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. 

There is joy in this journey. 

Breakfast and Art Drop-In at Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre


Service of Ordination at ESM 


Second Harvest Agency Cookbook, featuring Souad Sharabani’s recipe and The Dale

 
Part of The Dale’s Ride for Refuge Team

 
Baptism in Lake Ontario


Monday Drop-In at BPC


Our summer interns, Ahmeda (centre) and Olivia (right)


The Dale Fall Retreat, Camp Koinonia


Carolling in Parkdale


The “Dale Girls”


New freedom!



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At The Dale we have don’t have an offering plate, we have a hat. This toque gets passed around during our Sunday service. Just prior, I always explain that we are each invited to give back a portion of whatever it is that we have been given; that this looks very different for each of us and may not fit in the hat; and that whatever our gift, it is received with gladness and will be used well. 

It is important that all people have the opportunity to both give and receive. I notice the look of relief on people’s faces when they realize we celebrate all gifts, not exclusively the financial kind, because for many, money is scarce.

So, what does this look like? 

For some people, there is an eagerness to give the small pile of change in their pockets. Occasionally little notes are tucked in the hat: “my gift is to cook pancakes at the Thursday Drop-In” or “my gift is giving hugs throughout the week”. We receive art supplies, or two-for-one Tim Hortons coupons, or mittens. It is a beautiful assortment of things. 

It is not always easy to identify what we have to give. Our hope at The Dale is that together we can help one another discover our gifts. We also acknowledge that there are people in our midst who do have financial resources to share, especially in our broader network. By combining and celebrating all of the ways to give, we get to experience a shared responsibility for this community. 

The ‘giving toque’ reminds us that we are in this together. For this, I am grateful. 


It seems time for an update.

Many of you will know that my husband Dion lives with Multiple Sclerosis. On January 25th of this year he entered the hospital. That morning Dion could not get out of bed, and so I called an ambulance. He has not lived at home since. 

At the time, Dion’s medical team hoped that some of his symptoms would settle and possibly return to the previous normal (which included being able to transfer from a mobility scooter to bed, for example).  As of today, Dion is in a wheelchair and requires a higher level of support, including assistance with transfers. He talks about that here: https://www.dionoxford.com/dependancy-287-days-away-from-home/

After discussing all of the options we decided that the most obvious next step in a sea of unknowns was to renovate our home. This decision was not made lightly. I often tell people that when my mother was alive, we considered what was necessary to have her in the house. For her, the only requirement was a ramp and so that is what we did. For Dion, a larger number of things are necessary, including: a lift, a hospital bed, and a barrier-free washroom. 

Joanna Moon, my co-worker at The Dale and dear friend eagerly set up a GoFundMe page on our behalf back in February, on Valentine’s Day to be exact. We have been overwhelmed by the response of people wanting to help, either through a donation, a meal delivered to our doorstep, assistance with demolition, good thoughts and prayers…the list is long and saying ‘thank you’ feels inadequate. 

I am very grateful to have my brother Logan as the contractor on this project. He is working hard to coordinate the many trades people that are coming in and out of the house on a near daily basis. Cate and I have continued to live at home, given that the bulk of the work is happening in the basement. We are just needing to make friends with the dust. 

As I write, the status of the basement is this: the plumbing and electrical have passed inspection, there is a new floor and the walls have been framed. A hole will be created in the floor in our dining room this week to accommodate a lift. Things are happening. 

Outside of the renovations, there are meetings about what kind of care Dion requires. We agree that I cannot be Dion’s full-time caregiver, and with him on long-term disability it is important that I continue to work. There are pieces of this puzzle to figure out. Unfortunately, it is hard to plan when the system cannot guarantee the level of care they will supply at the present time. 

Which brings me to this request: please pray for us. For Dion, for Cate, for me. I know a lot of people are, and for that I am grateful. We need prayer, not just for the renovations, but for what life looks like after they are complete. It is unlikely that there will not be glitches. 2018 has been a brutal year in many, many ways. As Dion and I both acknowledge, there is a lot of loss, too much to process, and a deep need for things to feel a little more normal.

Of this I am confident: God is present in this journey. I trust that we are being guided through the wilderness. In its midst there is sorrow, lament, joy, gratitude, and much hope. What a complicated thing life is. 

     

In my world, and maybe yours too, burn-out is a hot topic of conversation. What does burnout look like and how does one avoid it? If it does come, what is the way through? Can burnout ever be viewed as a gift?

At its most basic, my vocation is about being a care-giver. I have spent twenty plus years (I keep wondering how that is possible!) being present to people who have lived experience of poverty, substance addiction and mental health challenges. I know there are many who wonder how I can keep it up. There is no denying this work is difficult: I see, hear, touch and taste the effects of this fallen world on a daily basis. The truth is though, I can’t imagine doing anything else.

