Pet Loss, Grieving, and the Church

I’ve never been a pet lover. For one thing, like every other member of my birth family, I have a penchant for neatness and order and couldn’t abide a dog, for example, gnawing away at my loafers or shedding hair all over my furniture. More pertinently, though, is an allergy to pet dander— an allergy severe enough to make living with a dog or cat an experience of unmitigated suffering. In fact, when I was in traditional parish ministry, I would prep myself for visits with pet-owning parishioners by taking enough antihistamines to kill an ordinary man (and even then I got itchy eyes and the sniffles).

 

Be that as it may, I understand the genuine bond that can potentially develop between, say, a man and his beloved Alaskan Husky— a companion who, unlike his human friends, is endlessly forgiving, limitlessly affectionate and a good deal less judgemental. I also understand how the loss this beloved husky— whether by accident, old-age or disease— could be devastating to that owner, yielding a level of grief comparable to the loss of a human friend or family member. In fact, over the course of my ministry, I’ve seen such grief on a number of occasions.

 

Take Maggie, one of my Southend neighbours, for example. For many years, Maggie was “mum” to Kramer— a labrador retriever so named because, in her words, he “busted through the doors the same way Kramer does on Seinfeld.” Kramer came into Maggie’s care when her now adult sons were still children, shortly after her husband had left her.
“The vet said a lady was giving up a black lab and I couldn’t dial the phone fast enough,” Maggie explained in a recent post on Facebook. “I said I’d take him without even meeting him. …I knew the intelligence, the unconditional support, protection and love that a lab could offer his human siblings.”

 

And, true to Maggie’s predictions, Kramer was indeed a source of immense comfort to his “human siblings” (that is, Maggie’s sons). For the entire duration of Kramer’s life he would sleep on the same bed as the oldest son— a warm, furry friend to guard and comfort him during his difficult passage through adolescence. When both boys finally grew up and left the home, Kramer remained, filling an otherwise empty nest with his loyal, canine presence. No wonder, then, that Maggie was devastated when Kramer died. For her, the grief is still very real.

 

“I feel such physical pain,” she continues in her Facebook post. “I feel like the best part of me has left. I cannot stand the silence… I don’t want to ever forget how much I love that dog. I don’t want to be without him and he’s gone.”

 

Over the course of my twelve years as an ordained priest, I can offer several more examples: The grown man from one of my country parishes who sobbed like a little boy after his mentally unstable neighbour, for some inexplicable reason, shot his German shepherd when it wandered too close to his property. Or the middle-aged woman who— after having endured one loss after another— finally lost her cat, a blow which sent her spiralling off into a grief that lasted for weeks. Needless to say, there are a lot of people out there who are in grief over the loss of a pet. Indeed, you yourself might be one of them. And where there is genuine human need, I believe that there is opportunity for church communities like my own to help.

 

Several years ago, a friend of mine reached out to me on Facebook. As it turns out, her dog had died—a companion who had kept her and her family company throughout what were some of the most difficult years of her life. Punctuating her message with several awkward apologies, she hesitatingly asked me if I knew of any priests who performed memorial services for animals. Although, at that time, I hadn’t done a single one I did say that my wife and I would be willing to offer our help if she liked. For whatever reason, she never took me up on that offer. However, in the years that have passed since then, I have had occasion to do a couple of pet memorial services.

 

For the most part, I keep it simple. I sit with the family in their back porch or living room, a framed picture of the animal nearby, perhaps sitting on a coffee table or mantle next to a lit candle. I’ll do a brief reading from the scriptures—perhaps the story of Adam meeting God’s newly created menagerie of beasts, naming them one-by-one and taking responsibility for their care. Or, I’ll do a reading from the New Testament: the Apostle Paul writing in his letter to the Romans about “the groaning of all creation.” Next, I offer a brief reflection on these readings. For the most part, I avoid drawing definitive conclusions about purely speculative issues— the most common and obvious being, “Is my dog in heaven right now?” If a little girls takes some comfort in the fact that Fluffy is in paradise, I’m not going to take that away from her. Then, and most importantly, I’ll give the family a chance to talk—to share their favourite memories of their animal friends. Based on my observations, grief is rarely localized entirely around the lost pet. Rather, this specific grief is linked to a larger, matrix of grief— the loss of a siblings or parents; of homes or pregnancies; of marriages or careers. To bring such loss out into the open—to expose it to the light of day and the hope of resurrection—can bring tremendous healing. Of course, I’ll end the “service” with a prayer of some sort, often inviting the family— especially the children— to take part.

