In this season of Christ’s incarnation, CC.com profiles individuals who have become neighbours of people in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
Trista Parry, the pastor of The River — a church in the heart of Vancouver’s poverty-ridden Downtown Eastside — laughs when asked to describe her congregation. “We’re the most dysfunctional family in the whole entire world,” she says. “We’re awesome.”
The River is a merge of The Street Church, which had served at Hastings and Main for about 15 years, and The River Community Foursquare Church, a church in her home close by.
Living with her are her 17 year old son Jess as well as people off the street who she says have come to “recognize the value of living in community.”
Church without structure
But unlike a regular church, Parry and her core group of about 20 do not hold Sunday worship services and try to avoid anything structured as much as possible.
“We hang out so much together we don’t really need to do a program. There’ll be a spontaneous time of worship or a spontaneous Bible study or a spontaneous church meeting,” she says. “We do life together.”
Parry and her son moved to the Downtown Eastside from Coquitlam seven years ago, convinced this was where God wanted them – not just to serve, but to become part of the community. As she puts it, “I would rather give my life than give a sandwich.”
And they are not the only ones who have experienced the same call – far from it.
Jen Ziemann has lived at St. Chiara, a cooperative community, for 16 years. She and the two growing families and the others who all live under the same roof were among the first to be led to incarnate Christ among some of the most destitute people in Canada.
From the start, they have prepared evening meals that anyone in the neighbourhood is welcome to share with them. They do that four days a week.
“It’s a very encouraging thing for people, I think, to know that we’re here for you and you’re welcome to become part of our big family,” says Ziemann.
“They can’t believe it, because it’s a very transient neighbourhood in a lot of ways. We try to maintain just a consistent presence and to care for the people that live here.”
Steve Rathgen with the Servants Vancouver community in the Downtown Eastside believes sitting around a dinner table is one of the best ways for people to experience God’s love.
“Everybody’s laughing and joking and passing the food and asking questions. It’s modeling what the kingdom looks like for people,” he says. “So rather than giving them a tract or trying to explain what the gospel means in words, they can actually see it happening in front of them and get a taste of it for themselves.”
Ziemann insists what they do is not ministry. “For us, this is our lives,” she says. “We’re trying to live with integrity, we’re trying to follow the gospel as closely as we can and we’re trying to find Jesus among the poor, because he said that’s where I am.”“I view it as one way of being in solidarity with those Jesus especially sought out,” Servants Vancouver co-founder Craig Greenfield wrote in an email from New Zealand.
“It’s impact through contact,” adds Aaron White, a Salvation Army officer with Corps 614 Vancouver (the number refers to Isaiah 61:4) who moved with his wife and children into the area five years ago.
“When I walk the streets, these are not people I minister to, they’re my friends. They sleep on my couch, they eat at my table.”
Open door policy
It is a welcoming, open-door policy that larger, established organizations in the Downtown Eastside have also adopted.
Long known for providing everything from meals to help in writing a resume, First United Church Mission now invites the homeless in to sleep in the sanctuary. Each night, 240 people on average take up the offer.
“We’ve deliberately kept a no-barrier approach, compared to a low-barrier at most shelters,” says Ric Matthews, minister of the mission and community life, “because there is a group of people who are perhaps more suspicious of mainstream society, more uncomfortable with being connected with any kind of ritual or rules or structure, and that those are the kind of folk you find out on the coldest nights, because they can’t deal with the imposed structure.”
But being incarnational demands more than inviting people in for a meal and offering them a couch to sleep on. It also requires, says Rathgen, “making room for them in your heart, the willingness to make yourself vulnerable and be exposed to other people’s experiences, whether they’re good or bad.”
For Bill Mollard, president of Union Gospel Mission, incarnational living includes “an awareness that Christ wants to make a difference. So every single day when I go to work, my question is: How can I be a part of that? It’s about me being in a constant relationship with Jesus Christ so that he can use me.”
“It’s woven into the fabric of who Union Gospel Mission is – ‘God, what are you doing today? Now help us to be part of it,'” he says.
However, White insists it is impossible to be truly incarnational to the people of the Downtown Eastside without also being physically present among them all the time.
“It’s fairly easy,” he says, “to come down and see what’s not good about this neighbourhood, because everything’s on the surface.
“But to actually see what’s beautiful and where the kingdom of God is growing up in unlikely places, I think you have to really live here and be part of the warp and the woof of everything that goes on here.”
Trust and dignity
Matthews says building trust protects the dignity of those in need of help, by not forcing them to act against their will. He compares it to the two approaches to suicide prevention.
“Agencies that are into saving lives will go out and if necessary trick you into not jumping and being helped. The problem with that is often a week later the same person is out there trying to do the same thing again.
“Other agencies will stand beside someone who wants to jump off the window ledge. They’ll talk, leaving a space for the person to choose to jump or for that person to choose to take the hand and come inside.”
Matthews adds: “It’s a tricky one, but the evidence would suggest that the relationship-building one is more sustainable and in the long run has far better returns than the coercion model.”
For some in the Servants Vancouver community, living in the Downtown Eastside is also a way for them to transition to living among the poor in other parts of the world.
“Servants Vancouver is a local attempt to live out the charisms of Servants, the international movement. We wanted to blur the traditional lines between home and field and in missions, and live out the calling God has given us in a Western context,” Greenfield wrote.
“We found after living in the slums in Asia for six years that our church friends romanticized the poor in exotic, faraway places, while demonizing the poor on their own doorstep. So there was something prophetic and provocative about coming and serving the poor right here.”
But neither have groups avoided adding in some structure when necessary to meet particular needs. 614 Vancouver oversees the War Room, a place where prayer takes place virtually around the clock. And St. Chiara now runs a low-income housing project, renting out rooms in four adjacent houses to people on welfare.
Yet nothing can substitute for the deep friendships and the trust that have been built up over the years – and nowhere has God’s blessing upon their labours been more evident.
“Honestly,” White admits, “the only real significant success that we’ve seen with people coming out of a lifestyle of serious addiction or prostitution or whatever, is to say, ‘Come and live with us.'” Some, he says, now work at shelters and at other places in the area.
Mollard too reports a “very high rate” of people who have gone through UGM’s drug and alcohol recovery program, and who accepted Christ in the process, are now themselves living incarnationally in the Downtown Eastside. “We’ve got people who’ve been on the street for 20 years who now work for us,” he says.
In fact, Rathgen says one man who came out of UGM’s recovery program, and who has lived with Servants for the past two years, now feels called to Cambodia. He plans to leave in July.
And of the 100 or so people who have lived with the Parry household over the years, Trista Parry is affirmed by the fact that all but two have come to believe in Jesus.
“I wouldn’t just suggest to someone, ‘Hey, move to the Downtown Eastside,’ unless they really felt that’s what they were to do,” she says. “I feel His presence daily and know that His grace is upon me to be here to do what I do – with my son.”
At the heart of living incarnationally, Ziemann believes, is Jesus’ command to love God and love our neighbours as ourselves.
“It gets complicated in terms of the struggles and the pain people have and walking through some of this with people who’ve been abused and abandoned and rejected, who are in addiction and have mental health issues,” she says.
“But the commandment is simple: ‘Be with these people, because I am with these people. Love them. Care for them. Clothe the naked. Feed the hungry. Give drink to the thirsty.’ It is quite simple, but it is painful and it is difficult.”