It’s a story I’ve told many times over the last number of years: how we became “The Dale”. 2012 began a real season of change for us and we knew that it was going to include a new name. At the time I asked people what this community meant to them, even in just one word. I got many responses, the most consistent being, “safe”.

A dale is a valley. It is common for a dale to run alongside or even through a mountain. If I decided to climb a mountain and during the ascent found myself bracing for an incoming storm, I would go back down to the dale to be safe. God promises to walk with us through valleys, including the one that is in the shadow of death. All of this, along with our rootedness in Parkdale led us to becoming The Dale Ministries.

I recently had the opportunity to tell this story to a community member who had never heard it before. Joanna and I were just about to head out to pick up a donation when he strolled up and wanted to briefly chat, specifically about our name. As I explained it, he kept his hands in his pockets and kept looking up at the sunlit sky. He finally interjected, “but don’t you think the dale would fill up with water during the storm?”.

It’s a good observation. The reality is, we cannot claim The Dale is completely free of danger. In fact, I’ve become fond of saying The Dale hopes to be as safe as possible. We can’t promise zero conflict. We can’t guarantee a place where everyone agrees, where no one fights, where pain doesn’t leak out, where the shadow of death doesn’t exist, where the waters don’t rise. We can work diligently to interrupt the many isms that threaten to strip people of their dignity and foster an environment where all people can come and be fully embraced.

The other day Dion and I were watching a show called World’s Toughest Race. During an interview one of the players was admitting that people wonder why anyone would put themselves through something as hard as this race. The answer? The challenge, especially when faced alongside teammates, develops something really deep inside. At The Dale we are a group of people learning to risk coming as we are before each other and God, even when the flood waters are intensifying. I believe it to be true that something really deep is developing inside this valley, the one we call The Dale Ministries.

You can read about the original process of finding our new name here: Finally, Our New Name

In grade seven I found myself in a new school where I didn’t know anyone. I met Julie that year. We quickly became the best of friends. I spent A LOT of time in Julie’s home, so much so that her father famously (and lovingly) referred to me as part of their furniture.

I remember first hearing that Julie was pregnant. I think any time one becomes pregnant it is both scary and exhilarating news, and the announcement of this impending arrival was no different. I was just 16 at the time, a year younger than my best friend. I got to journey alongside Julie through her pregnancy. I remember shaving her legs when she could no longer reach them, feeling the flutter of kicks, and even experiencing some sympathy nausea.

Jessica was born on September 4th, 1991. I got a phone call telling me that she had been born, a healthy child who bore a striking resemblance to her Mom, including the auburn hair. The first time I met Jessica was just inside the door of what had become my second home, now her first. I would often walk around with her in my arms, loving when she would grab one of my fingers with her whole tiny hand. Sometimes I would sit at the piano and serenade Jessica with Edelweiss from The Sound of Music, “blossoms of snow may you bloom and grow, bloom and grow forever…” I called her “Boof” more than I called her Jessica, and she would eventually call me “Auntie Ernin”.

I recently wrote a letter to Jessica where I shared many of these thoughts, including recalling one of my favourite outings with her to the zoo. Jessica, Julie, another friend, and I went. We were so excited to show Jessica all of the animals, especially the big ones like elephants and giraffes. Instead, Jessica was enthralled with one big rock. The picture I have included here is from the zoo. Jessica loved being outdoors and reminded us that day of how simple things can provide the most fun. 

Life did not remain as simple as that for Jessica. Through it all I desperately wanted to hold her again like I did when she was small and tell her again and again, “you are loved”. Julie once called me in a panic because Jessica seemed to be missing. I immediately began to search for her, reaching out to anyone (most of them strangers to me) about her whereabouts. I drove for hours one day to try and find her, eventually discovering that she was miraculously okay.

