It was a Monday. We were gathered in the large room we use each week for The Dale’s drop-in. Just the day before we had occasion for multiple celebrations: a person finding an apartment after eight months of living outside, new housing for our Community Worker Pete, his wife Frances and their four children, someone declaring The Dale to now be their community. We also prayed for the two babies set to make their entrance very soon. I think it is safe to say we collectively needed a taste of joy, and the hope was that it might permeate the week ahead.
Mondays are always a riot of activity, especially between 1 and 2 pm when the meal is being shared and clean-up commences. I was busy grabbing some supplies from the storage room when I noticed what had the potential to be explosive. Just weeks before two people had a very serious conflict. They had not interacted since. I held my breath as they approached one another and embraced, while offering words of regret and forgiveness. My eyes welled up and I started to jump up and down to get Joanna and Pete’s attention, hoping that they too might bear witness to what honestly felt like a miracle. I think I hopped the entire length of the crowded room to the kitchen.
As I often say, living in community is both messy and beautiful. Sometimes it is downright hard, especially when life feels more bleak than bright. There are many more people who still need affordable housing, some of our relationships remain strained, and conflicts continue to erupt. I am grateful though to be a part of a place where we keep trying to work these things out. We fail. I fail. And we try again.
In the midst of it all, there are incredible moments of provision and reconciliation. New life, both literal and figurative is happening. All of this makes me, however silly it might look, jump up and down.
I have long been convinced that when a group of people gathers around a table a unique form of community is built. Learning to be side-by-side, passing the platter, pouring one another a drink: it all helps.
Much of life at The Dale involves a table. On Mondays we have multiple long tables set up around the room. On Tuesdays we play Scrabble around one at the back of the Salvation Army Thrift Store. In the summer we find ourselves sitting at picnic tables in parks. On Thursdays we set three tables up like a huge T. On Sundays our focal point is a little wooden table, laden with the bread, wine and juice.
Oh, the stories we have about life at the table.
The Dale has its own version of Statler and Waldorf, the two grumpy guys from The Muppet Show. They like to sit across from each other even though they drive each other crazy. We sometimes try to (unsuccessfully) split them up, only to discover them reunited and carrying on with their banter.
Sometimes a person comes in so distraught that they collapse at a table. One day a friend stumbled in and placed her head down. I joined her, leaning as close to the tabletop as she was. We exchanged thoughts in whispers. Her hiccupy crying the only thing audible to the rest of the room. To this day we both reference this encounter as pivotal to our friendship.
At a drop-in by the lake, two unlikely friends sat at the picnic table. She invited him to lay down on the bench while gently stroking his hair. We wanted to freeze the moment in time: a sweet escape from their otherwise challenging realities.
Just after blessing the communion elements, a community member joined me at the table to begin the process of passing each around. This friend, battle-worn and vulnerable, looked me right in the eye and in reference to the bread said, “get it in you”.
As staff we sit around a kitchen table on Wednesday mornings. It’s where I sit while writing this. We bat around ideas, type in collective silence, laugh, and eat. It is an important part of team building.
All these moments remind me of how important it is to extend welcome to the tables we like to count as ours. We want to make space at The Dale. This increasingly means gathering even more closely together so that we can make space for another chair. At tables we can share our brokenness and offer blessing. Whether we are grumpy or cheerful, connected or lonely, weary or energetic, there is room at the table.
When I pause to reflect on the last year at The Dale, it’s the seemingly little moments that keep popping into my head. In work like ours, it is easy to want to share the big successes: this person was living outside and now is housed; we served x amount of meals over the course of twelve months, and so on. While such stories are amazing and obvious evidence of the validity of this work, there is much beauty in the everyday grind of being a community.
“Tom” is one of the quietest people I know. When he speaks it is usually to ask for a coffee, or to say a quick hello. There is something very meek about Tom: he tends to keep his head down, his small stature hidden with a too-large coat. At a recent drop-in, he was sitting at the end of the table listening, but not engaging with the chatter around him, until something struck him as funny. Hearing Tom laugh (for the first time in the many years I have known him) made my heart swell. At the end of the gathering, he followed me, Joanna and Meagan outside. As I hugged my colleagues good-bye, Tom held open his arms and cautiously moved toward me: “Erinn, hug”- another first.
“Clare” came in to our Monday Drop-In while we were just about finished with clean-up. Newer to The Dale, she was encouraged to come, mostly because everything she owned was drenched and needed something dry to wear before returning to her shelter bed. Our clothing supply fluctuates, but on this particular day someone had dropped off a huge amount of women’s clothing which still lay in a heap. Clare proceeded to fold every piece of clothing, carefully choosing a few things for herself, but not before handing me things that she was sure “would fit and look great on so and so”. She managed to take care of herself, our clothing room AND others in less than twenty-five minutes.
He walked in to the Sunday service already upset, nearly poised for a fight. The first person to greet him unwittingly managed to trigger the anger further. I felt a lump in my throat at the prospect of a service that might feel on edge. I encouraged the two to honour each other’s space and proceeded to busy myself with set-up. After a few opening songs I invited everyone to stand for the passing of the peace, an opportunity to greet one another with either a handshake, a wave, a hug or even an elbow-bump (whatever is best for each person). I watched in amazement as the two people, so angry and sad at the beginning, apologized to one another and embraced. The tension that had been so thick suddenly dissipated and we continued with another song.
There are so many stories I want to tell you about, like: the two street-weary men who call themselves uncles to my Cate and love to give her gifts, especially chocolate bars; the look of glee on our friend’s face when we managed to find a mobility scooter for him, replacing a terribly unsafe, wobbly walker; the woman who comes and shares her tears generously with us, and the man who quietly notices and finds Kleenex to dry them; the friend who is discovering that no matter how many times he falls off the wagon, he is loved by us, not shunned; the privilege we feel when someone allows us into their home to help ready it for an inspection by the landlord; what it feels like to have a community that allows me to share my own struggles.
In 2018 at The Dale we have said goodbye to friends and grieved their absence, protested injustice and advocated for our community, walked Queen Street West countless times, partnered with numerous organizations, fought with and forgiven one another (or are working on it), made and eaten a LOT of meals together, and sought to create spaces that are safe and respectful. We are slowly, bit by bit, learning what it means to love God and love our neighbor. It is hard, messy, and wonderful.