 

This past week, I enjoyed a long chat with my neighbour, Maggie, about how we can reach out to folks in our neighbourhood, struggling with the grief of pet-loss. Could we have an online support group? Could we hold some kind of a get together? We haven’t arrived at any definitive plans yet. In the meantime I want my readers to know that I’m still available to meet with families grieving a lost animal friend and would be more than willing to facilitate some kind of memorial service. However, if you still have living pets in your house, you’re going to have to let me know well in advance. It usually takes about an hour for the allergy medication to kick in.

 

– Terence Chandra

Praying at the Turner-Brewer Memorial in Saint John’s Rainbow Park.

Rainbow park sits near the tip of Saint John’s Southend Peninsula and looks, to someone strolling by, like any inner-city playground. Steel and plastic play structures— their once vibrant colours bleached from two decades worth of wind, rain and sun— rise from levelled plots of sand and gravel. On summer days the smell of chlorine hangs in the air as does the sound of children’s laughter— both the product of the park’s central feature: it’s splash pad. The splash pad is a flat, circular stretch of pavement dominated by a series of decorated pipes through which water is sprayed, sprinkled and dumped. On hot July days, my son will race through it in his bathing suit— the water temperature barely above freezing— then come back to me where I’m picnicking on the grass— collapsing onto the beach towel and wrapping it around his skinny, shivering body. He’ll do it again and again— run, rinse, dry, repeat.

The fact that this park exists in a neighbourhood like this one is certainly a good thing. The circumstances that gave rise to its existence, however, are most emphatically not. For in 1996, just a few blocks from the site where the splash pad presently stands, a two-year old girl named Jacqueline Brewer lived out the final, agonizing days of her short life. If media reports I’ve read are accurate, little Jacquie was confined to her tiny crib for unimaginably long stretches at a time, untouched and ignored— an eternity of loneliness and pain in the nebulous consciousness of so small a child.

To suggest that Jacqueline’s plight was unknown to others, however, would be inaccurate. In truth, a number of people saw the danger that this little girl and her siblings were in; among them, Jacqueline’s aunt who, on a visit from Ontario a few months before the girl’s death, observed the squalid conditions of the tiny, Canterbury St. apartment that constituted her niece’s world. Concerned for the children’s wellbeing, she immediately called social services. Then, not leaving it at that, she made a follow-up visit in person the next day, imploring the agency to take action. Indeed, according to a CBC article http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/new-brunswick/lost-children-jackie-profile-1.4018730   a total of 16 such complains had been made to social services regarding the family— complaints that ranged over a time-span of 3 years. Yet, despite all of this— just 8 days before the Christmas of 1996— little Jacqueline died. The official cause of her death was dehydration, a doctor’s report suggesting that she had gone for six whole days without water.

Spurred-on by the tragedy, a group of community volunteers managed to raise enough money for the creation of a park— a park dedicated to the memory of, not only Jacqueline Brewer, but a little boy from the Miramichi (John Ryan Turner) who also died from parental neglect and abuse. Today, the newest feature of the park was added: an arbour and a memorial stone to permanently honour the two children— items that are themselves part of an already existing garden based in the north-western corner of the park. The official instalment of the arbour and memorial stone were of course be a public event— a public event where I was asked to pray.

As you may have gathered from my last blog, prayer is an act with which I am intimately acquainted— a discipline which I have sharpened and honed from years of daily practice. Yet I have to admit, as I readied myself to pray at this public dedication, I felt helpless and thoroughly ill-prepared. Why? Because, at the very heart of this public dedication lies the greatest of horrors— the death of two small children whose short years on earth were replete with suffering and devoid of human affection. As the one giving the prayer, my duty was to speak to the Living God himself on behalf of the community affected by these children’s death— a community of people who (to complicate things still further) include a good number of people who don’t believe in God at all! What could I possibly say that wouldn’t come across as trite, preachy or monstrously naive?

