Today, I had the most amazing experience. I was invited, on my retirement, to join a committee at Christ Church, Sorel, as they move forward in articulating and developing Café Christ Church. Similar to the ministry at Mile End Mission, but once a week, and of course with its own dynamics. Unilingual French. Good opportunity to keep my French up to snuff.
This experience, once a month, has been so affirming as I realize that I have wisdom to share - and it is received so warmly and openly. I don't know what I was doing the past 17+ years, and I know I worked hard, very hard, and we accomplished miracles - but I find I've integrated so much, and my intuitions are pretty well on.
The really neat thing though - one of the members of the committee hadn't had time to read the talk ahead of the meeting, so he went through quickly and fed back to us the form I had no idea was there. The talk had been translated into French. Guy took it apart (in a good way) and showed how coherent it is - and that there is a method and articulation that I was absolutely unaware of. What comes intuitively in fact has a - what's the word - form. A process for developing community ministry.
Awe. Oh, I know, we were brought up to be 'humble' in a way that I no longer accept - sort of like when Mum was a little girl, she would ask her grandmother if she was pretty. Her Gram would reply, You'll pass in a crowd." Preventing vanity? Who knows, but Mum felt the hurt to the end of her life in a way - because she never believed she WAS pretty.
Anyhow - it's not about vanity. I'm amazed. And it affirms my ability to write. So, here it is...
Mile End Community Mission Benefit Dinner (and my retirement) October 25th, 2012
I’m really anxious about this. Really anxious about how to speak – in what language – what will most people understand – and what will I be least likely to mess up being anxious --- I put my anxiety onto what I would wear - took a whole pile of clothes to a friend’s on Tuesday – we decided against all of them. Sigh ….
(sing) “Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start….” I was born October 31st, 1946 at 4:56pm. The witching hour. Now, witches have gotten a bad rap. Many were, and are, simply women of wisdom and power. Why do you think they got burned at the stake in societies that feared women with power, gifts of healing, wisdom … ? If you see me out soaring on my broomstick on Hallowe’en, I’ll be sprinkling dust of compassion and love … and I will be out.
My early childhood was rather chaotic – with deaths, grief, and uncertainties... I never felt safe or ‘enough.’ Tonight, a voice says: this feels like my last chance to “get it right” concerning my ministry at the Mission. (Yes, I know it’s ridiculous). I, and we, HAVE gotten it right. We are, and have been, AMAZING! Through hard work, struggle, laughter, mistakes, growing together, wrestling with what it means to be Mile End Mission – a small community trying to be home, a place where people are loved, respected, encouraged to be, and become, the best they can be.
I’ve come to believe that my voices of anxiety, of trying to get it right – of feeling I am never enough – are links – threads that connect me with all people – to all of you and all of the people who come to us at the Mission in need of love, acceptance, respect, hope, and encouragement. Of a home to rest awhile, or a long-term home – depending on the person’s abilities, life situations … We’re all the same. Some of us have had opportunities of education, circumstances that have allowed us more choices, and sometimes better ways to hide away those little voices of despair or anxiety.
Katherine Paterson, an extremely successful children’s author, grew up in China, a daughter of missionaries. She wrote that every time she enters a room full of people, she feels like the 9 year old dressed in odd clothing from the missionary barrels … Don’t we all have a child lurking inside … different stories and the same stories?
Our work at Mile End has been based on the reality that we are the same. We are all human trying to make sense out of life, to find a place to belong, to grow, to love and be loved … as we are.
In the early days, Lori tells me, I brought this apron (made for me by Sister Rhoda c1970 during my convent past in another life (hold up apron). I was new and green. Apparently I wanted to wash the vegetables given out at the food bank. In those days, I also took my car to pick the food up food at Moisson Mtl …
We struggled financially for many years. Basic funding was limited and insecure. We collected cans, bottles and Canadian Tire money to survive. Then I realized – the Mission was living like the people we welcomed – on the edge, never knowing from day to day if we would have enough. It is not a good way to live - for an organization or an individual. Too much energy goes into survival. We all need to LIVE.
Mottos: We don’t do perfect. BREATHE.
I, and we, have made ‘mistakes’ – lots of them along the way. Or we can look at them as learning opportunities. – Australian Aboriginal proverb: “There is no path. The path is made by walking.” The Mission had no path.
I just noticed just the other day – it doesn’t say by running – we have moved slowly, always building a base on which to grow – always with the goal of creating community for people – sometimes there was a push to move faster, and I have almost always resisted it.
We’ve learned and grown together. I was learning. Always. We were all learning, moving ahead in trust and picking ourselves up when we messed up. We all picked ourselves up figuratively. Sometimes I did literally. All in the aid of following our principles, of course.
Details and responsibility for tasks you have taken on are important. When the garbage cans are emptied at the end of the day, clean bags are supposed to be put in them. It was Joyce’s responsibility. Joyce had just left, and the cans were bagless. I moved quickly – across a pile of folded up Christmas boxes, went flying, calling Joyce loudly. Joyce came back in, saw me sprawled on the floor, thought I’d had a heart attack and was ready to give me CPR. When I asked her about the bags – she was, needless to say, angry! Then a couple came in looking for information. Lori introduced me as the director – I was still on the floor.