Just days ago Julie read my letter to Jessica. I don’t know how much she could hear, given that she was so near the end of her life, but I desperately wanted her to hear all of it, including this:

“There is much that I wish I could take from you: the cancer, the pain, the limited time. Since I can’t, I want to say that I will always love you Boof. I hope you can find rest and that as you do so, seeing the faces of your children and your family will remind you of your legacy. Jessica, you were created in the image of the Creator, one who calls you Beloved. I am praying that in this valley you will never feel alone. I am going to find a nice rock to sit on in your honour. Maybe I’ll hum Edelweiss at the same time.”

Jessica died last night. My understanding is that she had come to peace with dying, having spent much of her walk with cancer reconnecting and reconciling with family. My heart is with those she has left behind. I will never forget my time with the Stammis family; I will never forget Jessica. She will always remain Boof, and I, her Auntie Ernin.

I am outside of the city, alone. Due to the generosity of some dear friends, I am staying in a cabin by a lake, a perfect spot to seek the solitude that I need. It is quiet. The sun is slowly setting, making the water glisten and sparkle with the last of its light. Every once in a while, I hear the hum of hummingbirds and the groan of frogs. 

This is not the first time I have been here. I am reminded of this as I scan the guest book that I have repeatedly inscribed. More often than not I expect to spend at least some of each visit journaling, praying, and working things out that have been huddling in my heart. I am not usually at a loss for words. In fact, I can be spinning with them: writing in a flurry, talking out loud to myself and to God, catching thoughts as they swirl around my head. 

For the last number of days I have been struck by this: I have no idea what to say. I’m surprised that I am even compelled to sit and type right now. Since mid-March life has looked extraordinarily different. As I got in the van to drive here, I kept thinking, “now I will finally begin to process 2020.” That thought now makes me smirk. But maybe it shouldn’t. 

Processing can take on various forms. Just because I find myself mute doesn’t mean I’m not working things out. I think I’m listening- to the wind, the grasshoppers, the sound of the clock on the wall, and the water as it laps against the shore. I have always loved John O’Donahue’s turn of phrase, “the great poise of the trees” and so I’m considering it as I stare at the trunks that sprout out of the ground and reach up to the sky. I am reading a book a day, voraciously interested in other people’s words. 

There is something comforting about being in a place where it is easy to feel connected to the earth just doing its thing. The sun rises in the east, slowly moves across the sky until it sets in the west. Whether I’m watching or not, dragonflies zoom through the air, chipmunks scurry along the ground, and minnows glide through the water. While sitting in a kayak today, just watching my surroundings, a figurative dam opened in my heart and I began to weep. 

For those who know me, tears typically come quickly and easily, though strangely not to the same degree over the last number of months. As someone who has experienced repeated crisis, I kind of know how to “manage” it. I do what needs to be done because it has to get done. What I can forget in the middle of it is to slow down, to stop. Scripture invites me to be still and know that God is God, both because of and in spite of whatever circumstances I find myself in. 

It is dark now. The stars are making an appearance. I hear a trio of loons. I will read a little more, and then turn in for the night. The weight of everything going on in the world remains heavy. There is much to process, learn, and go and do. I trust the words will come. But first I will sit, enveloped in silence.

The last number of months have been in some ways a blur. I know there is much to process, except knowing where to start or finding the space to do it is a challenge. In many ways, things feel less crisis now, though we are not out of the woods. At The Dale we have created a new routine, one that is generally running smoothly and allows us to continue being as present as possible in Parkdale. Maybe it is this strange settled-ness that has me able to be more contemplative about this time we are in. 

I recently heard someone describe technology as a “flimsy surrogate” for real life relationship. For those of us with access to the internet, we have learned that there is no substitute for being together in real time. For those of us with no access, we have felt an even deeper disconnection and isolation. I suspect that we have all, to varying degrees, rediscovered that we need each other. For too long our world has placed a high value on independence and individualism, making it easy to be disconnected from life and others. Now that things have been turned upside-down, we long to touch and be touched by those around us. 

