Archives for posts with tag: Community

I first met Paula through her role as Team Lead for Project Serve, an arm of Youth Unlimited. Since then, Paula has become a dear friend. I know her to have the gift of encouragement, the best laugh, and the desire to build deep and authentic relationships. One of the greatest things is that we now all get to see her every Monday at The Dale. You are loved Paula! Thank you for sharing your thoughts in this space. To read more from Paula check out her own blog at: https://choosetoriseabove.blogspot.com

Picture this with me, will you? 

You approach a full table of people. On one side, you see people you recognize. One wears his addiction on his sleeve. Another does not. One was born in Toronto. Another was not. 

On the other side of the table, however, sit a few people you don’t know. You look them up and down and try to figure them out before considering sitting in the empty chair beside them. Are they safe? Can you trust them? Will you have anything in common?

Before you can answer that, a plentiful platter of deliciousness gets delivered to your table – made with more love than your heart can accept at times – and you realize that you do indeed have something in common: like the person sitting next to you, it’s lunch time and you’re hungry. 

All of a sudden, you feel at home. One of the people you rarely know scoops potatoes onto your plate while another pours you a cold cup of water, and soon, very soon, you start to realize that you have a lot more in common than just being hungry. 

You see, no matter where you were born or where you grew up, what kind of baggage you brought in with you that day or why you ended up there in the first place, at the Dale, there’s a seat at the table for you.

They have a seat at the table. 

You have a seat at the table. I have a seat at the table. 

Only at this table, there is no they, you or I, there is only us. 

It was a Monday. We were gathered in the large room we use each week for The Dale’s drop-in. Just the day before we had occasion for multiple celebrations: a person finding an apartment after eight months of living outside, new housing for our Community Worker Pete, his wife Frances and their four children, someone declaring The Dale to now be their community. We also prayed for the two babies set to make their entrance very soon. I think it is safe to say we collectively needed a taste of joy, and the hope was that it might permeate the week ahead.

Mondays are always a riot of activity, especially between 1 and 2 pm when the meal is being shared and clean-up commences. I was busy grabbing some supplies from the storage room when I noticed what had the potential to be explosive. Just weeks before two people had a very serious conflict. They had not interacted since. I held my breath as they approached one another and embraced, while offering words of regret and forgiveness. My eyes welled up and I started to jump up and down to get Joanna and Pete’s attention, hoping that they too might bear witness to what honestly felt like a miracle. I think I hopped the entire length of the crowded room to the kitchen.

As I often say, living in community is both messy and beautiful. Sometimes it is downright hard, especially when life feels more bleak than bright. There are many more people who still need affordable housing, some of our relationships remain strained, and conflicts continue to erupt. I am grateful though to be a part of a place where we keep trying to work these things out. We fail. I fail. And we try again.

In the midst of it all, there are incredible moments of provision and reconciliation. New life, both literal and figurative is happening. All of this makes me, however silly it might look, jump up and down.

I am reading a book, given to me recently by a friend, that has me thinking about blessings: “Everyone in the world matters, and so do their blessings…Those who bless and serve life find a place of belonging and strength, a refuge from living in ways that are empty and lonely…When people are blessed they discover their lives matter. And when you bless others, you may discover this same thing is true about yourself.” (Rachel Naomi Remen)

Here are three stories of blessings, all of which happened this week.

One of our friends got in some trouble and had to very quickly put their beloved pet in the care of another person. Sadly, the person was not in the healthiest position themselves and the dog seemed to pick up on it. He bolted and ran…right to where he usually sees us, The Dale. As I discussed this with a friend involved in the situation, she said, “I really think this says something about your community. Even the dog knows The Dale as a safe space”.

I was standing in front of a teller doing some banking for The Dale. She noticed our name and asked what we do, so I told her a bit about us. We carried on with our business for a few minutes before she asked some more questions. I started to gather up my belongings to go when she said, “I have been carrying around what I call my widow’s mite for months. I haven’t known where to give it, until today. Would you accept a gift from me for The Dale?”. I stood stunned as she handed me an envelope with a cash donation inside.

Joanna, Meagan, Pete and I were asked to do an apartment blessing by a friend. We were welcomed in to her bright, spacious place (a far cry from her last situation) with open arms, offered cookies and sprite, and given a quick tour. We gathered at her door and in her living room to pray. It felt like a deep honour to have our team be asked to do this with and for this person.

Sometimes blessings come in quiet ways from unexpected people (or a dog). And, as Remen continues in her book, “Unlike helping and fixing and rescuing, service is mutual.” Both our friend and her dog regularly surround us with love. The teller was grateful for the work of The Dale and I was grateful for her support. For me, the apartment person is a years-long friend, one who is willing to be painfully vulnerable about her long and difficult life journey, while being one of the most profoundly encouraging people I know.

