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“Darryl, I need you to come with me….. Like Now!” Today, just as we were cleaning up from drop-in, one of our younger friends crashed into the atrium and begged me to come with him. His eyes were desperate enough that I knew this might just be one of those ‘God-ordained interruptions’, and that I had better drop what I was doing and go. I gave Gil one of those looks as if to say, “You good here if I leave for a bit?”, and he gave one of his, “I got this, you better go” looks in return.
“We just found out that my girlfriend is pregnant a few weeks ago, and now she’s sitting on the toilet bleeding like crazy and I don’t know what to do.” Skippy is relatively new to our community, and honestly I don’t feel like I know him very well (not to mention I hadn’t even met his girlfriend at this point!). It always amazes me when one of our friends is so filled with humility that they have the strength to share their brokenness with us. And so together we walked a few blocks over to the building where he lives.
At the very heart of poverty, at least at the heart of most of North American poverty, is a lack of connection. A lack of relationship with other human beings. This is often the pain that cuts so deep that when things begin to go wrong, there is no one left to call. This is why Gil and I are cycling/running 100 Miles on September 20th. Not only are we trying to raise awareness and funds to allow the work of Sanctuary London to continue, but we also want to experience a day of potentially painful endurance so that we can relate to and stand in solidarity with so many of our friends whose daily lives are battles of endurance.
“It’s been 20 years since I slept outside in the winter…but when we get temperatures like this, I can still feel that cold. It’s a pain filled cold. Empty… yeah, I still feel that,” Manny shared with us a couple of days ago at one of Sanctuary’s drop-ins.
With the terrible cold snaps we’ve had this winter in London, and temperatures lower than 30 degrees below zero at various times, we have been asked so many times and by so many people, how do your friends survive out there? It’s a great question, and the answer is somewhat complicated.
If you’ve ever been to a Sanctuary drop-in, you will likely know that the majority of our people do not physically sleep outside on the streets every night. The living conditions of our friends vary drastically. Some people attend our drop-in even though they might live in really nice houses. These houses just don’t feel like home. The largest portions of our people live in shelters or government-subsidized housing. Others are couch surfing. These people have a place to sleep at night. On particularly cold days, when there are cold weather alerts, the city will open up ‘warming sites’ at certain community centers, where anyone can go, free of charge to stay warm during daytime hours. This is particularly helpful for people staying at shelters where they are required to be out of their rooms during the daytime.
Still, roughly 5-10% of the people we serve will struggle to survive sleeping outside: under bridges, in abandoned buildings, in phone booths, hidden in storage units, and alleyways. I heard on the radio station one morning in January this year that it was -42 degrees with the wind chill, and they warned that, “Any exposed skin could be severely damaged within 5 minutes”. How do stay alive trying to sleep in conditions like that without the proper equipment? The answer is quite simple. You don’t. You will not wake up when your body is that cold.
So what do our friends do? On nights like this, we have learned that some of our friends will feel like they have no other choice but to sign into a shelter, no matter how scared they are, or how hard they have resisted doing that in the past. But some of our friends have been so abused and hurt in the past that they cannot get themselves to go to a shelter. Often mental health plays a role here as they feel that going to a shelter would be making themselves vulnerable to be hurt again. Some fell like they would rather be dead. Others have been kicked out and banned from the shelters for previous negative interactions.
For these people, the game plan is simple. Keep moving. They will walk the streets all night long, trying to keep their blood flowing. When possible, they will walk from 24-hour coffee shop to 24-hour coffee shop and sit there until they are asked to leave. When morning comes they will hopefully find a community meal somewhere for breakfast and then quickly head over to a warming station, or to a public building such as a library, where they will hopefully find a few hours of rest.
The next and perhaps more important question is this: What can we do to support and care for these people? And, you might have guessed it, the answer to this question is even more complicated than the first. At Sanctuary, we believe there are no ‘quick fix’ solutions. We might begin by speaking to our local politicians. Make sure that they are aware of the pressing need of more housing. The waiting list for government subsidized housing is often over a few years long. We need houses.
