob Crosby-Shearer, Angela ElzingaCheng, Anita Giardina Lee, Greg Kay, Christian Otte, and Nate Vawser. And thank you to our current team (pictured below): Matt, Jordan, Gen, Ben, Nic, and our newest member, Xenia.
High five team, both past and present, Deep respect and love for you all.
In my experience, we don’t like to talk about death. This is understandable given that dying holds a lot of mystery and is something we would like to avoid. It is scary and sad. The grief it brings can catch us by surprise, so much so that we might try to tuck it away. But here’s the thing: death is desperately and devastatingly real. We cannot hide from it. I think there is something very important about sharing our sorrow and creating space to explore it together. While this won’t change the undeniable power of death, it can influence how we view death and the way we live.
I am no stranger to death. I have been with people when they took their last breath. I have identified people in the basement morgues of hospitals. It is not uncommon for me to lead funerals. Rarely would I describe a death as coming at what might be considered an appropriate time. No matter how frequently I see death, I am always struck by how obvious it is that the person is gone. This is true even when I can briefly imagine them getting up, probably because I cannot compute that they won’t.
In Joan Didion’s book The Year of Magical Thinking, she says “Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death.” For me, the days between death and the funeral feel like a liminal space. It’s almost as though the person who has died remains very close, especially in the making of arrangements, sharing the news, and gathering with friends and family. Then the reality of loss settles in.
Today is known as Holy Saturday, the day between Good Friday and Easter. Jesus is dead, his body placed in a tomb. For those of us who follow Jesus, we believe that by tomorrow this story changes. He will be alive. Because we know this, it is easy to rush to Easter. I find it helpful, however hard it might be, to sit in the grief of this day. In a sense it is another liminal space, where I can reflect on the hopes which linger and the prayers which are yet to be answered. It forces me to consider who I am and what is important, propelling me to live (however much I may stumble) as authentically and faithfully as possible.
My faith tells me that the death we know now is not the end. I cling to this. In the meantime, death continues to be a thing. It would be false to say it does not scare me at all, because though I have been close to it, I still have no idea what it is actually like. What I do know is that death brings grief and mourning, which together are usually described as bereavement, meaning to rob. Death does that- it robs us of what we love, while also providing the opportunity for us to express that love. And love generates love. On this Holy Saturday I am going to think about that.
Imagine that the sun is shining and there is a light breeze as you and I set out on a walk around Parkdale, a Toronto neighbourhood. This is the place that The Dale inhabits, a section of the city that is in the west-end, and just north of Lake Ontario. We start at 201 Cowan Avenue, an address that belongs to Epiphany and St Mark Anglican Church, but is used as a sort of “commons” for a variety of organizations, including Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust, Greenest City, Flick the Switch Art Studios, a social enterprise kitchen called Aangen, and The Dale.
We meander across the street to a park with a concrete wading pool, a play structure, a concrete table that gets used either for ping pong or sunbathing, and the HOPE Community Garden in which The Dale has a plot. I share that we tend to grow a lot of herbs, lettuce, and some tomatoes, though last year we tried our hand at miniature pumpkins. Right now, the garden lays fallow, though it will soon be time to plant. To me, this spot feels like a bit of an oasis.
I invite you to walk north on Cowan to Queen Street West, one of the main thoroughfares through Parkdale. There is a community centre to our left, and a Public Library on the right. We run into a friend who is sitting on a bench. He tells us about what is being served for lunch at St. Francis Table (most of us refer to it as “The Table”), a Franciscan Friar run restaurant where you can get a good meal for $1. I suggest we head that way in order to notice the contrast between St. Francis Table and the very hip and high-end restaurants that litter the same block.
This dichotomy is apparent throughout our walk. Once one of the most affluent neighbourhoods in the city, Parkdale shifted to be known as gritty and well-acquainted with poverty. While there were many contributing factors to this, two big ones were the building of the Gardiner Expressway, a highway to our south that made people feel cut off from the lake, and the deinstitutionalization of mental health care (the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, once Queen Street Mental Health is very close by), which meant psychiatric survivors were released and subsequently sought home in the area. Now Parkdale is a study in gentrification- the process by which the character of a poor urban area is changed by wealthier people moving in, changing housing, and attracting new businesses.
