Celebrating The Dale’s Own ‘Force of Nature’

It was almost six years ago that I was introduced to the one who I now affectionately describe as a “force of nature”- Souad Sharabani. At the time we needed someone to help direct the kitchen at our Monday Drop-In and Souad was willing. Since then she has transformed the way we cook, convinced our community to “eat their vegetables” and become a very good friend.

Souad was born in the Middle East, has lived and travelled all over the world and now speaks five languages. When Souad is not at The Dale she is an independent radio-documentary producer who explores politics and social/cultural trends, a blogger and more recently a published cook book author (check out Scents of Memory). Souad adores her family and shares pictures and stories of them whenever she can. Her cooking is largely influenced by her travels, rich in flavour and extremely healthy. In fact, her food is so full of herbs and spices that we have dramatically cut down on everyone’s salt intake in the drop-in because the food just doesn’t need it.

When things got bleak at PNC (now The Dale) Souad remained present. I remember dreaming together about how to make things work beyond our impending homelessness. We found an alternate location for the Monday meal and Souad adjusted to cooking in a much smaller space, one where we learned to use glorified hot plates to prepare food for more people than we ever had to in our former industrial kitchen. The group of community volunteers has become a real team under Souad’s leadership. She quietly and consistently works to show them her appreciation, constantly recognizing that it is collectively their kitchen.

Souad has always been straight up with me, something I appreciate. I know when she is mad, concerned or pleased. She has endlessly listened to me. We have enjoyed homemade bread and tea at her kitchen table, walks with her beloved dogs and many a coffee with LOTS of milk.

When Souad isn’t in the kitchen, we all miss hearing her call us either ‘Angels’ or ‘Munchkins’, her colourful language and the way she dances to Motown blaring on the stereo. When Souad is in a room you can’t help but notice her dynamic presence. Six years in, we are incredibly grateful for that presence. Souad, thank you for everything: your fierce loyalty to The Dale, your friendship, your food and all the love that you show through it. Here’s to many more years.

I recently spoke at a regional gathering of a network of people known as StreetLevel. Some people asked if I would share the same words here…

On a sunny day in June, nearly two years ago, I had to pull down the Parkdale Neighbourhood Church (PNC) sign from both the gate and door at 201 Cowan Avenue. For me, this act made things official: PNC no longer had its own building. That was the day we became a church without our own walls. I like to say it was when we “spilled into the streets”.

Fast forward to the present. Parkdale Neighbourhood Church is now known as The Dale Ministries. You might wonder why we would seemingly shift away from “church” by changing our name. As an organization we don’t function as a traditional church institution, for instance, we are not made self-sufficient based on tithing. Our people give, they just give out of very little. We came exceedingly close to ceasing to exist because of this. Playing with the language that had become a barrier to our long-term stability was worth it. At the beginning of our search for a new name, I asked our community members to describe what PNC meant to them. Though there were many descriptors used, the number one word was “safe”. A dale is a valley that cuts through a mountain, the place where one hides when facing a storm. Every day The Dale Ministries, or more often simply The Dale, endeavours to be a safe community for many, including me.

We are a varied group: some of us live rough outside, some in community housing and some in houses of our own. Some of us are struggling with addiction to street drugs or alcohol or television or eating too much food. Some of us have diagnosed mental health challenges that range from depression to schizophrenia. Some of us are refugees. Some of us are seniors. You get the picture. All of us are broken. We choose again and again to journey alongside one another toward deeper wholeness in Christ. We choose to be church. For The Dale this journey continues without a building of our own.

To be honest, I was relieved when the move out of our former space was finally done. The amount of “stuff” that had accumulated was, at least for me, astonishing. As we purged almost all of our belongings and packed just a few, I became thankful for the freedom from things. I also became admittedly overwhelmed, occasionally stressed and rather emotional. During that time I remember reading this: “You gain confidence through knowing that I am with you- that you face nothing alone. Anxiety stems from asking the wrong question: ‘If such and such happens, can I handle it?’ The true question is not whether you can cope with whatever happens, but whether you and I can handle anything that occurs.”

