Friday, April 18, 2008

A shared meal helps bridge two solitudes
A United Church minister from South Africa brings a 'truth and reconciliation' model to the city's poorest neighbourhood in hope it will nurture healing between 'haves' and 'have nots'

Lori Culbert
Vancouver Sun
Friday, April 18, 2008
CREDIT: Ian Lindsay, Vancouver Sun
Frank Delorme, an employee at First United Church on East Hastings, says the number of needy relying on the church has doubled in the past two years, 'with no end in sight.'
CREDIT: Ian Lindsay, Vancouver Sun
Rev. Ric Matthews sees parallels between apartheid and the polarization of mainstream society and the poor.
DOWNTOWN EASTSIDE - First United Church on East Hastings has long been a sanctuary for the needy: By day, about 100 homeless people nap in the pews, and at night even more sex-trade workers come in seeking dinner.
It's a place of refuge, but one that no longer fulfils the most traditional role of a church: Sunday sermons.
The congregation had a long history of being inclusive and enlightened, but it was increasingly feeling alienated by the growing number of addicted and mentally ill people seeking help from the church. The congregation dwindled to such a small number that it was disbanded last June after more than 100 years of worship.
When the last minister left, First United searched for a replacement to carry on its mission work. The unconventional role was filled in August by Rev. Ric Matthews, a South African who sees parallels between apartheid in his home country and the polarization of the former congregation and the more troubled residents of the Downtown Eastside.
"There's an invisible wall here between the poor and the mainstream," said Matthews, who worked in inner-city churches in Johannesburg, where he witnessed extreme poverty and violence.
A soft-spoken, thoughtful man, Matthews was also involved in justice and reconciliation work in South Africa. He believes a model of inclusion -- bringing people of different backgrounds together, instead of allowing separation to increase -- will heal Vancouver's poorest neighbourhood.
To that end, the church is now holding "celebration of life" dinners every Wednesday, meant to attract a mix of residents and other clients of all backgrounds and religious affiliations.
The goal is to reduce alienation by not distinguishing between those who need charity and those who donate to charities, but to make them one group. His Wednesday dinners appear to be working so far, attracting 50 to 100 people an evening.
His idea takes its roots from South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission which, much like native healing circles, had the power to bring opponents together and, ideally, embrace each other's stories, despite their differences, he said.
Matthews, who moved to Vancouver 10 years ago to work with industries to repair injustices in the workplace, says the Downtown Eastside is at the cusp of change because of increased attention on the poor living conditions in the neighbourhood.
"There's too much pressure [from] the Olympics, too much publicity. There's a sense that something needs to be done," he said.
Future decisions could make the area healthier and more inclusive, or more entrenched and alienated. Recent efforts by the province to increase social housing are well-intentioned, he said, but could further "erode" the area by continuing to divide the have-nots from the haves.
Instead, Matthews argues for housing models akin to a "commune": a mix of market and subsidized housing, possibly including a shelter and a detox facility. There would be separate, secure entrances for the different types of residents, but in the core of the building could be a daycare and a meeting room where once a week residents meet for dinner.
"I have no doubt people will look at it and say I'm nuts," he said. "But I think we have the opportunity here to do the same stuff [as the truth commission]. Is it a wild, ridiculous vision? Maybe. But it's worth a go."
For now, his church -- the last stop for many of Vancouver's most marginalized drug addicts and mentally ill, who have been banned from other places due to irrational behaviour -- is brightening itself up with paint, encouraging clients to clean up after themselves and trying to be more inclusive to all.
Frank Delorme, a church employee and a man who embodies change, says he sees the mood and tone shifting in the church -- especially at the new Wednesday night dinners.
"When the people come in, they want to be here rather than being forced to come in just because there is food," said Delorme, 47, a former drug addict with a troubled past who is now sober and single-handedly raising four children.
The church is closed overnight, but between 8:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. about 100 homeless men, vulnerable women and the working poor sleep in the pews and on the floor surrounding the pulpit. Between 200 and 300 people a day come inside to pick up food, clothing and toiletries, and welfare cheques.
WISH (Women's Information Safe House) runs a drop-in centre for sex-trade workers at night in another area of the church and serves them dinner, but is also not open around the clock.
The number of needy relying on the church has doubled over the past two years, Delorme said, with no end in sight. "I don't know why we have so many hurt people. The plans our city and government has over the next 10 years, I don't know where we will be," he said.
"I've been down here 20 years, and I still see an 'us' and 'them' mentality."
It's a sign, the longtime resident of social housing argues, of the need for drastic change.
Whether the change reflects the vision of First United's new missionary remains to be seen.
© The Vancouver Sun 2008

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