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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.

One thing I try to practice is keeping a gratitude journal. Years ago, I found a little hard cover book (if you saw it on a shelf, you’d think it was a novel) with the title, “The Heart Talks”, that I write in regularly. During this pandemic I have found it especially important for me to consider the things for which I’m thankful. I think that’s why I really appreciate John Krasinski’s Some Good News or SGN show that he’s doing from his home. So, here’s SGN from my world, including The Dale front.

On a recent Thursday, a person came to get a bagged breakfast from us. While a good size meal- it included a fried egg and bacon English muffin sandwich, one banana, one tomato, a yogurt cup, a granola bar and a cookie- it was definitely made for one person. Joanna later discovered our friend sharing this breakfast with two other people, all three of whom are living outside. Fortunately we had more food to share, but felt extremely moved by this example of generosity.

A couple who live close by and are currently unemployed due to COVID, have volunteered to make deliveries of groceries and prepared meals to community members every Monday. Thank you, Sheila and Ross! On top of this, Sheila is making and selling earrings, the proceeds of which go to The Dale (message me if you are interested).

There is a boy, I would guess 10 years old, who I see walking nearly every morning now as I leave to go to work. He is ALWAYS singing. He seems happily in his own world, quietly singing made up songs for his own enjoyment. Without knowing it, he helps me start the day with a smile.

A Dale friend has started to make the most amazing sculptures out of plastic cutlery. I don’t think this picture does them justice, but if you look closely you will see an intricate dinosaur and another animal. This person is gentle, quiet, creative, and resilient. If you notice him panning in Parkdale, please offer some support.

Our daughter Cate is perennially optimistic, and this is no different right now. Not that there haven’t been moments of sadness over things lost- there have been. It’s just that Cate finds things to celebrate: building a fort in her room, watching a movie projected on a sheet, painting watercolour postcards, getting all of her laundry done. Cate’s genuine zeal for life is something I am thankful for.

I am grateful for food to distribute, and a place to have people safely line up to get it. I am grateful for the conversations we can have, even two metres apart.

As some might recall, we had to do a major renovation in order to make our home accessible for Dion. It was completed last year. Over the course of all that work our little front yard took a major beating, so much so I would have been surprised if anything sprung up out of the ground this spring. There is a solitary tulip that is pushing its way through the ground right now. Something about that gives me hope. Things might be upside-down, and yet there is new life pulsating out of it.

Some good news.

Back before I was a mother (my daughter is now 17) I worked at Sanctuary, a place that I often refer to as a sibling of The Dale. Sanctuary was formative for me, its fingerprints all over my life in ministry. It was the place that had me committing to community where people who are typically marginalized are instead placed at the core.

Over this Easter weekend Sanctuary had three of its people die, two of whom I knew. This on the heel of multiple other deaths. Over at The Dale we held five memorials from December until just mid-January, almost all of which were on Wednesdays at 1 pm. Near the end of that stretch I almost couldn’t bear the thought of leading another service. Our friends working in Harm Reduction see an astonishing loss of life all the time. Oh death, where is your sting? Well, one of the places is the street.

The sorrow is heavy. The scary thing is that there is very little room for the processing of grief. There is no space for a breath between bereavements. On top of it all is what I would call anticipatory grief, the kind that exists when we come to expect and brace for the next tragedy. I worry for our communities (and myself) in this. In fact, it’s something I think about a lot.

My most recent work in therapy has been largely related to the death of my mother. Without even realizing it, I was living in quiet protest of her being gone. Her absence felt so unreal that I was allowing myself to be numbed by it. Slowly I have been emerging from that, a process that is enabling me to sit in the sadness AND celebrate what an amazing mom I had. Elaine will never not be my mother. This is true too of my dad. Similarly, the friends that I have lost over the years will never stop being important pieces of my life.

Talking about death can be very uncomfortable. It often brings up the reality of our own mortality. It is confusing and, until it happens to us, impossible to understand. My mother taught me a lot about clinging to hope in both life and death. It wasn’t that she lived without any fear of death, it was that she never let it control her. Instead, she readied herself to be free.

I believe that our friends are now free. Do I wish there were still here? Yes. Can I wait for the day that death is put to death? I will, but it can hurry up already. Somehow, I am not devoid of hope, in fact I remain resolute in my belief that light will overcome the darkness. And, I stand in solidarity with Sanctuary and other front-line communities in collective grief and lament.

From the complications of loving you
I think there is no end or return.
No answer, no coming out of it.

Which is the only way to love, isn’t it?
This isn’t a playground, this is
earth, our heaven, for a while.

Therefore I have given precedence
to all my sudden, sullen, dark moods
that hold you in the center of my world.

And I say to my body: grow thinner still.
And I say to my fingers, type me a pretty song,
And I say to my heart: rave on.

