holy ground

further adventures of reverend ruth wright

What makes activism so necessary and admirable is that by its very nature, social action serves more than just the activist's own self-interest. She acts in the service of the community. In Vancouver, BC, the downtown eastside community is becoming infamous as one of the poorest and most dangerous neighbourhoods in North America. Thankfully, there are a few activists working to bring light to this community. One of the most inspiring is Reverend Ruth Wright at the First United Church. In our Karma Yoga issue from the Spring of 2000, Rev. Ruth wrote a memoir detailing her day-to-day efforts to create a haven for the poor, the homeless and the addicted under the roof of First United. This is her update on the ongoing struggle.

"Our mission statement is simple. It says we are called by the Spirit to be a part of the Downtown Eastside 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."

Reverend Ruth Wright
from "A Day in the Life of Reverend Ruth Wright"

Dear ascent,

It feels like a very long time since I wrote the article featuring our work at First United Church in the downtown eastside of Vancouver. Can it really have been only two and a half years! So much seems to have happened during this time period, yet the issues we face daily are still so much the same. People are still struggling with almost indomitable spirits to survive in conditions that are stacked higher and higher against them, increasing numbers of individuals and families are living with less income while prices rise, and the government is balancing its budget "at all costs" when the real cost is experienced by the people least able to bear it.

One of the major aspects of my job is trying to address these federal, provincial and municipal issues that so significantly impact the people we serve. There are emotional health issues involved too – the more one focuses on the broad issues, the easier it is to be discouraged because, in reality, while people are generous and caring, it is far too easy to view those in the lower social-economic strata as lazy or evil. Thankfully, there is a test of reality enforced by looking into the eyes of those who come to First United for friendship or help. When you look people in the eyes, there is no room for thinking about them in terms of a problem – they claim their humanity, their individuality and their createdness.

Drug and alcohol addictions have been a major concern in this community for generations. In recent years, prescription and nonprescription drug addictions have become focal here because of the large proportion of the community who are addicted and because of the high incidence of diseases related to the addictions – AIDS, hepatitis, STDs and the like. While we are deeply concerned about the addiction-related problems and are opposed to the illegal trade in drugs, First United has taken a very public stand in support of harm-reduction approaches to addiction treatment. We believe strongly in the worth of the individual and that helping people stay alive may lead them to their overcoming their addiction, while leaving them in the alleys without access to help is a sure death warrant.

a day in the life of reverend ruth wright
from ascent #6, spring 2000

On two occasions we have opened mock Safe Injection Sites in conjunction with street nurses, doctors who use harm-reduction approaches and other community agencies who work with people with addictions. Our purpose was to demonstrate to the general public that Safe Injection Sites are not "shooting galleries"; rather they are places providing supervision, counseling, emergency assistance and acceptance. While we do not allow people to drink alcohol or use drugs in our building, we are one of the few places in the community where a person who is high or intoxicated can come and feel welcome as long as he or she is quiet and not violent.

On the surface, life at First United has not changed greatly despite the drastic funding cuts at all three government levels. The number of people needing our help continues to grow, but even with decreasing funds we have been able to maintain our paralegal advocacy and most of our other programs. Staff and volunteers have somehow managed to cope with the changes and take on more and more work. We have been blessed with caring and dedicated employees, volunteers and supportive individuals.

We have added foot-washing as a regular part of our programming two mornings each week. Certainly the symbolic meaning of foot-washing in a Christian tradition is not lost on people as they feel the comforting caress of warm water laced with Epsom salts. Vancouver's notoriously wet climate, long hours spent standing in lines, the high price of footwear and the rarity of dry, clean socks lead to fungal diseases, corns, callouses and a plethora of foot problems for which a warm soak is at least a temporary relief. The hall in which foot-washing is done becomes "holy ground" as people quietly share their lives and experiences.

Long before the need became as great as it is now, First United had provided free used clothing for those who needed it. One morning in August I came to the shocking realization that there were no clothes with which to restock our clothing room. That morning at our short worship before work, we read a piece of scripture: "Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wearConsider the lilies of the fieldif God so clothes the grass of the field, will he(sic) not much more clothe you?Do not worry"(St. Matthew 6:2531). As we discussed the reading, I confessed that I found that passage difficult. Worrying comes as second nature to me, and that morning in particular because I was worried I would have to close the clothing program.

At noon, the volunteer responsible for the receiving room rushed to my office to tell me that three carloads of clothing had arrived and that we would be able to stock for the next day. That morning was a clear reminder that my worrying gains nothing. We are not alone!

Perhaps that's the most important message we have for the people at First United. We are not alone! Your interest in this work and this community is a strong sign of our being in company.

Deep blessings to you all,

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 V6A 1P4
ph: 604-681-8365 fx: 604-681-8928

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