Taking it to the streets

Published November 1, 2009

You may find the sight of people living on Vancouver’s infamous Downtown Eastside difficult to bear. Every day, Rev. Matthew Johnson, the street outreach priest at St. James Anglican Church, walks these streets, making the rounds and checking up on everyone. What follows is a typical day, taken from the street log in which he describes his “ministry of presence.”

On the streets of Vancouver’s oldest Anglican parish there is never a dull moment.  St. James Anglican Church has been in the Downtown Eastside for 128 years now.  And right from the start, this community has been a colourful, rough-and-tumble place, populated with eccentric and flamboyant characters. 

My bishop, Michael Ingham, has licensed me to serve as a priest in this parish, not within the walls of a church building, but outside on the streets, where men and women struggle with poverty, addiction, homelessness, and mental illness.

It is a warm, sunny summer morning, as I head out the door and onto the streets of this storied parish. Emerging from the darkness of the church building, the sunlight is intense I have to shield my eyes. 

On the sidewalk, I can barely navigate my way through Chinese customers and clerks amassed outside the Sunrise Market. Turning east, I walk down Powell Street.  It is quiet. I approach a huddle of people gathered around a seafood shop entrance.  A white woman in her early 20s sits in the doorway, heating the end of a brown-coloured glass tube with a lighter. Utterly absorbed, this young woman is smoking crack cocaine. After methodically drawing the vapours into her lungs, she exhales. A dense white smoke swirls around her.

Across the sidewalk, another woman twists and turns. Her body contorts grotesquely. Somehow, she keeps her balance. This is known as the “dance of the damned.” Along with drug-induced psychosis, it is one of the effects of crack cocaine.

Standing at the edge of the sidewalk ahead are two men I don’t recognize. One wears a red handkerchief tied around his head in three corners. He glances suspiciously in my direction. As I get closer, his frown gives way to a warm smile. “Morning, Reverend!” I return his greeting and ask how he’s doing. A short conversation ensues and Richard talks about his family.

This kind of contact is at the heart of my job. Building personal relationships with people, one by one, out on the street. Out of these casual encounters, all sorts of pastoral relationships begin. People down here are friendly, but it takes time and consistency to earn their trust and respect. What is an exchange of pleasantries one week may lead to a request for moral support, religious counsel, the sacraments, or prayer in the weeks that follow. It all begins with being here, on the street, and available. This is sometimes called the “ministry of presence.”

A little farther down the block, a young man in a track suit sits on a bike. His buzz cut hair and baseball cap make him seem young.  He is tense, and looks searchingly back and forth down the street, waiting for someone or something to happen.  He looks at me for half a second, but as I approach he avoids eye contact. 
I respect his desire not to connect and keep my eyes focused ahead as I pass. 

My occupation requires a constant reading of the body language of those I meet.  One thing you don’t do down here is invade someone’s space physically, even with your eyes.  When people wish to connect they will, first with their eyes, and then with their words.  But one does not intrude.

At the corner of Dunlevy and Powell, a street merchant stands on her usual spot on the sidewalk.  An indigenous woman in her 50s, this entrepreneur has laid out her merchandise in meticulous order. There are countless electrical adapters, assorted compact discs, a scientific calculator, a portable coffee mug, a computer monitor, a bulky old cell phone and VHS tapes, including Frankenstein.

“How’s business this morning?”

“Could be better. Hey! Pray for my business, will ya?”

“Of course I will. See you.”

Some people want you to pray with them on the street. Others want you to pray for them at church. My interpretation is that this woman wants the latter. And I will pray for her as I move on, and add her name to the prayer list.

There is not much action in Oppenheimer Park this morning, and a block farther on, I am at the Living Room, a drop-in centre with day programs for the mentally ill.  Franklin, a lanky, hard-core biking enthusiast in his 40s, welcomes me with a hand shake. 

Beneath a blond brush cut, his face is sunburned pink and peeling. 

“Well, I just got back from Jasper.” He smiles. “On my bike.  It was something!”

Franklin shows off his green t-shirt, depicting a moose by a lake.  The words, ‘Jasper, Alberta’ are printed above the image.

“You rode all the way there and back?  On your bike?”

Franklin just nods and looks at me, smiling with enormous satisfaction.  “Second time this year.” He is quite deservedly proud of this accomplishment.  I listen as he talks a while about the tribulations and high points of what was undoubtedly the trip of a lifetime.

Listening is a critical part of this outreach. Whether someone is celebrating a victory, like Franklin, or needing to talk about something painful, my job is to listen as people try to make sense of the ups and downs of their lives.

Later, I am at the corner of Main and Hastings, in front of the Carnegie Centre.  Today, it’s a buyer’s market, with cocaine, heroin, speed, barbiturates and crystal meth for sale.  This is a very public activity and no attempt is made to conceal it.

When I speak to groups about the work of this outreach, someone always asks why the church should even bother with drug users who, it would seem, choose this debased way of life in pursuit of drug-induced pleasure.

What I find, as I have come to know many addicts personally, is that few people end up down here by choice.  Almost all have experienced extreme adversity in their lives, often as children.  This includes parental abandonment, family violence, sexual abuse, extreme poverty, or childhoods spent in an endless succession of group or foster homes.  Some are survivors of residential schools.  Others suffer from fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, autism or significant developmental disabilities. And a great many live with severe and untreated mental illness. 