My faith and a deep sense of call propels me forward. I’m certain that on days when I would rather hide in a cave, I am given strength not my own to be present. At the same time, it would be unfair to claim I have never dangled dangerously close to the burn-out edge.

As I understand it, there are a wide range of symptoms associated with burnout, including: exhaustion, an inability to cope, cynicism toward work, apathy, and loss of creativity. As a demonstrably emotional person, I know to flag feeling numb as a precursor to burnout. I often say to my closest friends, “If you see me not reacting to a death in The Dale community, be worried. Please come and talk to me.”

I don’t know what it looks like for everyone, but for me avoiding/returning from burnout has involved knowing that I am no one’s saviour; recognizing the importance of  receiving help from my community; saying no; establishing healthy boundaries; re-evaluating priorities, and committing to a day of rest. It is a gift to work in a context where my own wounds are allowed to rise to the surface and are then met with a great deal of grace and mercy.

I think that no matter what you do (paid or unpaid), having a community around you is a way to protect against burnout. So often we are instructed to start looking out exclusively for ourselves, as though that is the way to recover. It might seem counterintuitive to become MORE dependent on others, but as Henri Nouwen once wrote: “When we become aware that our stuttering, failing, vulnerable selves are loved even when we hardly progress, we can let go of our compulsion to prove ourselves and be free to live with others in a fellowship of the weak.”

If there is a gift to be found in burnout, maybe it is that we can simultaneously lose AND find ourselves while experiencing it. We are invited to be aware that God is present in the valley and on the mountaintop. In a strange way, burnout can help reorient us, directing us toward community, a place where we can learn to love, have empathy and compassion for one another, and discover the healing and hope of the one who created us.

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The truth is, I wanted to be able to write something this weekend about all that I have to be grateful for. I know there is a lot. For some reason every time I sat to write, nothing came out.

Thanksgiving is a holiday that I have long loved (my dad’s birthday often falls on it) and felt conflicted about (just ask any of my Indigenous friends to explain). This year, Thanksgiving weekend was particularly hard. I could feel it coming in the days leading up to it: I was melancholy and tired. Then the tears hit. I couldn’t stop missing people who have died. I felt overwhelmed by a number of different circumstances. Mixed up with the sadness was undeniable resentment.

I recently read about resentment being one of the opposites of gratitude. As I prepared to share about this idea at The Dale on Sunday, I couldn’t help but see myself in the middle of it. What does it look like to break through resentment and find freedom from its chains: the chains that prevent action, preoccupy thoughts, and propel unhealthy choices?

I suspect the starting point is confessing our resentments, which is not easy. One of the things I treasure about The Dale is how so many of my friends confess so freely. There are few masks, which challenges me to remove mine. So, through many tears I poured the hardship of the weekend out to Dion and then again at The Dale. In that act I felt heard, which in turn helped me feel less alone. Not news, but it turns out carrying resentment is very…human.

There is a space created for understanding, forgiveness, and grace when we confess. In turn, we are freed to develop a new spirit of gratitude. The act of gratitude takes practice, almost like working a muscle in order to make it stronger. I acknowledge there are many things to be thankful for, even in the midst of great struggle. If I’ve learned anything over the years, it’s that the seemingly “little” good things in life are actually very big and definitely worth noting. Resentment is hard to hold on to when there is a burgeoning spirit of thanksgiving.

I’m still tender. A serious wave of grief hit, and it has yet to break entirely. There is a lot about life that is hard, for each of us, in so many different ways. It is impossible to make sense of it all. What I believe is that life is a gift. I choose to believe that all things will ultimately be restored and made right. In putting away my resentment, I get to sing a new song, a song that can be sung everyday. Even on this Thanksgiving weekend.

 

 

Saturday was a beautiful day. The sun was shining and there was a bit of a breeze, perfect conditions to be walking/riding/wheel-chairing in the Ride for Refuge down at Ashbridge’s Bay. For the last three years The Dale has participated in this event, an opportunity for organizations like us to raise much-needed money.

First thing in the morning I ran into a double-flat tire issue that meant I would either 1) fix them and be super-late or 2) choose to walk and be on-time. I chose the latter! I have to say that the walk along the beach was stunning, especially with the sun making the water truly sparkle.

The Dale had a great team, many of whom you will see pictured (sadly not all. Note to self: take a group shot at the BEGINNING of the day before people depart on the various routes). Thank you to Dion, Cate, Joanna, Dave, Nancy, Meagan, Ian, Natasha, Hugh, Mike, and James. Together, with the help of so many donors, we raised $12,500. Thank you to everyone who made a contribution. Each and every gift is such an encouragement. For those who don’t know, The Dale receives no government funding. We instead rely on the support of a growing network of individuals, churches, organizations, and foundations.