Becoming under-housed was an opportunity for me to discover if I was asking the right question. This was truly scary, for as right as I believe it was to move, it meant entering a time of unknown, of in between, of newness. In response to the question, “what is something that makes you sad?” one of our youngest community members drew a picture of many stick people carrying a large box. She said she felt sad that the people were carrying away her church. It was indeed what was happening in the eyes of that little person.

It was important to honour that sadness. I didn’t want to belittle the magnitude of the change. I joined with others in weeping. I also had to persist in announcing that as a community we could exist outside of a building. Today I am here to say we are still a community and that yes, though “church” is no longer in our name, we very much function as one. We continue to gather; to support; to create; to eat together; to question; to pray; to worship; to dance; to love.

By spilling into the streets we more fully inhabit our neighbourhood. By knocking on the doors of our neighbours we have found space (though it sometimes revolves) to run our programs: in churches, in stores, in community AND health centres- space that we don’t have keys for, but that costs us nothing. We have the opportunity to be shown hospitality at the same time as giving it. How beautiful is that?

Henri Nouwen once said, “Loving the Church often seems close to impossible. Still, we must keep reminding ourselves that all people in the Church – whether powerful or powerless, conservative or progressive, tolerant or fanatic – belong to that long line of witnesses moving through this valley of tears, singing songs of praise and thanksgiving, listening to the voice of their Lord, and eating together from the bread that keeps multiplying as it is shared. When we remember that, we may be able to say, ‘I love the Church, and I am glad to belong to it’…Without a true love for the Church, we cannot live in it in joy and peace. And without a true love for the Church, we cannot call people to it.”

In the context of this little struggling church community I am/we are reminded of God’s presence. God has seen fit to multiply the loaves and the fishes in Parkdale and I mean this literally. On days when there was no money to purchase food for our drop-in we somehow had full plates. I am no longer the only staff- we are the Dale girls: Erinn and Joanna, surrounded by a community that has heard the invitation into full participation. Two years into this wild experiment we still exist! We are HERE. And we’re thriving.

My love for the church, my love for The Dale, is a true love.

Dale Ministries Logo-1




I am rather exhausted. Do you ever feel that way? Just tired out in every possible way? There have been a number of things going on that I am right in the middle of, though aren’t necessarily about me (or at least not directly) that are lending to my weariness.

Maybe a decent, though intense example of this occurred recently at the drop-in. On this day there seemed to be something in the air that was lending itself to everyone, including me, being out of sorts. A long-time friend and community member was in a bad way which led to some very poor behaviour choices, including becoming very threatening.  We are committed to keeping the drop-in safe AND respectful, so an intervention was required. I want to be clear: this person wasn’t threatening me. In fact, every time I was able to catch his gaze as I stood in front of him, he slowed down and tried to remind me that he has respect for me and “didn’t want to do this”. Though I was able to guide him close to the door, things didn’t end well. One final threat toward someone else, which included a fist, landed inadvertently on me.

I’m okay. Maybe a little shaken in the moment, though fine. I know that what happened had very little to do with me. In fact, it had very little to do with anyone who found themselves on the receiving end of this person’s anger. Knowing this doesn’t make what happened justifiable, it just helps provide a larger context and I do believe that context is important. My friend has some very deep-seated pain that is coming out in a very displaced way. In fact, as we spoke he encouraged me to know this and share it. I suspect we have all been through something similar: acting out towards others as a result of our own struggles, fist or no fist.

Since Monday I have moved steadily from hard situation to hard situation, with very little time in between. I am grateful for the space this little blog creates in my life to slow down, ponder and figure out how to articulate the things I am constantly learning and being taught (sometimes over and over again), particularly in the midst of a lot of challenge.

Maybe now I can actually have a nap.

Here to Thrive

Our homelessness was born out of necessity and is now one of our greatest gifts. This is the story I need to tell about The Dale.

During the early summer of 2012 The Dale moved out of what had been our home for years. We didn’t have anywhere to go, except we knew we must continue to gather as a community. I recall saying, “if we have to, we’ll host our drop-in in the park” and I meant it.