Blessings, to my understanding, are not about big, material things. Nor are they about everything in life going exactly as planned. They can be little acts of service. They show up in our brokenness. And they are all around us. This week I want to be very intentional about looking for ways to bless and having the eyes to see the many blessings around me.

I have long been convinced that when a group of people gathers around a table a unique form of community is built. Learning to be side-by-side, passing the platter, pouring one another a drink: it all helps.

Much of life at The Dale involves a table. On Mondays we have multiple long tables set up around the room. On Tuesdays we play Scrabble around one at the back of the Salvation Army Thrift Store. In the summer we find ourselves sitting at picnic tables in parks. On Thursdays we set three tables up like a huge T. On Sundays our focal point is a little wooden table, laden with the bread, wine and juice.

Oh, the stories we have about life at the table.

The Dale has its own version of Statler and Waldorf, the two grumpy guys from The Muppet Show. They like to sit across from each other even though they drive each other crazy. We sometimes try to (unsuccessfully) split them up, only to discover them reunited and carrying on with their banter.

Sometimes a person comes in so distraught that they collapse at a table. One day a friend stumbled in and placed her head down. I joined her, leaning as close to the tabletop as she was. We exchanged thoughts in whispers. Her hiccupy crying the only thing audible to the rest of the room. To this day we both reference this encounter as pivotal to our friendship.

At a drop-in by the lake, two unlikely friends sat at the picnic table. She invited him to lay down on the bench while gently stroking his hair. We wanted to freeze the moment in time: a sweet escape from their otherwise challenging realities.

Just after blessing the communion elements, a community member joined me at the table to begin the process of passing each around. This friend, battle-worn and vulnerable, looked me right in the eye and in reference to the bread said, “get it in you”.

As staff we sit around a kitchen table on Wednesday mornings. It’s where I sit while writing this. We bat around ideas, type in collective silence, laugh, and eat. It is an important part of team building.

All these moments remind me of how important it is to extend welcome to the tables we like to count as ours. We want to make space at The Dale. This increasingly means gathering even more closely together so that we can make space for another chair. At tables we can share our brokenness and offer blessing. Whether we are grumpy or cheerful, connected or lonely, weary or energetic, there is room at the table.

Lately, I have been feeling reflective about the journey that has been The Dale. It was nearly seven years ago that we gave up our leased space and became a nomadic community. At the time (and maybe still) many thought it a crazy decision on my part. I could feel the skepticism. I don’t think anyone wanted us to fail, I just think some wondered how it could possibly work.

I remember being scared for a variety of reasons, not least of which was the thought of messing things up. I couldn’t bear the thought of having to close down and yet I knew that to be a very real possibility. It seemed wise to set markers in the first year, ones that if not met would signal the plan wasn’t working. Looking back, I am struck by how often we were surprised by grace, again and again experiencing unexpected provision.

I know that God invited me to step in to a role that I would never have considered myself for. I felt inadequate and strangely determined. Fortunately, I was and continue to be surrounded and supported by my family, a Board, and our precious community. I continue to learn from Jesus’ example that to lead I must serve, a posture that is messy, challenging and necessary to choose repeatedly.

At my ordination examining council a community member said, “Erinn is no stranger to suffering, and so she can walk with us”. What a relief that I get to be a part of a community where that is valued. I don’t need to pretend that everything is easy, when everything is not. Together we are discovering what it means to lament well, to practice gratitude, to engage in prayer, to feast together, to admit our failures, to apologize and forgive, and to be transformed by God.

Last week The Dale led a workshop at Assembly, the annual gathering of our denomination. During the debrief time near the end, I sat at the front alongside our team: Joanna, Meagan, Pete, and our two interns, Jan and David. Six of us. Even as I type that I have to stop and take it in. Seven years ago, I was alone. I can’t help but weep tears of wonder.

It is a privilege to be a participant in the work of The Dale. Thank you to everyone, past and present, who has been a part of the journey. I have tucked our many stories in my heart and love knowing that there are countless more to come.

I arrive at Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre at 9:30 am, carrying a bag of groceries: an extra-large carton of eggs, a mound of oranges, a box of pancake mix, and a small bottle of real maple syrup that was donated by a community member. I briefly struggle to balance the food and my backpack so that I can open the door to the room we use for our Thursday drop-in.

Moments later another member of The Dale arrives. He is originally from Syria, having sought refuge here in Canada. He greets me with broken (yet rapidly improving) English and a light kiss on both cheeks. We busy ourselves in the kitchen, as he is our bi-weekly cook. I put the coffee on while he organizes the food.

Meagan, Joanna and I gather around a set of three tables, pushed together like a big rectangle. We are slowly joined by others. Some decide to colour, as we have a number of colouring books to choose from. Others share stories about their day. Collectively we laugh and listen, occasionally sitting in quiet.