Fundraising is hard. Admittedly, I sometimes get scared and wonder where the next bit will come from. With every passing year though my amazement grows at how The Dale is provided for. That feeling of wonder is something I never want to lose.

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It’s not hard to describe the regular schedule of The Dale. On Mondays we have a lunch drop-in, on Tuesdays we meet in the park, etc. What maybe is more difficult, unless you’ve spent time with us, is describing how things feel.

On Monday I found myself unable to meet with all of the people who wanted to connect and it admittedly led to some tension. I became a little sad and needed to take a minute to compose myself. I want to listen well, make the calls someone needs (often to a Social or Housing Worker), and generally be a good friend.  In that moment of deflation, there were many community members who did for me, exactly what I hope to do for them: they noticed I was a tad out of sorts, offered encouragement, gave me a hug, and asked how to help.

On Wednesday we held a Memorial Service for Mike. It was somber. He was an important friend to many people. A number of people spoke to me about the difficulty of compounded grief: how there have been too many untimely deaths and that the need to say a proper goodbye is necessary. There is relief that The Dale is present to facilitate memorials and funerals. One person came to me after and in their grief for Mike repeatedly said, “what would we do without The Dale? We need to keep being together”.

Following the Memorial a group of us went to a small stretch of beach along the lake because a community member named Kim had indicated her desire to be baptized. Joanna and Meagan led two readings, one from Scripture, the other something Kim wrote. And then we waded out into Lake Ontario where Kim announced her faith and allowed me the honour of baptizing her. What followed was communion and a tea party on the sand. With her permission I share Kim’s words about The Dale here:

Loving me as I am, in my loner spirit and nomadic ways, I felt drawn to a spirit community that I had not known before. I had always found my “spiritual” needs in nature, among God’s creation of wooded areas and rivers, and away from critical judging eyes. I had become a loner due to difficult circumstances in life, and felt I never quite fit anywhere else. Then I saw an open door, and the light shone on my heart, and a community grew into my family that I had not known before. I felt connected, and my loner spirit changed: I grew from being an “I” single, into a shared “We” community, and that felt good. I found stability, built a foundation, within a church with no walls, yet full of a caring community spirit. I now walk proud, and take risks to move forward, knowing I am part of community, and we walk together spilling out into the streets!

So many different feelings: tension, grace, grief, relief, joy, connection. The thing about The Dale is that we really do want it to be a place of belonging for whoever comes here. It’s not just about me, or other staff/volunteers doing something FOR other people, it’s about all of us doing something together, wherever we come from. We all, including me, need to both give and receive. Choosing to do life together in this way is messy. Sometimes we let each other down. People fight. The challenge of life circumstances, either poverty, or addiction, or mental health, or broken relationships, or death, or [insert your own struggle] can impact the way we interact with one another. And, it is most often in working through the messiness that we experience the joy of redemption.

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This summer The Dale had the pleasure of having not one, but two amazing women choose to do internships with us: Olivia and Ahmeda. If you cycle back in this blog, you can read posts written by both of them, including a final entry by Olivia who recently returned to Chicago for another year of school.

Ahmeda is someone I have enjoyed the privilege of knowing and calling friend for a number of years, so when she indicated her interest in coming to The Dale, I was thrilled. Just today I sat on Ahmeda’s couch with her youngest child (she and her husband have five boys) sleeping on my lap, while we discussed the last bits of administration needed to bring the internship to a close. The reason I wasn’t filled with sorrow over this is because Ahmeda intends to stick around, having found a place of belonging at The Dale.

I value the way Ahmeda both intentionally observes and participates in life at The Dale. She asks excellent questions and beautifully articulates what she is learning. Ahmeda possesses a special warmth and passion that draws people to her. She feels things deeply, loves her people, and is generous with her heart. Ahmeda: you and your family are a beloved gift.

The following are Ahmeda’s own words:

I have so much peace here. In this hot old church on Cowan Avenue that is used on Sundays, a space with walls that give glimpses of past glory: its beauty found etched in the carefully carved stones and the stained-glass windows, so obvious the pride of the artists whose work lives on till this day, both human and divine. This space that invites everyone from all walks of life to come, pause, breath and lean into the arms of the one through whom the upside-down kingdom comes alive.

I have no need to pretend here. In this space where the offering is put inside a well-used winter hat and we are encouraged to hold onto it and offer a prayer if that is what we have to bring; a worthwhile gift that glorifies the father, as good as any coin or note can be.

I have so much hope here. In this community where a Second Harvest truck brings the bounty of food sourced from grocery stores and food terminals all over the city. A blessed colorful nutritious selection that will herald and highlight the mystery and delight of the Creator’s presence at Monday’s community meal.