For a while, I contemplated saying nothing— of either declining the invitation to pray or, perhaps, leading my neighbours in a minute of silence. After thinking it over, however, I came to a realization: My tradition does indeed equip me with a way of praying, even in the face of human misery, that utterly scorns all cheap comforts and empty sentimentality. This way of prayer is found in the biblical psalms. Many of these psalms are, of course, joyous hymns of praise but an equal number are anything but: Raw, guttural laments dredged up from the depths of a soul bowed low under the weight of oppressive sorrow and grief; bitter cries of abandonment rising from the hearts of a people who have suffered ruinous loss. Then there are the questions: “How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul, with sorrow in my heart every day?” (Ps. 13:2); “O Lord, why do you reject me? Why do you turn your face from me?” (Ps. 88:14); “How long will the wicked be allowed to gloat?” (Ps. 94:3) “How can we sing the songs of the Lord in a strange land?” (Ps. 137:4). And, of course, the words of our Lord himself, uttered at the peak of his anguish: “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:1)

What counts in prayer is honesty. And questions— questions that arise from raw, broken hearts— are far more honest than cold, theological platitudes. “How can a child, surrounded by a world of material abundance, die of dehydration, emaciated and untouched? How could her squalid conditions— seen by so many— go ignored for so long by the only people with the power to intervene? Where were you, O Lord— you who welcomed children into your arms— when these two children were at the height of their anguish?” My duty is not to provide answers. Rather, I must let the questions hang in the sky unanswered like the twisted, gasping, body of the betrayed Messiah, dying on the cross. Then, having given the hard questions their due— having acknowledged the cruel absurdity of these two deaths— I must then cling to the remaining hope as tenaciously as a drowning sailor, his ship smashed by waves, might cling to its scraps in the rolling seas.

For me, as a Christian, that hope is centered in Christ. Admittedly, there are times when it seems like this hope is an extremely fragile thing: Rumours of an empty tomb; strange, conflicting tales about grieving women and angels; whispers of secret, post-mortem reunions in upper rooms. It is hope that hangs from a gossamer thread but it is hope nonetheless. My job, as the one leading this prayer, was to— on behalf of this neighbourhood— take that hope in hand and grip it strong: The hope that death— even the cruel and meaningless death of the innocent— does NOT have the final word; the hope that, even from a tragedy as grave and as dark as this one, new life might come; the hope that, if we work together, children like Jacqueline Brewer and John Ryan Turner will never have to die as they did again.

 

By Terence Chandra

A Brief History of My Prayer Life (or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Prayer Book)

Introverts like me take naturally to prayer. We’re comfortable spending long hours in our own heads, working out our problems using our inner selves as sparring partners. What disposition could possibly be more conducive to prayer— an act which is nothing more than a kind of inner-wrestling with a God who— as well as transcending all being— abides in the depths of our psyche as its very fountain and source?

 
It was during a moment of prayer, in the autumn following my graduation from high school, that the shallow faith of my childhood and teenage years finally began to blossom into something deep, mature and lasting. If I recall correctly, I went for a long walk one September evening doing what introverts like me do best: reflecting. And, in fact, I had a lot to reflect upon. For one thing, I was eighteen years old, just graduating high school, and unsure what direction my life might ultimately take. For another I had, just a month earlier, come within a hairs breadth of dying— an experience which, for the first time ever, forced me to seriously contemplate the reality of my own mortality.

 
At first, as I wandered the streets of my neighbourhood, I spoke only to myself of these things, carrying on a kind of internal dialogue. A few minutes later, gradually and quite imperceptibly, I found myself talking to God— speaking to him of my own uncertain future as well as of my own mortality. Although my memory is a bit hazy, there was some point when I intentionally and vocally decided that my life was not my own— that I did not summon myself into being, that I do no sustain that being and that, ultimately, I cannot possibly live that life for myself. Life (mine along with everyone else’s) is a shear gratuity: an unspeakably rich, graciously bestowed gift, flowing from the heart of an infinite benevolence. That night I felt that I was giving that life back to its source. And, upon the moment of this giving-back, I felt it returned to me— only fuller and more complete in the knowledge that it was never truly my own. That night, I realized how valuable prayer could be and (as best as a lazy kid like me could possibly manage) I tried to engage in that practice on a nightly basis.