-Mary Oliver

One of the things my daughter Cate and her youth group practice when they meet (now on Zoom) is each sharing a thorn and a rose from their week, in other words something difficult and something good. As I left the room during their meeting last night, I began to reflect on my own thorns and roses from the last few weeks.

Thorn: Dion was hospitalized in mid-March. His PSW arrived in the morning to discover that he had a fever and could not move. She called 911. The paramedics arrived in full protective equipment because of the risk of COVID-19. Dion was admitted to hospital and Cate and I had to stay home.

Rose: The Emergency Room was nearly empty upon Dion’s arrival and he was immediately seen. He was able to be properly isolated and eventually tested negative for COVID-19. After significant rest and antibiotics for an infection, Dion has recovered.

Thorn: The Dale is a community that is accustomed to spending time together. We like to hug. We want for those who are too accustomed to being in the margins to be brought to the centre. This virus has taken away the opportunity to gather, to embrace one another, and is making already vulnerable people even more vulnerable.

Rose: The Dale is still operating. We are doing take-away meals which allows us to 1) address food security and 2) briefly connect with our community. We are making phone calls and doing door-step drop-offs of groceries and supplies. Our love for everyone needs to be expressed differently, and we’re trying to do that.

Thorn: There are not enough shelter beds for people who are homeless. There are few places to properly isolate if you have symptoms or test positive. Just check out the number of tents that are being used around the city- each tent is a reminder that there is a serious lack of housing here.

Rose: This one is hard, because not enough has changed. BUT I am heartened by the growing movement of people who are petitioning that more things be done. I also know a lot of people working very hard in shelters, on the street, and in harm reduction. It takes a village, and we have a great one.

Thorn: Cate is in her senior year of high school. Yesterday would have been closing night of her last school musical and the cast party. The loss of that experience, along with so many potential others, is sad.

Rose: Cate is scrapbooking and making art. She is baking and cooking. She’s having a hard time getting to sleep, but it’s not fear keeping her awake, it’s all the plans she is making.

Thorn: I am tired. Not, I need another nap tired. It’s more of an emotional and mental fatigue. Life at The Dale is intense. I know it carries risk. The administrative part of my role has not stopped, and if anything has ramped up. And yet, I can easily feel guilty about the things I am not doing, or the things I have to say no to. For some reason the tears that typically fall easily, have not been coming out.

Rose: My pent-up emotion came out yesterday. I cried a lot. I tried to release the unhelpful guilt. I stayed off the internet and went for a walk with Dion. I ate some of Cate’s baking. Joanna sent me a picture of a crocus that reminded me of the beauty of new life. I prayed, using this from a Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals:

“Lord, help me now to un-clutter my life, to organize myself in the direction of simplicity. Lord, teach me to listen to my heart; teach me to welcome change, instead of fearing it. Lord, I give you these stirrings inside me. I give you my discontent. I give you my restlessness. I give you my doubt. I give you my despair. I give you all the longings I hold inside. Help me to listen to these signs of change, of growth; help me to listen seriously and follow where they lead through the breathtaking empty space of an open door.”

Though always present, the tension between clutter and simplicity, fear and change, fatigue and creativity, lament and gratitude, has been heightened in this time of crisis. Peace to you all in your own thorns and roses.

Many members of The Dale do not have easy access to technology. Some rely on now-closed libraries to get on-line and check email. Others have phones, but no data. So, how do we as a church connect in this time of isolation, especially when live-stream services might only reach a few?

In the early weeks of this crisis a small number of us gathered outside the building we usually inhabit on Sundays. Standing the appropriate distance apart in a large circle, we sang songs, including “and now, let the weak say I am strong, let the poor say I am rich, because of what the Lord has done for us. Give thanks, with a grateful heart…”, offered prayers of gratitude and lament, looked one another in the eye as we offered peace, and closed with “This Little Light of Mine”.

The opportunity to gather in this way has now passed. Tomorrow, as a staff we will walk along Queen St West in pairs with the requisite six feet between us to pray and deliver snacks to our friends who remain on the street. We continue to check in on as many people as possible through phone calls, texts, email and social media messaging.

As a church without our own walls, we have long felt comfortable with being outdoors. This latest decision for Sunday reflects our desire to remain present, while honouring the importance of Public Health (and keeping us all healthy). None of our decisions are made lately and we are aware that each is costly, especially to those who felt vulnerable and generally isolated before the onset of COVID-19.

In Acts, the church was one of movement. Yes, there were times people met in the temple, but it was just as common to connect in a home or by the sea. “Ekklesia”, the Greek word we get “Church” from means a gathering of people. Though we cannot gather in the literal sense right now, we have not lost our connection.

As I communicated this latest news to The Dale, I felt compelled to write this: the church has never been a building. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes to tell Christians that God’s presence is not just above and around them, but within them. We are the Body of Christ on earth and the temple of the Holy Spirit, actual living and breathing sanctuaries.

So, wherever you find yourself on Sunday please know that we have not ceased being a church.