Donations need to be checked for safety. A skateboard came in. I’d never tried a skateboard, so I stood on it. Just stood on it. Whish. Wham. Ouch. Much laughter.
Our space needs to be safe. There needs to be a path to the doors through the stacks of food on Friday food bank. To prove the point, I (accidentally) lost my balance in a narrow space, landed unceremoniously on bread and popped open a bag of chips.
Furniture needs to be checked out. I sat in a chair that had come in, comfy, just the right height. RRRIIIPPP. I was hanging by the arms, my behind on the floor. Connie was bent over with laughter, tears rolling down her cheeks. No respect, I often chided – no respect. But there WAS respect. And trust.
Well, mostly trust. Long ago, a box of bananas came in. I had hardly turned around, and the bananas were GONE. Later on, something came up, and I said, “I trust you with my life, but not with bananas.” And I HAVE trusted the people with my life and my own story. The banana story has gone into Mission folklore.
Now and then I’ve been tough. I’ve encouraged people to gradually take responsibility and to develop their skills and confidence. When we were re-decorating the Mission and setting up shelves for clothing, Connie had the brilliant idea to get a student in design to come and help us decide on colours and set-up. We did. The student suggested the yellow we have on the St-Urbain side with dark brown shelving… Green and white on the kitchen side. After much discussion, the staff all voted yes to yellow. I was away for a few weeks. When I returned, the colour they wanted was peach… Even if I had like peach (I didn’t) for our space, I would have said, NO. You’re not changing it. Here’s why. Connie had a brilliant idea. It was carried out. You all voted on it. Trust yourselves and be proud of your idea and decision. BTW - the soft yellow gives such an air of light and hope. … Peach??
These are some of our stories. We had a lot of fun. We fought. People quit in huffs and frustration a few times, and of course returned with apologies made on both sides.
We all have a voice. We decide most things together, and I seldom made a decision without consulting. Over the years I have had many brilliant ideas. I learned quickly that no matter how brilliant my ideas were, if they did not either come from the people or find support in the people, they did NOT work. Period. Maybe it was too soon, and it would work later. Maybe it didn’t meet the needs and desires of this community at all. And they were brilliant!
We’re all the same at the Mission. We eat together, sharing a meal and conversation. Members help with dishes and clean up. We’re family.
My friend in Irish South Boston told me recently she could tell me a lot about Southie history , but if she did, she’d have to kill me. “What happens in Southie stays in Southie” the saying goes. Much of what happens at the Mission stays at the Mission.
There are so many stories I could tell of people’s struggles and journeys – drugs and alcohol, suicide, the vicious murder of a member, mental illness and hospitalization, jail, rats, mice, and other beasties in people’s low-rent apartments and rooms, hoarding (think about it – some people may hoard because they have never had enough and are afraid they never will … efforts made with sometimes difficult governments, insufficient public housing so a family of four lives in a tiny 3 ½ … We journey with people. But I have no right to tell their stories in a small organization like the Mission, where some people would be recognizable.
I’m in AWE at some people’s stories. Many who are judged by externals, are in fact miracles who have not only survived their early lives – but have managed to live as creatively as possible within limitations. Aren’t we all broken? Some of us have had more opportunities for education, more access to support, less chaotic and tragic lives … and the finances to get ahead.
At Christmas one year, Gilles took the names. He asked each person to sit down with him. Hecould feel the anxiety in each one when he said he wanted to ask two questions. Coming to a food bank, after all, can be de-humanizing. What did he want to know about their private lives? Gilles asked:
1. Tell me something you like about yourself
2. Tell me a skill or talent you have
As Roméo Dallaire said: No person is more human than another. And, everyone has something to give/share.
We’re REAL at Mile End. Lots of laughter. Lots of “What do you think? Recognizing that, although my early growing up years were precarious financially, I am not the Mission expert on poverty, welfare rights, legal and government red tape and issues, finances… we deal with conflict up front. People who grew up with crisis are apt to re-create it – and part of our struggle together has been to re-wire – to learn other, more creative ways of interacting.
In 1971, in my previous life as an Anglican Sister of St. Margaret, I was sent as a missionary to Haiti for two years. Hmmmm… guess what – I was the one converted, transformed – by the courage, resilience, dedication and faith of so many … Mile End Mission became a way of giving back – I’m not called to return to Haiti to work. I’m called to struggle for justice and peace, here. To help create a place where people belong, find family, feel safe, move on when possible … I’ve been transformed by the Mission.
Our bishop, Barry, at our 20th anniversary celebration, said I’m sometimes an irritant. I replied, “I’ll take that as a compliment.” I realize that irritants can be difficult to live with. Well, isn’t that the point? Stir things up. Keep things on the table. Fight for what is right – like financial security. Fight for recognition of what we do, and of everyone’s right to dignity and respect. The diocese has felt it. The board has felt it. Some in the community have felt it. Although I’m conscious that I’m not always right, I wear the badge of irritant proudly. It has been essential to moving the mission along.