One of the things I most miss at The Dale is being able to gather together for a meal. While we believe strongly in food security, our meals are also never intended to be exclusively about what is on the plate. Think of the connection that is built when a family is routinely able to eat together. There are always different roles: some cook, some set the table, some entertain, some clear and do the dishes, some ask, “would you like coffee or tea with dessert?”, some initiate a conversation about the weather or the news or what’s going on in their heart. In helping and serving one another relationship is formed. A book I recently read said it like this: “True service is not a relationship between an expert and a problem…It is a relationship between people who bring the full resources of their combined humanity to the table and share them generously” (Remen). I love that. 

At our Sunday Service, we have always talked about how God has given us each good gifts and that we are invited to give back a portion. Taking this posture means learning to acknowledge that we are all built to both give and receive. I have witnessed our community’s commitment to this over the last few months. People have shared encouragement in written letters, emails, phone conversations, and while standing in line to receive a meal or on a street corner. Prayer is happening spontaneously. All sorts of things have been donated to be redistributed, including clothing, books, and grocery cards. We have a growing stack of art that has been produced. Music has been made in the park. Birthdays have been celebrated with small gatherings. 

Has life looked and felt different at The Dale lately? Yes. Do I miss how things were? Most definitely. I wonder though if what we are learning now will only embolden us to be an even brighter reflection of what God calls us to be in this world, that more space will be created for people to bring their full resources, and that our need for relationship and community will be better understood. One of my many prayers is that of Micah 6:8: that together we will act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with our Creator. 

Being a December baby meant that when Cate started Kindergarten, she was still just three years old. I remember how little she looked: her bobbed and very blonde hair, and the seemingly gigantic backpack hanging from her shoulders. At the end of the first week she asked me, “do I need to go to this place for the rest of my life?!” The transition to school was not immediately an easy one for Cate. We quickly discovered though that the hardest part was getting over the threshold of the door. Once inside she settled and enjoyed placing her coat in the cubby, finding a spot on the carpet, and quietly assessing the new surroundings. 

Last Friday Cate graduated from high school. She is now a young woman, one who is poised and ready for the next transition to university. Not that there aren’t jitters, especially given how unique her first year will be. Who could have imagined that the world would look as it does, forcing schools to go on-line and maybe only partially in-person? We hope though that something new and beautiful will emerge out of all this challenge. 

Over the last seventeen years, Cate has been no stranger to difficult circumstances. Instead of becoming hardened and angry, she has remained soft and remarkably happy. Ask anyone who knows her, and you will likely hear about the optimism that bubbles through Cate on a regular basis. There is also a depth to Cate that has always been present. A self-described old soul, Cate has long seemed beyond her years. She has a compassionate heart, cares about and fights for justice, and is a fiercely loyal friend. She is also a fantastic photographer AND musician, a very good baker, and a mean Dutch Blitz player. 

I often feel like being a parent involves seeing my heart walk around on two legs. Right now, I’m trying to process that Cate is no longer that little toddler who would rarely let go of me. My mom used to tell me that she loved every stage of parenting, “Erinn, it just gets better and better”. I feel the same. I love parenting Cate (and I know Dion does too). It stretches me, challenges me, and fills me in ways that I could never have anticipated.

Cate, I have said this to you directly, but I will also say it publicly: the minute we learned you came into existence, I began praying for and loving you. Since you learned to get over that difficult first threshold of kindergarten, I have witnessed you take even greater risks- creatively, emotionally, and spiritually (to name just a few). I can’t wait to see the places you are going to go. I also love being right in this moment with you. Through the inevitable challenges, sorrows and beauty of life, I hope you will always know that you are beloved. 

Some people called him “Rasta” others, “Dreads”, but to us he was simply Jahn. I first met Jahn when he regularly hung out at the now defunct Coffee Time on Queen St West. He would always shout a greeting, even when I was still a block away. I noticed three things about Jahn right away: his kind smile, his radio worthy voice, and his unbelievable hair- dreadlocks that when released from his tam (hat) were longer than he was tall.

