A week at The Dale involves many seemingly small, arguably mundane actions. When a friend once asked how to describe our work, we (half) jokingly said, “we move stuff”. We organize food, pack bags, carry things up and down the stairs, walk around the neighbourhood, put supplies in our van, drive the van, and so on and so forth. While it is true that we lug a lot of things around, we care deeply about forming relationship. Some might wonder how such little things have any impact and do they really form community? I am repeatedly reminded that yes, they do.
When we first met, he barely gave me the time of day. Anger, birthed out experiencing terrible injustice the whole of his life, would understandably boil over quickly. I was surprised when he started to occasionally come to our drop-in. I was even more surprised when he convinced his regular haunt to give him not just one free coffee, but two, so that we could sit and have a discussion. He told me then that it mattered seeing me and The Dale team walk up and down Queen Street. That was the beginning of building trust with one another. Now we are friends, who offer mutual care to each other.
We have never loved having to do our meals “to-go”, something required by the pandemic. The line-up often begins to form well before we are outside with the food. This means that people witness the folding tables being set-up and the trays of meals being carried out. It is not unusual to hear a chorus of greetings or have someone offer a helping hand. Sometimes we will notice a person standing quietly on the other side of the street, clearly trying to figure out what is going on. Whenever possible a community member is the one who hands out the food, while we as staff mingle in the line. We’ve been told that The Dale line feels different, like people have learned they are seen, can relax and not push to the front. I was told just last week that someone now identifies us as their community and it all began with wondering about our line-up and getting a breakfast in a brown paper bag.
In M&M’s in the Pancakes I shared the story of a friend who insisted on making what he called “fancy” pancakes for one of our drop-ins (I just re-read it and I’m still smiling at the memory). Over the last number of years, we have seen this person in varying degrees of wellness. More recently he has been around and increasingly lucid, his natural humour and concern for others evident. “When are things going to get back to normal? Like when is the drop-in going to open? I miss setting up the tables and stuff.” This person has always taken our invitation into full participation really seriously. For him, and so many others, The Dale is a place of belonging.
What it largely boils down to is that The Dale works to consistently practice presence, presence that is motivated by love that is patient and kind, does not envy or boast, is not easily angered and keeps no record of wrongs, protects and trusts, hopes and perseveres. We do it by walking around the neighbourhood again and again and again. We do it by making sure that whether we are sitting around a table or standing in line, we are doing it together. We do it by nurturing friendships over the long-haul, in sickness and in health. It isn’t easy or tidy, though all the things we repeatedly do in a week do create meaningful routine, the kind that we can all settle in to together. And it is in that pocket where we see: small things can become big.