I have no need to search for love here. In these friendships that celebrate the simple things and create space for me and my children, allowing me to come as I am and serve in relationship as best I can.

I will not neglect to acknowledge the pain that is here. I see clearly the hurt that has marred the journey of most of us here. And also, I know Jesus is here. I know God is here. I need not search to find, for I can feel so clearly the warm caress and joyful touch of the Holy Spirit, delighting in the gathering to share, to create, to show our pain, to sing, to eat, to heal, to pray, to hope and to love.

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I forgot that quiet like this existed. I’m retreating in a cabin owned by long-time friends. The property is situated on a lake, far from the winding gravel road one must travel to get to it. I’m alone, a rarity these days, which is why the quiet has taken me by surprise. It’s dark. The kind of pitch black I don’t experience much in the city.

I sat for nearly the entire day on the dock, only breaking to either dip in the water, or get another drink. The bag at my side contained the following: three books, a journal, one pen, sunscreen, a large beach towel, and a container of corn chips, a treat that I don’t think I’ve had in years but had the sudden urge to get on the drive up from Toronto.

Memories are flooding my mind. Everything from picking warm blueberries in Sudbury with my cousins when we were all little, to my mom sitting on a dock indulging in wine and chips, to my dad helping Cate make a fishing rod out of a stick, a bobber and a bit of line. Many of these recollections make me both smile and wince with grief.

With all that has happened this year, it has been hard to really stop and let my emotions play catch-up. I don’t mean cry, as that’s something I do nearly every day (and not exclusively out of sadness). I mean really sit with the magnitude of illness, care-giving, death, loss, and upheaval. Doesn’t sound like much fun, I know, and yet ignoring it is simply not an option. I choose to grieve.

As I lay in the sun, a unique sense of calm came to rest upon me. I can’t think of another way to describe it and don’t think it was something I could conjure up for myself. I allowed myself to fluctuate being reading, being still, and praying. I listened to a loon. I broke my rhythm of sitting and dipping by taking out a kayak and paddling around the lake. I wrote in my journal. I expressed my sadness and anger, gratitude and joy, longing and hope, all punctuated with tears that periodically welled up and spilled out.

The processing is far from done. I suppose that will always be true. This journey I’m on, one that has been so marked with challenging AND remarkable things, promises to continue being a wild ride. Maybe ironically, I have been reassured in this time of solitude, that I am not alone.

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Just yesterday, on August 6th 2018, our friend Michael DeWolfe died. Even as I type, I find myself in disbelief. It’s not that Mike was well. He had struggled with a variety of health issues for a long time. Somehow though he always seemed to pull through and rather miraculously be out and about in the neighbourhood. I guess my brain got tricked into believing he would always beat the odds.

Mike was one of the first people I met when I began working in Parkdale. At the time he was known as “Iron Mike”, a clear leader and known by most. He always spoke with a gentle authority, liking to claim that he never raised his voice or swore, which in my experience proved true. He usually substituted the word ‘Christmas’ where one might have used a more typical expletive.

I learned early on that Mike was from Nova Scotia. He spoke of it often. With time I came to understand how complicated a life Mike had led, one that caused him both joy and regret. The east coast held many memories and often seemed to be calling out to him. Years ago Mike was able to move to Newfoundland. I still remember how big a deal it was: for him, and for those from Parkdale who watched him go. He even came for a visit once, asking to address everyone at our Monday Drop-In, where he encouraged people to see how change is possible. Mike had found a job, was in a relationship and healthier than he’d been in years, which gave others hope that it might happen for them.

Over time Mike returned to Parkdale. During the last few years he was a constant presence. He would always make sure to talk to me, whether it was in a drop-in or outside. Usually Mike would express concern about the many challenges I was going through, asking if there was anything he could do to help. Almost always he would talk about his family, specifically his children. More often than not Mike would cry freely during those conversations, wiping his eyes with the palms of both hands.

Just months ago, Joanna, Meagan and I had the opportunity to meet Mike’s son, daughter, and their mother. They had travelled a great distance to be with Mike who was in hospital. I always count it such a privilege to connect with the families of people we are walking alongside at The Dale. We have been in touch since, sharing concern about Mike’s health. It was Mike’s son who confirmed that his dad was now gone. To the whole of Mike’s family and friends, on behalf of The Dale, our deepest condolences.

Mike: thank you for being my friend. I will miss your laugh, your words of encouragement, and your presence. You know that at times you drove me crazy, and I will even miss that. The ‘block’ certainly won’t be the same without you. The last time I saw you was on the steps outside the church on Dunn Avenue, and it was because you sent someone in to the drop-in to get me. Thank you for that last visit. We said goodbye saying, “loves ya”. Loves ya I do.

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September 12th, 1962 – August 6th, 2018