But we need homes even more so. When we begin to look for the root causes of poverty, we find that the problem is often not a lack of money or other resources, but usually a lack of relationships and connection to other people. So what can we do to help? Get to know them! Come on down to a Sanctuary (or any other community) drop-in. Don’t just serve people. Sit down beside them and get to know who they really are… and allow them to get to know you too! Play cards and share a meal together. This is the beginning of connection, and hopefully the beginning of a journey of healing for all of us.
In the meantime, if you know someone has no place to go, and it might be a particularly cold night, try giving him or her a gift card to Tim Hortons. Just five or ten dollars will be enough so that they can buy a drink to stay warm, and maybe they won’t be asked to leave as quickly as if they came in without making a purchase.
Maybe we can begin to see this homeless problem not as an issue to be solved but instead to see friends, like Manny, that could use a little love. Maybe in the midst of it, you can admit you could use a little love too.
Henry has been helping out in the kitchen here at Sanctuary for two or three months now. Every Wednesday he is there at 3pm sharp, ready and excited to tackle whatever cooking adventure we have lined up for the day. His heart to serve is not easily conceiled.
My conversations with Henry until this past week were mostly small talk. I know that he is new to London and that he came from Toronto. I know that he is a big football fan, although I can't quite remember what team he cheers for. I also know that he is currently unable to hold employment because of a car accident that has done some severe damage to his back. But beyond these few things, I don't know much about Henry's life. He seems to rpefer to work silently. A few weeks ago he single handedly peeled 50 pounds of potatoes without so much as a word of complaint. And he is great with our community as well. He's always encouraging, never belittling.
I could tell that he knew his way around the kitchen, and when we were making apple crisp for desert, I watched in amazement as he peeled and sliced at least half a dozen apples by the time I was able to peel just one!
Until that day, he never let on just how much he knew. So I had to ask, "Have you worked in a kitchen before, or is cooking just a hobby for you?
"Ya, I enjoy cooking," was his nonchalant response. It took some pretty serious digging on my part before he would admit to me that he spent over 30 years in the hospitality industry before his accident. He first worked as a prep line worker, and most recently as manager of a number of high end kitchens in Toronto! And even with all of these years of experience, this trained professional was taking orders from me…. From me! The guy who recently added four cups of corn starch to help 'thicken up the gravy a little' (instead of a few teaspoons…… who knew the difference?).
I can't believe that Henry never once tried to take over, or at least try to show me a better way of doing things. Instead, he always asked me what I would like him to do, and how I wanted him to do it. This is the kind of person I strive to be like. A heart completely filled with humility. One who empowers others by serving in complete submission, even when I think that I know a better way of doing things.
One thing I can tell you for sure. The next time Henry comes to help in the kitchen, I think I'll let him slice the apples the way he thinks they should be sliced.
Just yesterday I pulled out the old mountain bike and took a ride to a small town just outside of London, to visit a man who was inquiring about the work of Sanctuary. It was an absolutely beautiful ride down country roads. The sun was shining bright, and the humidity was no longer in the air on this fine August afternoon. After a half hour or so of peddling, I pulled up to the address.
There he was, standing in his front yard, scissors in hand, cutting blossoms off his Rose of Sharon tree. He immediately met me at the top of the driveway with a warm welcome, and I thought to myself, "this must be what it feels like to visit your grandfather"… He invited me in, and we made small talk about the nice ride up, and about ministry. Before long, he was going into great detail about his years of service in the Royal Canadian Air Force, and about how he met his wife on the coast of British Colombia.
With a bit of a sigh he told me that he had to say good-bye to his vehicle about a month ago. "Ever since the year I retired, I would take that car on a trip every year, first to Newfoundland to visit my grandchildren there, then to BC to visit my grandchildren there. I just hope, now that I don't have my car, that they'll come every once in a while to come see me."
And then he got down to the real reason for his inquiry. "I've heard a little about Sanctuary, and I believe it is one of the great works of the city of London. I may be shut-in, but at 88 years old, i am still learning. I am learning about people in need in this city, and I want to make a difference. That is why I want to support your ministry… I just need help filling out the paperwork."