Tonight I am a priest. Well, I’m always a priest – but I haven’t dressed for the role overtly most of the time. I’ve officiated at baptisms (most of them in a lake in Ste-Agathe), weddings and funerals.
At our parish annual children’s service for Halloween – All Saints, I’ve also dressed up. Standing at the altar, I asked the children if I was still a priest, even if I’m dressed like a tiger. There is a resounding “Yes!” I don’t need the outfit to be a priest – and I have felt that dressing in my super-Christian outfit would, or could, have been a barrier for people.
We welcome people of many faiths at the Mission and it’s wonderful. We have had members who were Duplessis orphans who were abused in the church… a clergy collar has not been necessary to my being a priest. Tonight I reclaim it a little. (hold up clergy collar). We are Muslim, Christian, Jew, Hindu, agnostic, atheist…
If I arrived at the Mission with my clergy outfit, people said, “You have a funeral today?” And yes, I usually did. Well, tonight is a little like a funeral J - certainly a good-bye. A transition. Endings and beginnings.
Tonight I claim Mile End Mission as Church at its best – our call (read in French and English - … l`Éternel m`a oint pour porter de bonnes nouvelles aux malheureux; il m`a envoyé pour guérir ceux et celles qui ont le coeur brisé, pour proclamer aux captifs la liberté, et aux prisonniers la déliverance… The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to comfort the broken-hearted, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free… Isaiah 61.1, Luke 4.18
We learn from each other. We share a God who has many names. All religions are based on compassion and love. I received a letter recently from one of my favourite people – Sr. Marjorie Raphael, who is 88, was the Mother Superior when I was a good little nun all those years ago. And yes, I was, believe it or not, a good little nun. Too good. I’ve kind of broken the habit of being too good …
Sr Marjorie Raphael wrote: “Jesus , after washing the disciples feet, kept urging, “Love one another,” perhaps the essence of our life on earth, and maybe in eternity…… Being mindful of one another is the great love story. It is really all about love.”
A local Imam drops by at least once a week. We were discussing the diversity at the Mission, and that we are not out to convert people – he gave us a Muslim proverb – “There are many paths on the mountain and they all lead to the top of the same mountain – to God.”
Small communities like the Mission are essential in today’s world. We don’t make the front pages. Our numbers are small – purposely. The love and compassion we share has a ripple effect into the broader community, more than I realized until I was leaving and people outside the Mission have shared what we mean to them and to Mile End.
Being small and less recognized makes it more difficult to raise funds. Especially for staffing – and the reality is – there are no programs without the staff to run them. For many years, as a half-time priest here with a traditional parish as well, the director’s position has been too much. I don’t regret staying as long as I have. This is the right time to leave. I’ve done my job and I leave behind incredibly competent and courageous people to carry on the vision.
I’m taking this last opportunity for advice: with apologies to C.S. Lewis who wrote The Screwtape Letters – from a Senior Devil to the Junior Devil(s)
To Linda – give yourself lots of time to adjust, to experience the Mission, the people, as they ARE before changing things. And you will, with the community, inevitably change things. BREATHE. LISTEN. Give yourself that gift. Cancer taught me: “Life is short. It doesn’t matter.” And – “If it doesn’t all get done, it doesn’t all get done.” We don’t do perfect. I’m still learning this, by the way. People come first, or you wouldn’t have wanted this job.
To the Board: Give Linda time and space to do this before having expectations for new and wonderful things. In my humble opinion, the first months should be observation, doing the normal J (like Christmas) things, and getting to know the staff and people. The pressure and tensions at the Mission is always high, even before we get to crises. I encourage you to give Linda that gift.
To Lori, Carol, Joanne, Doris, and all of you Mission staff and members – YOU are the experts. On the Mission. On the vision. On the people and the programs. Be confident. Speak. Share your ideas, concerns and knowledge. I’m leaving the Mission in good hands. You’re in my heart for always. As is Connie. You changed me. Thank you. And thank you again.
To all of you: Breathe. We don’t do perfect. Breathe. We don’t do perfect.
Thank you to all of you: Staff, Board, Friends … for your love and commitment.
To Luke Martin – thank you for all the early years in which you supported us in so many ways – helped us get our ‘Lettres patentes’ and our charity number… your grace and commitment live on.
I received this message from Lori last night: There are so many stories and memories. You have them all with all the emotions – happy, sad, mad, proud, frustrated - but in all this you gained wisdom and learned that all people have something to offer and can make a difference in this world.
Thank you. Thank you for being here tonight. Thank you for standing with and/or behind us and encouraging us. I ask that you take us in your hearts when you leave – that you continue to support us – to help us fund the full-time director’s position and other staffing so that we can carry on standing straighter – without the perpetual financial burdens and worries. So we can focus on the ministry, on the people.
Connie Olson was a founder of the Mission and food bank director, as well as the heart and backbone of the Mission. At her funeral, Johnny came to the front and spoke an epitaph all of us could wish for: “I’m Johnny. I’m from up north. Connie gave me clothes. She fed me. She loved me. I’m going to miss her.”
Staff and mission members take candles to each table and share the light from mine.
Sing together - Ubi caritas – where there is love, God is there.
Please take the light out with you, Share the light and remember us.