 

At first, my prayers took the form described in the above paragraph. They were unscripted, un-liturgical rambling conversations with a God whom I— in my teenage hubris— casually and thoughtlessly presumed to call “friend.” There was no set format, no “order of service.” If I felt particularly good about something in my life, I’d give thanks for it. If I did something particularly mean or brainless, I’d ask for forgiveness. If there was something I was in need of I’d simply put in a request. Looking back on it all, there was a humble, unselfconscious and beautifully irreverent character to my prayer life. I think of Abraham, haggling with the Lord over the few righteous souls who just might be living in the doomed city of Sodom, presumptuously reminding God that he, above all, is required to act justly. I also think of Adam— still unaware of his nakedness before the Divine— walking in innocence with the Lord in the evening cool of the garden.

 
The problem with my prayer life back then was its erratic nature. Although I tried to pray each evening, I eventually fell into the habit of only praying whenever I felt like it. And, since I rarely felt like it, I rarely prayed. Eventually, I would go through long stretches— sometimes up to a month or more— where I would drop the discipline of prayer entirely. I never felt guilty about this, as if I were doing something sinful or wrong. However, I was aware of being somehow adrift. Back then, I described it as a feeling of having no solid ground to stand upon, nothing firm upon which to fix my life. Eventually, I’d somehow find the discipline to come back to prayer— doing it consistently for several weeks or even months— only to drop it again after a while. This pattern continued well into my third year of studies in seminary.

 
It was in seminary that I was first introduced to what we Anglicans call “the daily offices,” a set pattern of prayers and canticles from the Book of Common Prayer to be recited twice each day, first in the morning and then in the evening. Both Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer were said daily in our college chapel and all seminarians were required to attend. At first I upheld the requirement simply because I was told I had to. However, by the time second semester rolled around, I gradually learned that people didn’t seem to notice or care whether or not I was present— that, in fact, I could jig chapel with impunity. So I did. The thought of reciting dull prayers in Elizabethan English for half-an-hour simply wasn’t the impetus I needed to get out of the sack at seven in the morning after having spent most of the night studying and writing term papers. So, instead, I continued to pray on my own (albeit erratically) using my own words to grapple with the Infinite.

 
It wasn’t until my internship, when I began to serve in full-time church ministry, that I discovered what a treasure the daily offices of Morning and Evening Prayer truly are. After being at the job for a few weeks, I quickly realized that I needed a set, daily discipline to lend structure to my day— a discipline to help me mark the time and pace my tasks and activities. Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer served as the perfects bookends to these long, busy, first days of my ministry. At first, I simply adapted the daily offices to my liking— cutting out a canticle and reading here or there to simplify and streamline things. Eventually, however, having developed a true love for the practice, I began to pray the whole thing, from start to finish, twice a day.

 
This, above all things, solved the problem of my erratic commitment to prayer. Praying the daily offices, first in the morning and then in the evening, became second-nature to me— a habit that was steadily reinforced the more I did it. No longer could I use the old excuse: “I won’t pray today because I haven’t got the words.” Now, I had the words: They were provided for me by the Prayer Book itself— printed on the very pages I held in my hands each day.

 
For many, the notion of reading or reciting set, pre-written prayers sounds stifling— perhaps even phoney and inauthentic. Why rattle-off a prayer that somebody else wrote when I could, instead, allow the words to flow spontaneously from my own heart? For one thing, the words provided in the daily office are not merely “somebody else’s words.” They are the God-breathed words of scripture— drawn, as they are, from both the Old Testament and the New Testament. Furthermore, they are the words of the church— prayers dating back to as early as the first century A.D.— first written by prophets and martyrs, patriarchs and matriarchs but prayed again-and-again by generations of Christians since then, some canonical saints, others humble servants of Jesus whose simple lives have been ignored by history. By using the words of the Prayerbook, I am not merely “reading prayers” but joining my voice with the vast and mighty chorus of our fellow Christians— some still in the flesh but most now in glory. No, the prayers of the prayer book are not MY words insofar as they have arisen spontaneously from my own head. However, they ARE my words insofar as I am a member of the church— a multi-generational, multi-lingual, transnational body of which I am a living member. These words are mine because they are my heritage.

