The Consecration of a Person’s Poverty

She’s small in stature, with piercing eyes and wavy hair that, as she describes it, has a mind of its own. It is not uncommon to see her roaming around Parkdale, usually looking for help in the form of money or cigarettes. Some days are harder for her than others. The desperation that is likely always present internally, comes leaking out and manifests itself in wildly frantic behaviour. On a recent sunny Thursday though she was lucid and simply looking for a coffee.

We have recently started blocking every Thursday morning for outreach, which for us means we walk around the neighbourhood and connect with people along the way. Joanna, Meagan and I are enjoying being outside and are feeling thankful that Kirti, a case worker/counsellor from Parkdale Community Health Centre is joining us each week. Sometimes we chat with community members of The Dale, sometimes we meet new people, sometimes we intervene in difficult situations, sometimes we strategize with Kirti about how to help someone find housing or treatment or whatever support they might need, and sometimes, in the case of our friend I have just described, we provide a coffee.

With the drink in hand, she settled onto a small ledge jutting out from a storefront and said, “Do you think God sees everything I go through? Do you think God sees me? I mean, look at what I have gone through. Does God see ME?” Meeting her gaze, I fought back tears and said, “I believe God does.” She went on to describe much of her life: how it began with a desire to be a nurse, but spiralled out due to multiple traumatic experiences, many of which are too difficult to describe here. Poverty, a mental health diagnosis, and the loss of a child to the system have all contributed to her pain.

“People don’t see me you know. Or when they do they only see my dirty fingernails and messy hair. They can’t see past it. I’m not loveable in their eyes. But we are so much more than our outsides you know.” Yes, I told her, you are so right. I found myself thinking of the Beatitudes as I continued to listen. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount says things like, blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn. What does that mean for this friend?

The origin of the word ‘bless’ meant to consecrate and speak well of, most often used toward God. Viewed through this lens, the Beatitudes reveal how God consecrates things like our poverty and grief. God holds up and makes blessed those who are poor and broken, revealing them as precious and having connection to Him. Similarly, when we seek peace, when we show mercy, when we mourn and when we are meek, God is connected to us. In this way there is not an absence of God in life’s greatest challenges.

This woman has already endured more than many people will in a lifetime. I don’t understand the disproportionate distribution of challenge. And yet, when I look in her eyes and listen to her story, I am struck by the wisdom she carries. While sipping on her coffee, she spoke significant truth about the condition of humankind, love, and grace. It became time for Joanna, Meagan, Kirti, and I to move on, but before we did I thanked her for being so open and said, “you are loved”. To which she replied, “I think God does see me. I even think God views me as special.”



When Helping Hurts

This has been an especially intense, difficult week.

I find myself considering the words of Nouwen: “Let us not underestimate how hard it is to be compassionate. Compassion is hard because it requires the inner disposition to go with others to the place where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely, and broken. But this is not our spontaneous response to suffering. What we desire most is to do away with suffering by fleeing from it or finding a quick cure for it.”

As an advocate in the middle of a very difficult and complex situation I have been simultaneously full of the awareness that there is no speedy fix at the same time as longing for one. I am touching pain that is beyond what I have known myself. I have participated in conversations that, leading up to them,  I was sure I had no words for. Finding the strength to compassionately respond has hurt, not because I don’t want to, but because the nature of the problem is that sad.

I am also reminded of The Beatitudes: that it is precisely in the poorness of spirit, the grief and sorrow that blessedness can be found, for there we can do nothing except turn to God. It is in this turning that I find hope. Hope is coming in the form of a whole host of people willing to help those hurting, meals showing up, friends checking in and gifts being thoughtfully given. My prayer is that those at the core of the crisis will discover that this hope is intended for them, and that while there is no immediate cure, help is on the way.