a day in the life of reverend ruth wright

Closing my apartment door, I hear my alarm clock ring. I fumble in my jacket pocket for the keys that will allow me to stop its noise before the neighbour’s dog begins to howl. What is it about the clock that moves the dog to such a state? He didn’t bark when I left the apartment an hour ago for my morning walk or when I came back either, but that 5:00 a.m. buzzer initiates an enraged response. All my good resolve to turn the alarm off when I first awaken gets lost in the trek to the shower, the donning of walking clothes, and the stillness of my meditation time.

The jolt of reality generated by the clock is a precursor of the stark reality of the early morning streets of Vancouver’s downtown eastside (DTES). In contrast to the sleepy neighbourhoods of suburbia in the early morning hours, the streets in Canada’s poorest urban community are abuzz with activity. Sex-trade workers wait on their corners for johns who worked late-night shifts. Pimps make their circuits, collecting the majority of the night’s profits. Young children squat in alleys waiting for customers who will buy the drugs they flog. Men and women sleep in doorways, on steps of public buildings and in the parks—some are drunk, but more are homeless, mentally ill or physically challenged. My mind sometimes plays tricks on me and I think I am back in some parts of the developing world, surely not in Canada!

Driving into the parking lot of the First United Church, I count four people huddled on the steps to the entrance of the building. Their cardboard covers make it hard to know for sure, but I think there are three women and a man. As I walk toward them, I know I was right and I recognize two of their faces. Three are sleeping soundly, but the fourth is weeping quietly as she rubs her arm, which has obviously been injured. She is shivering violently from the dampness of the night on her worn cotton clothing. Sometimes I think Vancouver’s wetness is harder to bear than the snowy cold of the north and east. A sugar-laced milky coffee and a wool blanket work their magic in minutes and I see her nodding off to sleep. The image of the “they” is gone and I see the unique face of a woman created by God. I hope when she awakens I can find her and learn her name—even if it’s her street name. With a name, we can help her get the medical attention she needs and perhaps even help her find shelter for tonight.

It’s 6:00 a.m. and the church is already busy. The smell of homemade soup stock and fresh-cut vegetables fills the building as they cook into a thick wholesome meal. The bread this morning is several days old, but it will be welcomed, broken and dunked in the broth by the 200 to 300 people who arrive for soup today. The thought of soup for breakfast day after day makes me shudder, but the folk in the soup line don’t complain and even manage to joke: “Make mine oyster stew this morning!”

I watch with wonder at the patience of the people in our food line. They face another line for coffee, another for lunch, and another for dinner. They may find themselves in a line waiting for clothing, for assistance from our paralegal advocates, for their mail, to use the telephone, to talk with a pastor, to get a blanket to cover themselves as they sleep in our pews, to get toiletries.…Once again I am struck by the richness of choice that is mine and the limited choices people in poverty have.

There’s poverty, and then there’s poverty—even in this community. The chasm between the low-income residents with safe housing or single-room-occupancy hotels and those on the streets is as wide as the chasm between the rich and the poor. There is a distinct hierarchy even among the most destitute—prejudice is not the sole purview of the rich.

It’s in the morning that I am most aware that the working backbone of this place is the DTES volunteers who come to make and serve soup, to stock the clothing room, to supervise the showers, and to do a variety of other tasks that need to be done in order for our programs to operate. They are wonderful people. Most of them have needed our help in the past, some need it now, but they are determined to make a contribution to this community through their volunteer work. The DTES volunteers work hand-in-hand with our other volunteers who come from all around the Greater Vancouver area. Some come daily, some once a week, others at particular seasons of the church year. They work with the gifts of food, clothing, toiletries and funds offered by hundreds of people with a heart for the poor in the DTES. Many donors are church people who believe that God created us to be in community, to be kin, to care for one another, and to seek justice for all.

At 8:45 am six of us sit in a semi-circle around a piano bench at the front of the sanctuary in the building. A single candle reminds us of the presence of God’s spirit, in this place and in each other. We read a passage of scripture, sing a hymn, and pray together. Our service lasts 15 minutes—a retreat in the midst of people sleeping on the pews, eating from their soup mugs, or talking quietly to one another. We move out into the day with the commission to “walk with justice, walk with mercy, and with God’s humble care.”

By 9:15 a long line of people has formed around the gym waiting for the coffee time to start. It’s a time to have coffee or tea together and to visit. I hope to see the woman from our steps at coffee but she isn’t there. As I walk through the building I am greeted by several people who want to chat for a few minutes. We share information about what is happening in the community, victories and failures. I am pleased that finally people are calling me Ruth, not “Reverend Ruth” or “Dr. Ruth.” My academic mantle seems at last to have been shed.

The time “on the floor” talking with people who come for help and for company is the highlight of my day. I’ve heard rumours this morning that one of our regulars died alone in an alley last night. Her street brothers and sisters will soon be looking for staff to talk with about their loss of yet another friend. I know that someone will come today to ask that we have a memorial service soon. We will certainly celebrate her life—but first the coroner’s office will have to confirm the death and we will try to contact the family and learn where the body or ashes will be sent—then we are free to plan the service with the help of her best friends. These services are wonderfully uplifting events. In the midst of all the sadness and loss, we hear again and again how the people on the streets help each other, become family, love and care for each other. When I hold a weeping friend in my arms, hear an elder speak with wisdom, experience the heart-like rhythm of a First Nations drummer, or feel the comforting repetitiveness of a singer, my faith in a Creator is strengthened. I hear the fear of being alone in death, and I know the importance of building community in this place.