 
Don’t get me wrong: I am well aware of the dangers inherent in using set prayers and liturgies in a rigid, lifeless and inflexible manner, without making any room at all for the spontaneous and refreshing movement of God’s Spirit. So, in addition to sticking to the words on the script, I leave ample room for expressions of my own— prayers and thanksgivings that well up from from within, prompted by the stirrings of my own heart. And, as I did when I first began praying, I still wrestle with God— leaving ample space in my prayer time for questioning and searching, begging and ranting, twisting and cajoling. The backbone of my prayer routine, however— the thing that provides my prayer life with its steady, punctuated rhythm— is the use of the daily office: the ancient prayers of scriptures and the timeless words of the church. This prayer routine keeps me fixed and grounded. Through it, I have weathered more than a few personal crises.

 
So goes the brief history of my prayer life. What about you? Do you pray or mediate daily or is it tough to find the time? What does your spiritual discipline look like? Please leave your comments bellow!

 

By Terence Chandra

A Few Good Men: Father absence in Inner City Saint John

With Jasmine well into the third and final trimester of her pregnancy, we decided that a lengthy and exotic vacation was out of the question for this summer (not that we could afford one, anyway). Instead, we opted for a destination a little closer to home: The seaside town of Saint Andrews, New Brunswick— a mere forty-five minutes drive from Saint John, west along Route 1. By the fourth day, having exhausted most the tourist attractions, my six-year old son, Sam, had grown restless and bored. Seeing that I was about to go for my 5 km jog, he insisted repeatedly that he tag along, swearing he’d be able to keep up. So I let him. What followed could very well have been among the most delightful hours I’ve ever spent with the little guy.

We jogged slowly along Water Street— the sun beginning to set over the ocean to the right of us. As we rounded the bend, now heading uphill towards the magnificent Algonquin Hotel, I told him we could walk for a while if he liked. He declined, insisting that we press on all the way up the hill. Our pace was slow and easy— so easy, that we were able to keep a decent conversation going. However, by the time the hill grew steep and the grand outline of the 19th century hotel was showing in the distance, I could tell that Sam was having a rough time of it, his breathing now laboured and his chattiness dialled down to the occasional brief comment. Still, he insisted on continuing, deciding that he would push himself until he reached the Algonquin— roughly a kilometre away. In the end, with his little heart pounding and legs aching, he made it. We crested the hill, walked towards a nearby picnic bench and sat down to face the sunset, Sam savouring his victory along with the delightful endorphin rush that comes after a hard and exhilarating run. I felt very close to him at that moment and dreamed of what it might be like in his teenage years, when we would go for much longer runs and share much deeper conversations.

I, myself, don’t remember going for long jogs with my dad. I do, however, remember him sitting at the kitchen table with me, night after night, walking me through long-division problems from my sixth grade math textbook or, in my high school years, trying to explain some abstruse concept in physics. On some days, he had infinite patience. On other days, my slowness resulted in— to put it tactfully— visible signs of aggravation. My father, like many immigrant parents, was, and still is, obsessed with education. In fact, I once remember him telling me, on a road trip that we took together to New York City, that the two most important things in life were “love and education.” When he told me that I smiled to myself, half expecting him to add, “And the greatest of these… is education.”

This is what many of us will be celebrating this weekend: the memories shared with our fathers, the imperfect men who have shaped our characters— for good, for ill or for both— over the course of our tender years and beyond. For some people however, Dad is not a presence to be celebrated or remembered but, rather, an absence to be mourned. Such is the case with so many I’ve met over the course of the past three years of living and working in Saint John’s inner city. I think of the seventeen-year-old girl who, all throughout her childhood and teenage years, has sent annual messages to her absent father, begging him to make a cameo appearances at her birthday parties. Not once did he show up. She has long since given up the letter-writing campaign but, instead, seems to chase after her father’s ghost, as it were, in all sorts of unconscious ways—not all of which may be healthy.