Since that time we have found new places to gather around the neighbourhood. Relationship and partnership have sustained and strengthened us. Various organizations generously opened their doors, including: St Francis Table, Sketch, Parkdale Community Health Centre, The Jeremiah Community, Epiphany and St Mark Anglican and Bonar Parkdale Presbyterian Church. We got creative and decided to meet in unexpected places such as the back of The Salvation Army Thrift Store. A home also known as Junia House became a meeting place and occasional host to Board meetings and even baking parties. We wander the streets, visit on park benches and frequent a large number of coffee shops. We host a Bible Study in a Coffee Time which has generously waived the maximum loitering limit. We are, in a word, mobile. This mobility means that the neighbourhood knows us in a whole new way and us, it.

With this in mind, it has become clear that the next step for The Dale does not include finding a building large enough to fit everything we do. We are dreaming about maybe a storefront or a small Winnebago. Either way, we will remain committed to being a presence that roams. By being a church without our own walls we have increased our visibility and yes, our viability. The money we save by not having to manage the general upkeep and day-to-day costs of a building is huge. Instead, we can use it to staff and run programming that directly impacts our community. With additional money we can do more of the same.

Are there challenges? Absolutely. I don’t carry keys (other than a few internal ones) to a single building that we use. Our storage is minimal. People need to remember where to find us on any given day. I will be the first to admit that some days my own optimism gets worn down by these limitations. Though I suspect everyone can, to some degree, relate to that feeling. The truth is, these cons pale in comparison to the very real pros of our situation, which include that our friends who know transience see that we have learned about it too; that we are working together with more and more groups; that we know our neighbours better, including residents, store owners and even the police; that we do a lot with very little.

Homelessness is not something I would hope for anyone. I long to see its end. I am grateful that The Dale can stand alongside so many who are under-housed in a different kind of solidarity now because of our own limited experience. In that sense, our homelessness is a gift. I believe too that it has led us to a clarity of vision and mission. We survived a terrible crisis and are stronger now. We are here to thrive.

Movie Time

I was at a conference this past weekend. A spoken word artist got up and summarized the thoughts we had been batting around all morning as a group. One phrase I’ve been rolling around my tongue ever since: I am made whole though I have holes. We are whole even with our holes.

I have many holes. While I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve, the truth is some of those holes are hidden deep, deep down. I’ve come to realize that the more I share my own brokenness, the more people are willing to share their own with me. The stuff we share is painful and sad and sometimes just downright hard. Sound depressing? Maybe, BUT…

By making our holes the starting point, something beautiful happens: we are freed to discover the grace and mercy that can fill our lives. We can celebrate! We are no longer so concerned about hiding the flaws because we realize we are not alone. Being exposed has given me the courage to journey toward deeper wholeness. I’m like a broken jar of clay, except there’s light peeking out.

Today a dear friend and community member came to PNC a complete wreck. She was shaking and seeing things and seriously fearful. She laid all of it out for us to see. I ended up accompanying her to Old City Hall where she had failed to show up as an accused just days before. She was convinced that she would be placed behind bars, but knew she needed to account for her errors. On the car ride over she talked about being alone, misunderstood and living without purpose. She agreed that we should pray together once we parked. After a tearful few minutes we made our way to the office of the Crown.

Once there we made the amazing discovery that they understood her failure to appear and have given her another chance. What sweet, sweet grace. She wept again, though this time with different tears.

On our way home, my friend said, “Huh, I guess I’m not as alone or as dejected as I thought. You know what I want to do? I want to go to a movie, eat popcorn and get a huge pop, I haven’t done that for 20 years. Will you come with me? I want to get better. I want to celebrate”. She knows not everything is fixed, not all of the demons are gone. In that moment though there was a new light pouring out of her.

Yes my friend, let’s go to the movies.


Hark! I Hear Singing!

PNC went caroling last night. During the lead up to the event, we had mixed response from some of our community: many loved the IDEA of caroling, but when asked if they would be there, balked. A few gleefully explained that they had another commitment and couldn’t attend. I gently teased those people, imploring them to at least give it a try.

The night began at The St. Clare Centre, the same room where we meet on Sundays. A group of us baked last week, so that there would be an assortment of goodies to enjoy. We also shared apple cider and pop, popcorn and chips. I had no idea what to expect in terms of numbers. And then guess what happened? The room packed out and we had a wonderful assortment of more than thirty people! A longtime PNC’er remarked, “how are we going to do this with so many people?” What a great problem to have.

