Archives for posts with tag: The Dale

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

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. 

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. 

I know I’m not alone when I say that this past week has felt like a month. Life has become very different, very quickly. At The Dale we are keenly feeling the change. Accustomed to embracing people, we are standing more than six feet away. On more than a few occasions I have caught myself instinctively reaching out to greet someone, only to have to withdraw. This does not feel right. And yet, we know it is necessary at this time.

Many are asking about how The Dale is responding to the COVID-19 crisis. As a church and community organization without walls, we rely on the buildings of others and the outdoors to run our programming. All of our partner buildings have either completely shut down or halted use. We do however have access to a kitchen that is dedicated for food prep. Yesterday four of us, all keeping physically distant, prepared bagged lunches for people. We then set up a station outdoors for people to pick up the food. From behind tables and masks we encouraged people to know we love them and are doing what we can to continue supporting them. We will do the same on Thursday when we hand out take-away breakfasts.

We also have been encouraging our community members to fill out a Community Survey so that we know what help is most necessary, and how to deliver it. We have a growing list of people we can check in with by phone. We also know people’s locations so that we can safely drop off supplies and food. Important to know is that the sense of anxiety is mounting on the street. With few options of places to go, people are getting more and more scared. We need additional shelters and housing. Some of the most vulnerable people have just been made more vulnerable.

Now, here’s some of the good news. We are also experiencing people’s generosity and care. It truly does soften the anxiety. Here are just a few of the ways The Dale is seeing light in the darkness:

A community member who until just months ago was homeless, happily received a bag of food on the sidewalk outside of her place. In turn, she had cookies for my family and a bag full of containers for The Dale to package food in.

Capital Espresso, a Parkdale cafe who regularly gives us their day-old baked goods, baked buns for us to give out. Their baker got up very early Monday morning so that we could pick them up in time for lunch that day.

Natasha, a regular volunteer at The Dale’s Monday Drop-In mobilized people to bake for us. Yesterday she arrived with individually wrapped goodies, including 500 cookies from New Moon Kitchen.

Monetary donations to The Dale have enabled us to purchase grocery cards to distribute to the community. It has been amazing to receive excited messages from people about what they were able to purchase, “I picked up meat and mushrooms and other vegetables. Thank you, thank you! I have FOOD!”

Second Harvest continues to make deliveries. Friends are leaving boxes of jars and containers on their doorsteps for us to pick up. Sanctuary, the place The Dale considers a sibling, is sharing donations with us.

Thank you to everyone who has been able to help. The Dale is committed to remaining on one of the front lines, with many precautions in place, for as long as we can. Your ongoing support is deeply appreciated. To learn more about how and what to give, visit: https://erinnoxford.wordpress.com/2020/03/19/from-one-of-the-front-lines/