Over time, Jahn became a regular at The Dale. I always appreciated his presence at our drop-ins. The place we most often saw him the last few years was the parkette beside Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre. He became one of the unofficial caretakers of the space, making sure that it was kept as clean as possible. At Christmas he helped decorate one of the trees with a variety of ornaments, saying that it was a good way to spread some cheer. Not long ago he was hired as a Peer Worker for the Health Centre’s Harm Reduction Program, a role that he was keen to fill.

Jahn loved dogs. A week or two ago while we were on outreach, he excitedly showed us pictures of the two puppies he recently got. He lit up talking about them and describing the good tired he was because of their endless energy. The dogs, a new place, and the Peer Worker job all made his big smile even broader.

Over our many years of friendship, even if I was the first to ask, “how are you doing?”, Jahn would wait to answer until I told him what was going on in my own life. No matter how challenging circumstances got, Jahn would express gratitude for life. “It’s a gift just to be walking around, you know?”

This past Monday I had a conversation with Jahn where he again expressed his upbeat outlook on life, though he wasn’t feeling physically great- nothing to worry about he assured me. He even let my daughter Cate and her friend take the pictures included here. Cate has a video of him too, one that is beautiful and now very hard to watch. We don’t know what happened between Monday and today, but this morning we learned of Jahn’s death. I can’t believe it. Many people are reeling from the news.

Jahn: thank you for the gift of your friendship. I am fortunate to have known your gentleness and your smile. Your absence is already felt. You will be missed on the block. You will be missed by The Dale. You will be missed by me.

May you now rest in deep peace. 

Near the beginning of this year I, together with my co-worker and friend Joanna, attended a Kenosis Retreat. “Kenosis” comes from the Greek, meaning “to empty out”. In Christian theology it is used to describe not only the way Jesus emptied Himself of power, but also how we are asked to do the same. On this weekend we gathered in a group small enough to meet in a large circle, almost all of us white, with the exception of a few POC (People of Colour) friends there to offer accountability and wisdom. This format provided the opportunity for us to be very honest about any fears, doubts or confusion we might have about race and racism. It also required that we work really hard to gain understanding ourselves, without adding to the weighty burden long felt by POC to be the ones responsible for educating us. 

I learned a lot. It was a humbling and emotional experience. We were repeatedly asked to check in with what we were feeling in our gut, head, and heart. I felt a lot of things, including lament and a deep longing to name and dismantle white supremacy. The reality is that I am privileged as a person with pale skin and raced as white. This doesn’t mean that my life has been easy. It does mean that I get to take for granted a lot of things; I get to benefit from a system that has been set up to oppress others. 

I have the opportunity to work for justice at The Dale, a beautifully diverse community that knows many intersections of oppression: race, class, gender, sexuality, age, disability, etc. It is common to hear stories of people who are regularly victimized simply because of how they look. I grieve the frequency with which people cite the church at large as the perpetrators of such marginalization. As a believer in Jesus, I am sorry. 

I do not write today in order to gain approval. I want to be an ally AND I definitely fail. More often than not I think, I have no idea what I am doing. I regularly pray, “most merciful God, I confess that I have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what I have done, and by what I have left undone. I have not loved you with my whole heart; I have not loved my neighbours as myself. I am truly sorry and humbly repent.”

We are all remarkably made in the image of God, each of us completely unique. I want to imagine a world where this commonality means all are respected and loved instead of minimized and feared. Racism, born out of the construct of race, is rampant and needs to die. In working for this I want to keep choosing kenosis. I want to empty myself of power and serve. “Where is the pain in the world that you just cannot stand? Stand there. The thing that breaks your heart is the very thing you were born to help heal.” (Doyle)

There is a lot of life that happens at The Dale which goes unseen by most. Sometimes it’s easiest to explain what we are doing in broad strokes, but the heartbeat of this place is maybe most evident in our conversations, brief encounters, and surprising moments. Like these: 

Joanna and I were walking along Queen St one recent morning. We spotted a friend sitting under a tree beside a fast food place, eagerly eating cherries from a grey plastic bag. Unable to initially understand what she was offering, we came to realize that she wanted to gift us the remainder of her bounty, “take them, sanitize them, and enjoy them”. 