We gathered around the open doors of storefronts, sang around the Christmas tree in the Public Library, marched into the Dollarama, took a request in the Coffee Time, performed for the security cameras in the lobby of a Toronto Public Housing building and on and on. Ernesto, a community member, accompanied us on the harmonica (or mouth organ as he kept correcting me). Everyone warmly welcomed us, sometimes obviously perplexed at why we would be offering to sing a carol. Some people pulled out their phones to video us, others clapped, all seemed pleased. The very old tradition of caroling still means something, especially during a season that has become stressful and even sad for so many people. A song is a simple gift.

I found myself thinking about the gifts that the magi brought Jesus so long ago as I witnessed the gift-giving of two of my friends last night. One cuts paper, both as a creative outlet and a serious coping mechanism. I have never seen him without bags of scavenged paper and his scissors. He presented a paper cut-out…snowflakes, trees, angels…to as many people as he could, including every store owner we greeted. One is a Native man of small stature, street-involved and struggling with alcoholism. He delivered our caroling group a box filled with hot chocolates and “pops for the kids”. Yes, I wept.

Caroling has been a tradition at PNC for many years. I can assure you, next year we will be out again. Until then, imagine us singing, “We wish you a Merry Christmas, we wish you a Merry Christmas, we wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!”


Remembering, Undisguised

Death has been touching the PNC community this latter part of the year. It has also been touching other communities we are close to. During this time I have been finding it very helpful to tell stories of the ones we have lost. There is something healing about remembering. And remembering need not be about sanitizing the past; it’s not about only remembering the good. In fact, I would argue that the important thing is to remember the entire person, faults and all. “John” (not his real name, in this case out of respect for his family) was a gregarious guy. He had a big personality and a great laugh. John also lived life pretty hard. He was broken. The truth is, I am broken too.  So are you. We are ALL broken. That is our shared humanity. It is when we acknowledge this that we learn we are not alone.

Once we discover we are not alone, we can go about the business of creating community. It is in the context of community that we can learn we are loved, we are valued, and we are accepted no matter what happened to us in our childhoods or our marriages or on the streets. We are accepted whether we consume alcohol, drugs or too much food. If we begin to get this, then it becomes easier to lean on one another, enabling us to begin taking even the baby-est of steps toward healing and wholeness.

The good news is that we are invited to come as we are. God invites us to show up in all our brokenness and receive His full grace and mercy. We are not required to have it all together, in fact it is precisely when we realize we do not have it all together that we can fully experience the presence of God in our lives. In my own darkest moments I have met God. I don’t know why He seemingly didn’t show up until I was at the end of myself.  Or maybe, it wasn’t that He didn’t show up, it’s that I was getting in the way. All of my own junk was blocking the doorway. I’m not writing this claiming to have all the answers; I am here to attest to the power of love and forgiveness in my own life.

God has spoken His love to me through my community in Parkdale. I see God in the faces of the people. I saw God in John. When PNC had to leave our building at the beginning of the summer it was the people who made me believe we could keep going without it. On the day we had to be out of the basement I still had no way to move our industrial fridge and freezer (some of the only things we still count as belongings). A mover wanted over $600 to move them one block to the building we are in right now. I was stressed. Then along came four guys who lifted those suckers up a flight of stairs, stuck them on dollies and wheeled them to the new space. One of them was John. John helped without a second thought.

Now John is gone. I know for me John’s death has stirred up the grief associated with people we have already said goodbye to. Death does that. It also reminds us of our own mortality. Let us think too of the ultimate hope that we have. Our hope is that God met John somewhere along the way and is loving him into a life free of pain and guilt and loneliness.  Our hope is that He is doing that with every single one of us.

Dignity of Presence

I’m trying to warm up after a 5:15 morning walk with a dear friend. I’ve been checking e-mails and just received the good news about a grant proposal being accepted for PNC. Yes! And just last night a group of new friends announced they had taken up an offering for us- an offering that reflects loving generosity. Yes, again! As I sit by the fire in my living room I am struck by the gratitude I feel that, at the end of a crazy year, PNC is still here. We have weathered many storms and are not looking just tattered and torn, but hope-full. On more than a few occasions I have said (and will continue to say), “there is beauty arising from the ashes”.

