Labour Day has come and gone. The kids are back in school. And while the weather is still bright and warm, summer is officially over. As I look back over the last couple of months, my experiences at camp once again delivered the highlights of summer.
While at Family Camp in the Muskokas, my five-year-old son beamed with pride as he successfully manoeuvred his kayak across the lake. His little brother, now 3½ and old enough to stay up for evening program, marvelled at the wonder of the campfire: the music, the flames, and the silly skits. As is the tradition, my husband was renewed by quiet moments with a book, and I was refreshed by my daily early morning paddles around Echo Lake. Each of these experiences was beautiful in and of itself, and yet they were made richer by the familiar wilderness and Christian community in which they occurred.
It was striking when just a few days later I travelled alone to Halifax, somewhere I had never been, and discovered a similar Christian community among people I had never met. Poverty Justice Camp, an Anglican Church event with participants from across Canada, was a week of intense experiences and reflections on poverty, charity, and justice. We were all invited to be vulnerable, to be open to learning, and to share. We prayed and sang and ate and talked together. We laughed, we cried, and we grew.
The three-day urban poverty and homelessness immersion experience began with a day on the street: no breakfast, no lunch and no money. Just a map of the city and a list of largely meaningless tasks put together in the form of a scavenger hunt.
Almost before the day began I felt vulnerable; I wondered if I would be able to manage without food. By mid-morning, I felt like I was walking in a fog. I was grumpy and uncomfortable – there were so many places we couldn’t go inside. My scavenger hunt partner and I did pretty well, we organized our tasks so we wouldn’t waste time zig-zagging across the city, and we found opportunities to talk with people we met along the way, mostly panhandlers and others that looked a little rough around the edges. When I heard myself saying things like, “those covered stairs would be a good place to sleep,” or “oh look, you can get a mini-sub for less than $3,” I began to recognize that my sense of what is “good” was quickly becoming distorted.
In the end we finished our list of tasks about two hours early and found ourselves cold and wet and wandering around in the rain. When we were finally allowed to go into the youth drop-in, we complained that we were worn-out, hungry, and felt stupid our brains were so numb. The response: “Why don’t you just get a job.” I had nothing left and didn’t know what to say.
The truth is, this experience was just a small taste of what people who truly have no place to go experience. Poverty and homelessness don’t end on a pre-determined schedule with a warm welcome and a hot meal. The vulnerability doesn’t just go away. It is a struggle that often goes on for weeks, months, or years at a time.
In the days that followed, as we continued to process our “scavenger day,” we ate most of our meals at drop-ins, church lunch programs, and soup kitchens. We visited many community service agencies and met a number of the people they served. We heard the stories and learned the numbers. We discovered that in order to qualify for any social assistance in Halifax, you must have a permanent address.
Many in our group had questions about the balance between charity and justice. We expected some of the places we visited to begin and end with charity. We discovered, however, many beautiful places of community, where staff and volunteers offered a listening ear, a compassionate heart, an understanding spirit. Yes, they were providing a meal, a place to shower, and/or a safe place to sleep, but they were also offering much more: they were offering themselves as a friend to share the journey.
An unexpected high point of the immersion experience was the community barbeque and baseball game that was held on our final afternoon. As we had ventured across the city, we invited people (on the street, at the food bank, at the meal programs) to join us at this community event. We were all thrilled when so many of the people we had met turned up. What followed was a wonderful afternoon of fun. We were in a shared space where everyone was welcome. We were all on equal footing and it was great.
When we reconvened with the immersion groups that had traveled to other parts of the Diocese of Nova Scotia and PEI, we heard about the tremendous experiences others had had as they explored poverty as it relates to racism, education, and rural society, and the marginalization faced by people with disabilities. We shared our experiences too and began a conversation about how to move forward, to improve these situations, together.
As I settle back into my regular day-to-day, with all the speculation on when the next election will be called, the reading, writing and endless discussions on how we can best engage the public and politicians on the need for policy action on poverty, I want to hold on to the richness of what I experienced this summer. I want to keep the solidarity that I witnessed top of mind. I want to remember this significance of community in its many forms. And, I want to find the courage to continue journey together with those on the margins of our society.