He reminds us of Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh most days (and he knows it). Imagine almost every sentence spoken sounding like, “oh bother”. On this day he arrived, explaining that he needed to tell me something. Next thing I knew he produced a gift card that had been received as a birthday present. “This is for you people. I don’t have much, but I do have this to give”.

As we approached a group of friends, one asked me to join him on the opposite corner. Together we bent our heads by a sidewalk chalk memorial for a person who died in an untimely and unnecessary manner. A flower and sacred tobacco had been added to one spot, somehow not disturbed by the wind. He felt grateful that nothing had blown away, adding that this offered some comfort, especially given that no funeral was immediately possible. 

We now have a handwashing station that stands near the table from which we hand out food. I am reminded to not take access to water for granted every time a person steps up to use it. I can’t shake the image of one individual who washed their hands carefully and methodically three times in a row because it “felt so good”. 

A person we don’t know pulled up in a car packed with boxes of t-shirts to donate, all locally screen printed. We’re talking hundreds of shirts, an amount that at first was almost overwhelming. Since, we have distributed stacks and stacks of them. You know that feeling when you get to put on brand-new piece of clothing? Think of that as you picture our friends, many of whom are surviving on so little, getting something completely fresh. It’s dignifying. 

It is often when a person gets to join us, either for a neighbourhood walk, a drop-in, or a Sunday service that I hear, “now I really get what this place is about”. Describing life at The Dale in all its fullness can be a challenge. There are moments like I’ve described above. There are also messy disagreements, crisis that requires de-escalation, raucous conversation, and times when no words seem adequate. There is deep grief over broken systems and frustration at inequality. There is also a deep and abiding sense that we have been called to journey this life together, and that Hope can and will meet us on the way. 

I am outdoors and it is quiet, except for the sound of the bell. I don’t know where it is coming from. The air is warm and the table I am seated at is dappled with sunshine. I want to write but am struggling to coherently describe what is going on in my head and heart.

Yesterday was another anniversary of my mother’s death. We ate chips and drank wine in her honour. I decided against the suggestion that we go to her gravesite. I find it difficult to go, not because I don’t want to “visit” my mom, but because it is there I most acutely feel her absence. Instead I want to look at some of her treasures that now adorn our house, drink too-strong coffee, imagine her sitting beside me, and work out all the news that I want to share.

Though life has been uniquely busy over the last number of weeks, I have also found myself with time to be alone in deep thought. Sometimes this takes me down a rabbit hole of memories: lying on the grass beside Lake Ramsay at my grandparents’ home, listening to mom chatting and occasionally bursting into laughter; sharing chocolate croissants on a table outside of the St. Lawrence Market; stringing popcorn and cranberries for the Christmas tree; carrying ten more pounds of potatoes than we ever needed to a family gathering because she was worried there wouldn’t be enough; helping to rearrange all the precious things she kept on her hospital windowsill.

I can also hear her voice. I am certain she would have all kinds of questions about what we are doing at The Dale, how Cate is managing the loss of so many things during her senior year, and what Dion is up to each day. I suspect she would caution me about doing too much, gently reminding me that Sabbath was never intended to be optional. She would take notes on her I-Pad with her one good finger, all in order to keep each item in prayer.

Death arrived just before 10:30 pm for my mom. To this day I can easily place myself in that moment. Last night I decided to wrap myself in a blanket-like poncho that was hers. Just as I am now, I tried to stop and listen to my surroundings. It was still. I looked out the window and noticed more stars than I expected. I didn’t think that sleep would come, but then I heard the same bell that is ringing today. For a moment, the space between us was blurred. I fell asleep with renewed hope that one day that space will be eliminated.