At this time last year another dear friend shared an Advent reading that has proven to be a constant source of great encouragement. One part says this:

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.’

This is so powerfully embodied in the great poise of the trees. ‘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.

A dignity of presence. I love that. I love that PNC has been able to urge our roots deeper, spill into the streets, learn to rely on God for our daily bread and find a new way. I am learning SO much about trusting God in each moment. Without fail, when the bank account has dipped to a bad place, there is either just enough money in my pocket or someone else says, “I will take care of it”; when there is little food in the pantry we get a donation; when we need a space to run a program another organization says “here, use this space”. I have desired to be open and attuned to the possibility that God might say it is time to close the doors. All these happenings though say the exact opposite: stay open, I am with all of you.

The PNC community is rising up. With humble gratitude I say, thanks.

To all who mourn he will give a crown of beauty for ashes, a joyous blessing instead of mourning, festive praise instead of despair…they will be like great oaks that the Lord has planted for his own glory (Isaiah)


My daughter was once given a lovely little picture book called “Ish”, by Peter H. Reynolds. It is the story of Ramon, a young boy who likes to draw, “Anytime. Anything. Anywhere”. One day though Ramon’s older brother Leon snickers at one of his works of art, saying it doesn’t look like anything. This is so hurtful, that Ramon discards his work and decides to never draw again. He can’t make anything look “right”. That is, until he discovers his little sister Marisol has created a gallery of his crumpled up art on the walls of her room. Tenderly she declares which one is her favourite. “That was supposed to be a vase of flowers,’ Ramon said, ‘but it doesn’t look like one.”

“Well, it looks vase-ISH!’ she exclaimed”.

Marisol’s simple statement changes Ramon: “[he] felt light and energized. Thinking ish-ly allowed his ideas to flow freely. He began to draw what he felt- loose lines. Quickly springing out . Without worry.”

Since re-reading this book the other night, I haven’t been able to stop considering how important thinking “ish-ly” has become in my life. Many have heard me lament that I don’t ever know how to succinctly answer the question, “how are you?”. The temptation so often is to say “okay”. However “okay” doesn’t really cut it. Okay presumes too much. The truth is, I’m okay-ish. I’m basking in the wonderment that PNC is not just surviving, but growing; I’m grieving death; I’m enjoying my family; I’m mostly trusting that there will be enough money to pay the bills- sometimes not so much; I’m tired AND I’m invigorated. I am no one thing.

I am also learning to embrace doing things ish-ly at PNC. We are no longer housed in a piece of the neighbourhood, we are more fully inhabiting it. The challenges of this (and there are many) do not outweigh the benefits. Our community is expanding as we keep thinking outside of the box.

At the end of the book, Ramon is sprawled out on a rock, his feet dipped in a lake, the sun shining on his face. “One spring morning, Ramon had a wonderful feeling. It was a feeling that even ish words and ish drawings could not capture. He decided NOT to capture it. Instead, he simply savoured it…”

May I learn to do that too.

Retreat Time

I have written here about the camp my family and I spend a lot of time at in the summers. I have long dreamed of taking a group from PNC to Camp Koinonia and this past weekend it happened!

For many, the opportunity to leave the city doesn’t come by often. For one of my friends this was the FIRST time he had experienced the woods of Northern Ontario. Though he has been through much, including jail, he became childlike as we drove in the dark toward the camp. He kept asking if I really knew where we were going. What about animals? It’s too dark! Are we safe? Is this where they write ghost stories?

By the time we left at the end of the weekend this same man was telling me, in his broken English, that he felt “happy in his head”. He, once he got used to the dark, slept deeply. He kayaked. He ate well. He hung out with children, including my daughter. He played dominoes and sang camp songs and received communion. He even wrote this on the time line that we each added significant events to: “Erinn apcepted me work 2011 at PNC. That my 2nd home”.

This makes me weep.

Thank you to the many people who made this retreat possible. Thank you to Camp Koinonia for welcoming PNC. And thank you to the PNC community for gathering, eating, singing, hiking, fishing, playing, resting, remembering and celebrating together. I mean it when I say I am honoured and humbled to have received the call to lead PNC through serving you. To say I’m grateful is truly an understatement.

Let’s start planning the next retreat.