The provincial government has reshuffled its cabinet and changed the name of the ministry which our advocates work with most often. We have come to distrust those changes because they have so frequently foreshadowed additional red tape through which the poor and the unhealthy have to find their way to survive. Each of these changes increases the pressure on our advocates, whose caseloads are already more than they can handle. Some agencies in the community have decided to take a public stand against the coming changes. The remainder of my morning is spent in meetings with their representatives.

After lunch, the morning’s messages are still on my voice mail to be dealt with: a youth leader who wants to bring a group of young adults for an awareness day in the DTES; a community group wanting us to contribute money for a local art show; an instructor from a local college wanting us to provide a placement site for a student; a Rotary group offering to donate a burial plot to us; a minister inviting me to preach at another church so parishioners there will understand why we ask for food and funds from them; a reporter wanting a reaction to the disappearance of another sex-trade worker; a donor wanting to know why we used environmentally unfriendly labels on a mailing a year ago; a woman wanting us to find her brother, who she thinks is living on the streets here; and a colleague wanting to “do lunch” to talk about strategies to encourage the development of more detox treatment beds for women in this area. My first thoughts are that there is no room in my calendar for any of this, but I know full well that there must and will be time.

I spend the afternoon preparing for an upcoming board meeting, checking with the financial officer about the state of our accounts, writing letters to potential donors, and checking in with a staff member whose health is a major concern for me right now. The staff member seems to be doing better than the budget, and there are some restless moments and rapid heartbeats as I review the figures and find that costs are escalating and our donations are not! I’m a teacher, an administrator, an academic and a minister by training, not a fundraiser—yet somehow it is a major part of my job. But that’s another front on which faith plays an important role—there has been a church presence on this corner for 115 years. Our vision of outreach has been part of the ethos of the community since the Depression, and if we are meant to continue this work in this place, a way will be found.

It is ironic that our very reason for being in a community like this is to work ourselves out of a job, and though we are working harder and harder we are needed more, not less. How can it be that after all those years have passed, the poor are worse off than they ever were, there are more and more people finding it impossible to survive without help, and our social policies are making facilities like ours more and more necessary for people’s survival?

Our mission statement is simple. It says we are called by the Spirit to be a part of the DTES of Vancouver to affirm the growth of the individual, to enable community and to work for social justice.
\ Community grows when people respect each other, when they are known by name, when their input and opinions are valued, no matter how diverse. From community comes the voice that is strong enough to evoke social justice. As I look around the community I see lots of evidence that this place has played a significant role in the community. It has been the birthplace for the Downtown Eastside Residents Association, the First United Church Social Housing Society, the Downtown Eastside Handicapped Association, and a major player in the birth of Crab Tree Corner, the Lookout and a handful of other agencies working successfully in this community, strengthening it.

A telephone call just as I am leaving is as jolting as the alarm clock this morning. It is from a merchant who is angry at people sleeping in his doorway, urinating in the alleyway near his shop, and using the area as a drug-shooting gallery. His anger that the poor, the homeless, the addicted and the abused are allowed to come to our building—to his neighbourhood—is real and to some extent understandable. While I listen to his angry criticism of our presence in this community, it is difficult not to retaliate with comments about the under-the-counter sale of rice wine in shops like his which has killed so many people in this community. His anger begins to dissipate as we talk about the need for drug and alcohol treatment centres, but he is very clear that they should be somewhere other than this neighbourhood.

I know this man is a generous person and that he helps a lot of people in his own quiet way. I can understand his frustration with the large numbers of people who hang out in places like First. On his good days he understands the need for the work we do, but at other times the negatives of our presence are foremost in his mind. He doesn’t agree with our practice of allowing people who are intoxicated or high to sleep in our pews, yet he is appalled by the numbers of deaths in alleys. He thinks we go too far in our open-door policies.

As I talk with him I have images of dead people—people who have overdosed and died on our steps—who have been brought back to life by injections of Narcan. I see emergency response teams working frantically to bring back dozens of people and I am sure that it is our call to allow as few people to die as possible. I can talk of hard-nosed practices, in principle, but I cannot look into the face of any person and say in my heart that they deserve to die because they are an alcoholic, a drug addict, mentally ill or poor.

My watch reads 6:30 p.m. as I leave the building for a meeting in the west end of the city. It’s a meeting of ministers and representatives from United churches in our Presbytery. I’ve missed the meal we eat together seven times each year, but there will be an opportunity to speak about the work at the First United later in the evening. With good chairing, we should be on our way home by 9:00 p.m. I look forward to some time to walk, to read scripture and to journal before setting the alarm for tomorrow’s start.

If you would like more information on the First United
Church, their work or how to donate please contact:

First United Church
320 East Hastings Street
Vancouver, BC, Canada
V6A 1P4
ph: 604-681-8365
fax: 604-681-8928

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