It’s 9:30 am. There are four chairs, spaced at least six feet apart in the basement room that has become our ground zero. The staff team, which includes me, Joanna, Pete, and Olivia (our fifth, Meagan is on maternity leave) takes a seat to check-in. We first each take a turn to describe how we are feeling/doing/managing before praying together.

The donations we have received are divided onto different tables: non-perishable food, fresh food, toiletry items (including sanitizer, toilet paper, and hand-sewn masks), containers, clothing, bags (plastic, Ziplock, paper). There is a spot next to the kitchen door for our own Personal Protective Equipment.

We now create bags and bags of groceries. On this day a bag includes potatoes, carrots, beets, celery, a melon, kiwis, avocados, onions, one-litre of milk, a bag of chips, and a box of Kraft Dinner. We lament that there is a box of onions that might need to go to waste, except that later in the day a new friend and volunteer, Brad, offers to salvage them by cleaning off the bad parts in order to create a batch of french onion soup that we can freeze.

Meanwhile, we begin our outdoor set-up. Orange pylons create a lengthy line through the courtyard and onto the sidewalk, all six feet apart. A sandwich board is positioned at the front of the gate, both a way to communicate what time things will begin and keep the space clear for our tables. Two tables are set up just inside the gate: the first is where a person will walk to in order to be greeted and receive food, the second is where the food is run to from just inside the building. This system keeps everyone at a safe distance.

At 11 am our friend Natasha arrives on her bike, bringing with her a delivery of homemade and individually wrapped baked goods and another bag of hand-sewn masks from Patty. Natasha and Patty would typically be in our kitchen prepping food at our Monday Drop-In. They, along with some of our other volunteers, have been supporting us by baking, sewing and gathering additional donations. We have a quick check-in outside in the sun.

At noon I receive a call that the 75 prepared meals which have been gifted to us are ready and will arrive in about ten minutes. We head out to receive the delivery and place everything in the lobby of the building. This brings us closer to 1 pm, the time we open for the community. The last rush is to bring everything up the two short staircases from our space: the groceries, a basket of masks, a box of cilantro (since we know people have a love/hate relationship with it, we figured we would ask who might like a bunch), Ziplock bags of dog food for those with a furry friend, and some extra plastic bags.

Though our start time is 1 pm it is not unusual to have a line forming much earlier. Today this is the case, which leads to a conversation about possibly opening earlier. We decide to hold off until about 12:50 pm. We each get freshly masked and gloved, before determining who goes to what post: the table to distribute food alongside a volunteer, the gate to monitor the front of the line, the sidewalk to ensure that people are lined up well, the end of the line to offer a goodbye and help carrying things around the corner to Queen Street. Wherever we are, we want everyone to feel welcomed and cared for, even if just over a brief conversation.

By 1:31 pm all of the food has been distributed.

Between 2 and 2:30 pm more friends arrive to pick up thirteen bags of groceries and meals to deliver to community members able to shelter-in-place. Sheila and Ross have been doing these deliveries for weeks and have an established routine. We help load everything into their vehicle.

It’s now 3 pm and we are doing the last bit of clean-up in the space. Door handles, tables, taps, etc. are all sprayed with a disinfectant. We don’t leave garbage, compost or recycling in the space, so it is ready to be carried out as we turn off the lights and lock up.

As happy as we are to be working in this way, there is a grief that accompanies this kind of modified Monday. We miss long conversations around a table, preparing a meal with the community in a bustling kitchen, passing the shared platter of food, making music together, and embracing one another. People can’t even see us smiling from behind our masks- though I do keep greeting people with, “can you see me smiling with my eyes?”

As we disperse for the day, we don’t get to say goodbye to one another with our typical hugs. Instead, we each stretch out an arm and say, “GO TEAM”! Together, we are responding to the COVID crisis. It might look very different than our norm, but we’re glad that it still feels like The Dale.