Vancouver - A Place of GraceAaron White - 6 Sep 2011
In Vancouver there is one day each month on which the social assistance cheques are distributed. For many people this does not cause any problem, as they need the money for rent and necessities, and it comes at an opportune moment on a Wednesday near the end of the month.
But for the Downtown Eastside, “Welfare Wednesday”, as it has come to be known, is a very difficult day. Long line-ups early in the morning at the Welfare offices announce, in case any one forgot, that the day has arrived. Line-ups of drug dealers near the local cheque cashing facilities proclaim the same message. It is a day for many when drug debts are paid and habits are reinforced.
People on social assistance in British Columbia do not receive enough help to live in a healthy way during the month. Rents in the slum hotels are higher than the shelter portion given, so food money has to be dipped into, meaning most people need to make use of soup lines or other services for free food. People also have a very hard time budgeting well what little money they have, many not having been given any good modeling of this in their lives.
And then there is crack and heroin and meth. We have walked alongside many people who have been doing incredibly well, fighting off the demons of addiction and old habits all month, imagining the possibilities of a life spent without the debilitating attachment to destructive substances. But then Welfare Wednesday hits, and every single neighbour they have in their hotel is lit up and offering them hits. How could any of us stay away from our greatest temptations in such an environment? Friends will disappear for a week or so, and then come back, ashamed, broke, not sure if they have it in them to start all over again from the beginning. This is the monthly rhythm in our neighbourhood.
We have known for a long time that this isn’t good enough. It’s no way to live, it offers no hope for the future, it contributes powerfully to the cycle of dependency and despair, causes others in our society to look upon our friends as useless, “sub-human” wastes of tax dollars, and exhausts those who are trying to offer compassion and hope.
So we started imagining. Along with some friends we asked the question: “How can we walk – and help others to walk – in the opposite spirit of Welfare Wednesday?” It is a time of despair. So what if we did something joyful? It is a time of wasted resources. So what if we found a way to maximise funds? It is a time of loneliness. So what if we offered family? It is a time of dependency. So what if we recognised dignity? It is a time, we discerned, of territorial, systemic, demonic oppression. So what if we prayed?
Seven or eight different prayerful and incarnational communities got together and realised we had all been thinking along these same lines for years, some of us inspired by a lady named “Grace” who had been doing something like this on her own for some time until circumstances had made it impossible for her to continue. So we committed to stopping everything each month on that one day, and attempting, by God’s grace, to change the culture, to create a “Place of Grace”.
We begin in prayer, uniting for a full 24 hours of intercession in two or three locations, praying for freedom and deliverance for ourselves, our community, our friends. We then walk with our friends to collect their cheques, and offer to drive them outside the neighbourhood to cash the cheques and to buy groceries in places that didn’t mark up all the prices. We then put on a full day block party with music, barbequed burgers (money raised going to help free enslaved children in Southeast Asia), and clean, safe, sacred space. Fight the demons with prayer, groceries, and parties.
We’ve tried it twice so far, with good results. Word is getting out. People are excited. Grace is bouncing up and down with new light in her eyes. We are thrilled to be partnering in the gospel and in prayer and in service with our fellow believers. And our friends are experiencing hope. It is a change, however subtle, however small yet, in the rhythm of the month, in the rhythm of the neighbourhood.