With the paperwork done, we continued to chat a while longer. As it became time to leave he rose and gave me a big hug. Following me out the door, he looked up to the sky and smiled. "On a perfect day like today," he said, "my deepest desire is to bring flowers home to my beautiful wife. But since I can't do that, it would mean a lot to me if you would bring these flowers home to your wife." And he handed me the cup of blossoms he was cutting when I first arrived.
As I rode away, I imagined going back to a simpler time (the old fashioned country farmhouse made that pretty easy), when the pace of life was slower, and all that really mattered was gathering enough firewood to stay warm through the night, and caring for each other. Smiling, i held tight to the cup of flowers in my hand and raced off, excited to share this adventure with my wife.
When we think of warm fresh-baked bread right out of the oven, we often find ourselves thinking of home. At Sanctuary, we are very intentional about trying to create a sense of home together. We are blessed every week to have one of our friends bake a dozen loaves of bread for our meal. But she always leaves the last few loaves uncooked, so that when we get to the church we can put them in the oven, and before long the whole building smells like home.
One Monday, she and her son came to our drop-in with all the ingredients and invited our friends to bake bread withthem. It was an incredible time of laughing and learning and just being together. Another friend of ours, Grace, also loves to bake bread, and so we invited her to join us in the kitchen. It was hard to understand when she said, “I don’t want to.” However, a few days later, Grace shared with us that it was not that she didn’t want to bake with us, but that she was afraid her emotions might get the best of her. And then she began to share… This is Grace’s story.
“Fresh-baked bread makes me think of the smell of bread going through my home as a child. I grew up making bread. I learned when I was twelve years old. My mother taught me without a recipe – just a pinch of this and a sprinkle of that. Bread-making throughout my childhood was very important to me because of how it made me feel. I came from a dysfunctional and abusive home. There were problems with my father. He dominated the household and he was hurtful towards me. Because of the way that I was born, I wasn’t accepted by my father and my six siblings, so the bread-making with my mom was healing for me.
Because of different problems I had, I could not always go to school. Those were special times with my mom when my siblings were all in school and my dad was away. We’d go on walks together and she taught me to find wild mint and berries, but most often, when it was just the two of us, we baked together. She taught me how to make bread, pies, and pastries, and I taught her to make donuts. I’d help her mix the flour and yeast, and I helped knead the dough. It was important that I did it withher, standing beside her, both of us together, mixing and kneading the bread.
My father always told me I was ‘no good’, but when I stood beside my mom making bread with her, I felt like I was the most special person in the world. She didn’t really use words a lot to tell me how she felt about me (she was a very quiet person), but I knew she loved me during that time together. My father and my siblings made me feel like I didn’t belong, but when I made bread with my mom, I felt like I belonged and was safe.
When my mom got sick, I took over the bread-making for the whole family. Now she’s gone and I miss her like crazy. People tell me I take after her and that makes me really proud. I love remembering the bread-making with her–those are great memories. Sometimes even now, when I’m struggling with difficult emotions, the memory of bread-making is a safe haven for me.
When I think of the smell of fresh-baked bread, it brings to mind sunshine, warm days, and my own three children, now grown-up, and how I’ve passed onto them my experience of baking bread, with a dollop of this and a pinch of that. Eating the bread at Sanctuary drop-ins each week makes me think of my family and of home. I think that both fresh bread and bread-making is very important for the people in the Sanctuary community, because it creates feelings of acceptance and belonging. For someone who never grew up with fresh bread or anything baked, they might come here and eat fresh bread with their friends, and this is wonderful, because it gives them a sense of family they might not otherwise have. Making and eating bread together can help us feel a part of something, and also new friendships can happen. There is just something about the bread that makes us feel at home.”
- Sanctuary is officially 1 year old
- We've finally moved back with First Christian Reformed Church to their wonderfully renovated new-old building on Talbot Street
- We received our official church status and charitable registration
And… what better way to celebrate than to have a karaoke contest? So we brought in the band 17 Watts, and they put on a magnificent show for us. Then we had ten contestants compete on a karaoke sing-off. The top two contestants went on to front the band and sing head-to-head to finally determine our winner!
We danced, we sang, we all had way too much to eat, and we all owe a huge THANK YOU to everyone who contributed to the evening.
Stay tuned for our next community celebration…