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Love and Community in Action, August 25, 2017

Love and Community in Action

I heard a remarkable story from a friend this week. She, her husband, and her two young sons were visiting in Vancouver several years ago and doing the tourist thing. They had been to Gastown, and now they were walking on the edge of the downtown eastside.

If you don’t know this location, it is a hard place. Most of the residents here are poor. Thousands are addicted to drugs and/or struggling with mental health issues. On any given day, you can walk past the alleys and see residents smoking crack or buying and selling a pharmacy of illicit drugs. On every street corner, you can witness sex workers ply their trade, or women selling their bodies to buy the drugs they crave. This area is notorious for the level of crime, homelessness, poverty, drug use and sex work. It is a hard place.

My friend and her family were aware of this history, so they stayed away from the centre and stayed well to the edges of the region. They decided they wanted to visit the Vancouver Police Museum—but unless they wanted to make a very long detour and deal with what would by then be two very cranky and tired young boys, they had to go through the downtown eastside to get there.

So they made the choice to walk through the area. They became hyper–alert as they started to make their way. They started to hear the sound of whispers ahead of them—“Children coming!” My friend became even more alert, wondering what they had gotten themselves into, wondering what kind of awful mistake they had made, wondering whether they would get out of this intact.

“Children coming!” Her head swiveled from side to side even more forcefully, alert to any danger which might present itself. She and her husband held one child each more firmly by the hand, determined to do whatever they had to in order to avoid danger or any form of damage.

“Children coming!” To her amazement, what started to happen was that those who were dealing drugs, or injecting themselves with drugs, put their drug paraphernalia away. Those who were engaged in illicit sexual activity stopped, or moved elsewhere. The language of the streets became a little cleaner. Drunks slid their bottles inside their coats. The residents of the downtown eastside made way for this family.

For a brief moment, these two children became the focus of the streets. The need for drugs to keep themselves numb from a life which had gotten too hard was pushed aside. The desire to satisfy lust was pushed down. The urge to drink was squelched. There was an unspoken urgency to protect these children from the ugliness of this slice of life.

When my friend told me this story, I could only marvel. I would not have thought that there would be such a protective instinct on the mean streets of the downtown eastside. I lived on those streets for a weekend at the beginning of my training for ministry—and that was way back in 1978. Those years looked tame compared to today. But even then they were horridly frightening to a very naïve theology student from the safe suburbs.

I could only marvel that in the midst of this fragile community which lived on the edge of disaster, there could be a safe space for a moment. I could only marvel that these residents who lived daily with danger could make a cocoon of safety for this family to walk through. I could only marvel that these people who suffered the apathy of their wealthier neighbours in Vancouver would be aware of the needs of a frightened, young, white family. I could only marvel that these people, whom we would pity or overlook, showed a sense of compassion which would put many of us to shame.

As we continued to talk about this event, I began to wonder if multi–billionaires would make time to be aware of children in their midst as they went about their daily round of making even more obscene amounts of profit at the expense of the poorest in our society. Children coming!

I began to wonder if the high and mighty and the powerful ones in our society would even notice the children in our midst as they came, and make a safe cocoon for them to travel. Children coming!

I began to wonder if the politicians who are entrusted with developing and implementing policy for all of us would notice the children whom they are charged to protect as they continue to bicker in their partisan one–upmanship. Children coming!

And then I remembered Trump speaking to the annual Boy Scout Jamboree in West Virginia just a month ago and abused them with his political rhetoric and blatant lies. Children were present, and Trump without being bothered by any display of conscience or good judgment—which are becoming hallmarks of his presidency—subjected them to this display.

In the past few weeks, I have been writing about the gospel being defined by love. Here is an instance of the kind of love which I meant. That fragile community on the downtown eastside looked beyond themselves for a moment. They sacrificed their immediate needs in order to meet the needs of a family of complete strangers. For a moment, they formed a new community. For a moment, they lived with love.