Many never recover. And in fact. this is the situation with most of the addicts and alcoholics I know.  For them, drugs provide temporary relief from the pain of their existence.  But this self-medicating soon spirals downward into full-blown addiction, destroying mind, body and family relationships and making the original pain so much worse.

Yet, recovery from addiction is possible.  Some people are able to build active, fulfilling lives.  And it is breathtaking when it happens.

In front of the Roosevelt Hotel, a young aboriginal woman stops me to talk. She points to the clergy collar. “Are you a Christian?”

Marnie has just been through a nine-month treatment program for drug addiction. Now she is rebuilding her life, bolstered by her faith, a 12-step program and reconnection with her aboriginal heritage.  As she describes her own transformation, the light of Jesus Christ shines brightly within her. 

Marnie now works to reach out to other women with the good news of recovery.  For addicted persons seeking help, the living example of someone like Marnie, who has broken free, makes all the difference.  It shows them that change is indeed possible.  I record the names of two people she asks me to pray for.  For the next seven days, they will be prayed for daily at mass, and by a group of veteran prayers, linked by email, who take their work very seriously. 

A block and a half down Hastings, I meet Tristan who is enjoying a walk on this sunny day.  We stop in front of ‘The Only’ seafood restaurant. As he lights up a cigarette, we start to catch up. He has come many times to mass at St James. A voracious reader and a profound thinker, Tristan is quite knowledgeable about church history and Christian theology. Although Tristan lives with mental illness, it has not stopped him from living a rich and meaningful life of enquiry and personal research.

Much of Tristan’s time is spent at Library Square, where he can read in safety and quiet.  Recently, he has spent time exploring the writings of the Eastern Church Fathers. As we close our discussion, it is obvious that Tristan has forgotten more about Eastern Christian theology than I will ever know.

As we say good-bye, a short white man in his 30s walks by. He has shifty eyes. “Morphine. Get y’er morphine here…” He sings this line like a vendor selling hot dogs at a baseball game. “Morphine. Get y’er morphine here…”

At the corner of Carroll and Hastings, a young Latino man approaches me. “Father, will you bless my cross?” Before I can answer, it is off his neck and in his palm. “I’d be glad to,” I tell him. “I’m Matthew, from St. James. What’s your name?”

I say a short prayer, asking God’s blessing on Jose, and his crucifix, that it might be a constant reminder of God’s sacrificial love for him. Jose makes the sign of the cross.  Before we part, I give him my card. Sunday mass times are on the back. “Come and visit us at St. James,” I say. “And make your communion. You are always welcome.”

The invitation to holy communion, to direct participation in the mass, is another critical part of this work. In the holy eucharist, the sacrificial love of God for each of us is made present. I invite people who are suffering and “broken”-which we all are in some way-to receive the broken body and shed blood of the crucified God, who chose to share personally and very directly in our brokenness and suffering.

Jesus Christ is a Saviour with “street cred.” One who knew homelessness, hunger, rejection, injustice, suffering and death, Jesus is credible to those on the street who suffer these same things.

Across Carroll Street, two street nurses are talking with a group of people.  One is treating the wound on a young woman’s foot; the other is giving out packets of hand-washing solution. I am called over by Thiery, a tall man of 28.  The scars on his face bear witness to a life of terrible adversity and of the grace to survive it.

Thiery smiles warmly and, as always, extends the hand of friendship.  Although he lives day to day on the edge of survival, it is supremely important to him to recognize and greet his friends.  It is a privilege for me to be one of them. 

One of the nurses peers over glasses at me, with a look of frustration. As I have interrupted her work, I agree to catch up with him later.  In the midst of chaos, Thiery’s courage, dignity and compassion for others, reveals to me the living Christ, present-in a mystical way-in the person of one who is poor and suffering.

Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, just as you did it for one of the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you did it for me.” This is the motto of the street outreach and the reason we, as a church, must be active here.  Jesus is speaking here of reaching out to those who are hungry or thirsty or who have no clothing or are sick or are in prison. 

This is a description that fits many of the street-involved people of the Downtown Eastside.  They may be of little account-“the least of these”-in the eyes of the world, but Jesus says they are his “sisters and brothers.”  When we encounter them, we encounter Christ himself  (St. Matthew: 25).

I am returning to the church now, by a circuitous route, making my way through Oppenheimer Park. At the corner I am greeted by Danny, an aboriginal artist, and one of the first people I met when the street outreach began. 

He is a gifted artist, trying to locate his precision carving tools, which were stolen.  Danny shows me a sketch of his next project, smiling proudly as he does so.  It is clear that the traditional art of his people is a life-giving force, amidst the day-to-day challenges of surviving without shelter.

In the next instant, Danny tells me that it is Christ who sustains him, and he asks for prayers. Steeped in the indigenous traditions and teachings of his elders, he combines these very naturally with Christian faith.

I now return to the home stretch of today’s walk. A few minutes later, I am in the office, writing a log of my contacts and updating the daily prayer list. The people whose names I record are special. And I count myself blessed to know them, and Christ in them, through this work.

Names and locations have been altered to preserve anonymity.  Events are not in their original chronology. 

Matthew Johnson 2009.  This article may not be reprinted, in part or in whole, without the formal written permission of the author.


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