A multi-faith group in Vancouver, B.C., has issued a formal invitation to Pope Francis to tour the city’s Downtown Eastside and two First Nations reserves.
The grassroots initiative, spearheaded by Vancouver residents Tom Beasley and Judy Graves, was created in hopes of sparking a change in the intransigent poverty that has marred Vancouver for decades. It involves representatives from the Jewish, Muslim, First Nations, Anglican, Catholic, United and Alliance Church communities.
Beasley, a lawyer and member of the United Church of Canada, first presented the idea to Graves over coffee. Graves, who has worked with Vancouver’s homeless since 1974 and lent her name to the invitation as the Anglican signatory, was immediately taken with its clarity of vision.
Graves’ excitement has very much to do with the particular nature of Pope Francis’ ministry. The willingness he has shown to work with the poor, with the most vulnerable elements of society, has strengthened her belief that he is “speaking into the hearts of everyone.”
It is the Pope’s unique access to the most powerful elements of society, however, that Graves said could make the most difference in the Downtown Eastside. “The Pope … [can] speak to the hearts of the powerful, the people who actually have the ability to end homelessness in Canada,” she said.
Vancouver’s various faith communities welcomed the initiative. “We didn’t need to persuade anyone,” said Graves, which signifies for her that Pope Francis’ spiritual leadership goes well beyond the confines of the Roman Catholic Church.
Dean Peter Elliott, rector of Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver and dean of the diocese of New Westminster, oversaw the official signing of the letter at St. James Anglican Church in the Downtown Eastside. Elliott said there was widespread support for the invitation because of the Pope himself. “He has, by his actions, reached out to some of the more vulnerable people in society, and has demonstrated that he’s not bound by some of the formal strictures of tradition of his office,” Elliot said.
Faith groups also saw the initiative as an opportunity for “common action” around an important issue.
Elliott considers interreligious and ecumenical relationships to be of utmost personal importance, but laments that oftentimes their endeavours are confined to seminars and lecture rooms. By contrast, he said, a visit to the Downtown Eastside from the Pope would represent a concrete opportunity for members of various Christian denominations to “walk side by side with sisters and brothers from Muslim and Jewish traditions, as well as others.”
Cheryl Bear-Barnetson, a member of the Nadleh Whut’en First Nation and signatory to the letter, believes a visit from Pope Francis would bring hope to a community in which it is desperately lacking.
The Pope’s compassion for the poor and the less fortunate inspires unity amongst all peoples, she said, regardless of an individual’s particular faith or spirituality. She expressed hope that unity will prove to be the catalyst for true change in the Downtown Eastside.
Pope Francis’s presence would shine a necessary light on the plight of those First Nations communities mired in what she described as “third-world conditions.” “There are truths that need to be told about our people,” she said. “Indigenous people in Canada and the U.S.A. live in the imagination of the world. We hold the fascination of the world. Unfortunately, we are only known by stereotypes and misrepresentations.”
In its letter, the group noted that while Vancouver may be one of the world’s most beautiful cities with abundant wealth, its urban core-the Downtown Eastside-has a sizeable number of people who are homeless and have mental disabilities. “Many are indigenous peoples from remote reserves, often from communities of great despair,” said the letter, published by the Vancouver Sun. “Our governments, churches and social agencies have not struggled hard enough to find solutions.”
Elliott said the visit being envisioned is not the typical “state-to-state visit” or “rock star tour” that has characterized most papal visits, but one that will be “a ministry for the people, of teaching and being in solidarity with the poor.”
Aside from visits to the Downtown Eastside and urban and indigenous reserves, the group would like the Pope to celebrate mass from a barge in English Bay, where he would be transported by an indigenous canoe and accompanied by other canoes. The event is meant to symbolize “a moment on the journey of reconciliation between indigenous peoples and Christians,” whose relationship has been fractured by the legacy of colonialism.
The invitation, which was sent Feb. 19, has not yet received a response. Graves is not discouraged, however, saying that a lag in response time is to be expected with an administration as vast as the Vatican, and that the group remains hopeful as they wait.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated with additional comments from Cheryl Bear-Bartnetson.