I point out a few things as we walk: the popular vintage store called Public Butter, a poster for a protest about affordable housing, the yellow box that looks reminiscent of a Canada Post mailbox but is a receptacle for used needles. We stop to say hello to a group of people in the parkette beside the Health Centre, all of whom are community members of The Dale. One person comes out from the bushes, where they are sleeping rough. Another engages with you about where you are from and tells you an embarrassing story about me. We laugh. We comment on the nice weather before fist bumping a goodbye.
From here we walk south along a very residential street. I point out how you can tell if one of the mansion like homes is a single-family dwelling or a rooming house. We notice young families, a statue of Mary in a front yard, and Tibetan monks in burgundy robes. I suggest we get some Momos, Tibetan dumplings from a place called Loga’s Corner. I introduce you to the owner who gives a lesson on how to eat one, and graciously adds a few extra to our order.
We wave at the proprietor of the laundromat, chat with people hanging out in a bus shelter, and stand in awe of the woman who feeds the pigeons and has birds hanging out on her shoulders and head. We walk along Jameson Avenue, a street lined with mid-rise apartment buildings. Eventually we end up back on Queen Street West. I invite us to stop, close our eyes and take a deep breath, taking active notice of the sounds and smells of the neighbourhood. As we end up back where we started, we discuss your questions. I share a few more stories. We talk about the obvious diversity and resulting richness of Parkdale. We depart with a hug.
Jane Jacobs said, “The trust of a city street is formed over time from many, many little public sidewalk contacts… Most of it is ostensibly trivial but the sum is not trivial at all.” The work of getting to know one’s neighbourhood takes intentionality. For me, walking has been integral to becoming connected to and rooted in Parkdale. It is something I have done since 2007 and that as a Dale team we do on the regular. The arguably trivial moments have led to many profound interactions, deep friendships, and a lot of opportunity to love and be loved. I am always glad to walk and love the opportunity to do so together.
Though we were both living in Toronto, I met Rick Tobias in the 90’s as a young and very new street ministry worker in Calgary at a conference he helped birth. I remember seeing him surrounded by people eager to connect. So many would take note when he entered any room. I attended a workshop that he helped lead, the content of which had me spinning for days. All these years later it remains amazing to me that I can now count Rick a dear friend.
In addition to being a friend, I also consider Rick a mentor. Though we’ve never had a formal mentorship plan, he has certainly functioned as an experienced and trusted advisor. When I took the scary plunge into my current role at The Dale, Rick offered me advice that has stuck with me and I still tell people about. Over the years I have taken challenges to him that I couldn’t see a way to overcome, and together we would formulate a plan for next steps.
Over the years I have been greatly influenced by Rick’s commitment to both compassion and justice. He talks a lot about how there are 2,000 texts in the Bible that address poverty and “the poor”, and how the weight of this Scriptural evidence strongly favours the people who are poor. The vast majority of these texts talk about the wider social issues that contribute to the creation of poverty. He invites people to see that compassion (though good) is not enough- we must move to justice.
Rick has a lot to teach about this move to justice and being compassionate caregivers. As a mentor, Rick encourages and enables my own development. He helps me focus by setting goals and giving feedback. My confidence has grown because he always gently and directly speaks of the strengths he identifies in me. He listens. He does all of these things as a friend too. When crisis struck last August, he and his wife Charis (who I also hold in very high regard) took the time to be available even while enroute back from their holiday. I trust Rick, which I know is a core element of any relationship.
After a recent social visit with Rick, I commented that I should have been taking notes throughout our conversation. He has a way of dropping truth bombs in the middle of a great story. I also love hearing about his motorcycle days, his visits to New Brunswick, his beloved family, and his many years as CEO of Yonge Street Mission. That he is my friend AND mentor is a gift. At the end of our visits I have usually laughed and cried. Sometimes I have a new joke to share. Always, I feel grateful for the time.