I leave the drop-in mid-way through because another community member needs a pastoral visit. He is very sick and likely close to death. I walk into his darkened room and together with another friend, pray. It is a short, sacred visit. We both say, “I love you” before I leave to return to the drop-in.

Upon my return I hear that someone at the table is having a particularly rough day. Sometimes this means our space becomes not safe for others, and so deliberate intervention is needed. This can be one of the most challenging parts of this work: having to explain to someone why their behaviour is inappropriate, and that the consequence is having to leave. Today it is done tenderly and carefully by Joanna and Kim, a long-time community member and outreach team worker.

Throughout the remainder of the drop-in I talk with people: conversation, followed by conversation. Some need to discuss very difficult life circumstances and ask what kind of support is available, others just need to vent, a few want to share some good news, including how they believe God is taking care of them in surprising ways. I get repeatedly asked how I am too, often with eyes full of concern and care.

Eventually dishes get done, art supplies get packed up and returned to a storage room, our coffee and other pantry items get placed in a bin that lives in one corner of the fridge, and we slowly make our way to the front lobby to say goodbye. Only on this day a group of us are going to celebrate a community member’s birthday by going out for Chinese food, a gathering that provokes joy and is a lot of fun.

I rush away to a conference call about an upcoming conference where I will sit on a panel to discuss mental health challenges, something all people are touched by in one way or another. As I close my computer after the call finishes, I reflect on my day. I have the opportunity on a near daily basis to touch and see and hear and smell and feel so many different things.

Today I breathed in the aroma of breakfast food being cooked by a friend for a whole room full of people, many he doesn’t know. I touched the close veil of death. I heard people share so transparently and vulnerably that I was challenged to do the same. I was hit with a wave of pride at seeing The Dale team in action. I became excited about the conference in May. And I watched the birthday friend glow as we sang happy birthday, ate chicken balls, and belly laughed about the silliest things.

This is a day in my life at The Dale.


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!



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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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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Note from Erinn: Saying goodbye to Olivia is hard. We all not-so-secretly wish she could stay. She has eagerly participated in all that we do at The Dale and we deeply value her presence. Olivia: you are a kind, sweet spirit. Thank you for sharing yourself, deliberately building relationships, and offering to help in such a variety of circumstances. I am grateful for your smile, your hugs, and your quiet and thoughtful strength. There is no way this is goodbye, because there will always be a place for you at The Dale. You are loved. 

I have been working with the Dale for almost three months now, and unfortunately it is time for me to say ‘goodbye’. I have learned so many things from this experience. I do not think it is possible for me to have done more for The Dale than what The Dale has done for me.

There is a passage in the Bible that says, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” (Psalms 139: 13-14) This truth from Scripture is a powerful reminder to me, that I have been designed by God and it is wonderful. This truth also applies to each person I have met, shared a coffee with, or played ukulele alongside.

Each friend that I have made in Parkdale is so unique. So many of them love to create and are willing to share what they have more than most people I meet do. But most importantly, they are “fearfully and wonderfully made” by God. I was always reminded of this when I met someone new and they told me what makes their heart happy, such as poetry, gardening, or singing. Even in times of difficulty, like seeing someone in the hospital or someone frustrated and upset, I was reminded me that we are the body of Christ, we are the church, and each are so loved by God.

One personal struggle that I have dealt with my whole life, is feeling like my weaknesses are so big that I am not qualified enough to do ministry: that my shy personality and nervousness gets in the way of relationship building and speaking in front of large crowds. But, God is constantly trying to teach me that I am wonderfully made and that He is using me in my weakness. Entering a new space can be difficult, but when I came to the Dale I felt like I walked into open arms. I came to give, but instead they embraced me with found gifts and sweet encouragement. Every time I felt like I messed up, we laughed together. When difficult news spread, we cried together. The Dale showed me that doing ministry does not require a specific and perfect personality, but simply someone who will say “yes” to going; someone who will say “yes” to loving others and joining with one another in the messiness of life.

Being at the Dale exposed a new side of this type of work to me, one that goes deeper. I not only met and built relationships with individuals from the neighbourhood but got to hear their life stories and sometimes meet their family members. This was over-and-above any of my other experiences, which was usually to meet someone, maybe give out food, but then move on. There was something special about being welcomed into homes and meeting the parents, children, and spouses of the friends we love. This made me think about how life goes on after a meal program ends or after I get on the bus to go home. Each of these dear friends have a different circumstance to go home to and that I should not stop thinking about them or praying for them when I leave.

These are only some of the many reflections and discoveries I have learned during my time with the Dale. I am so thankful for Erinn, Joanna, and Meagan for welcoming me onto their team, taking the time to show me the ropes, and for exhibiting how to serve and love a community so well. It’s going to be hard to say goodbye, but I know I will see them all again when I visit Toronto.

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