According to some statistics released by the Saint John  Human Development Council  among the families who live Ward 3 (a municipal designation that encompasses the South End Peninsula, Waterloo Village the Lower West and parts of the east side) 33.2 % of families are headed by what are referred to as “lone-parent families.” (To put that figure into perspective, consider that the national average is 16.3%). Given the fact that the other two family designations are “couple families without children” (41.4%) and couple families with children (25%) we can easily arrive at the following conclusion: the majority of kids growing up in Ward 3 live in families headed by a single parent— that parent, in most cases, being a mother. That’s a lot of kids who, in all likelihood, don’t have a safe, consistent, older male figure in their lives. The same holds true for most poor, intercity neighbourhoods across the western world. In fact, one UK reporter refers to inner-city neighbourhoods in places like London and Manchester as being “men deserts”.

As statisticians often say, however, “correlation isn’t causation.” Are people more likely to be economically impoverished because they have no father? Or, are they more likely to have no father because they are economically impoverished? I have yet to work out an articulate response to this question but, from what I’ve observed in my ministry, the one problem feeds into the other in a kind of vicious cycle. I’m also quite sure that growing up without a dad (and consistent, loving male presence to replace him) places a child in a situation of great vulnerability.

But, because Sunday is Father’s Day— a day of celebration— let me rephrase the preceding sentence positively: Dads are extremely important and, growing up with a consistent and loving male presence, affords a child countless advantages in life. Indeed, as more research on fatherhood and father absence is brought to light, this notion has been strongly affirmed. For example, according to psychologists E. Hill and Danielle J. DelPriore, researchers from Texas Christian University, when a father is present and active in his daughter’s life, she is significantly less likely to engage in sexual risk-taking behaviours and, hence, less likely to become pregnant in her teenage years. In fact, the presence of a father in his daughter’s life not only has affects on a girls behaviour but— astonishingly enough— even her biology. When a girls grows up in a household without a father she is, according to Hill and Delpriore, more likely to experience reproductive development at an accelerated rate, hitting puberty earlier that her female peers with fathers.

In addition to this, some research has demonstrated that a child’s verbal aptitude is greatly influenced by the presence of a father. Paul Raeburn, for example, author of Do Fathers Matter? What Science is Telling Us about the Parent We’ve Overlooked, points to data from the University of North Carolina suggesting that fathers (for reasons that the researches can only speculated upon) actually play a greater role in the language development of their children than mothers. When it comes to longterm educational outcomes, the consequences of this are quite obvious: the greater a child’s competence in language, the more likely he or she is to enjoy and, indeed, thrive in the early years of education. And, needless to say, how a child fares in the primary grades is a significant predictor of later academic success and, hence, employment, general quality of life and so on.

To say these things is, of course, to no way minimize the immensely important role that mothers play in a child’s development— a role that is at least equal to that of fathers in importance. Nor should these findings paint the plight of every single mother as hopeless. In fact, over the course of my work in inner-city Saint John, I have met a number of single moms who have been wise and resourceful enough to compensate for the absence of dad— enlisting all sorts of help from grandfathers and uncles, brothers and neighbours in the care and mentoring of their children. (With this in mind, happy father’s day to all father-figures who aren’t biological dads!) That said, my reflections on findings like those mentioned above— in addition to my own personal experience as a father— have led me to conclude that we, as a society, can do a great deal more to encourage the presence of Dads in inner city neighbourhoods like Saint John’s South End. As far as I can tell (let the reader correct me if I’m wrong) as of now there are no programs seeking to mitigate the social problem of father absence and encourage stable families— a fact which has lead me and a colleague of mine to, at the very least, meet and brainstorm about some ideas.

For now, I’m grateful for the role my own father played in my life and committed to playing and equal, if not greater role, in the lives of my own son and (as of now, unborn) daughter. I want Jasmine and I to be as fixed, enduring and unquestioned a presence in their world as the firm earth beneath their feet and the sheltering sky above their head. With their childhoods encompassed by such unshakeable love— the love of God poured out through our own, frail, human hands— my hope is that my children will thrive. Indeed, my hope and prayer is that all children— including the children that I meet in my own, beloved neighbourhood of Saint John’s South End— might thrive too, knowing what it feels like to be loved in this way.

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By Terence Chandra

A Day in My Life

If I want to enjoy a moment of quiet and solitude in the morning, I need to be out of bed well before my six-year old son— himself an early riser for whom a seven o’clock wakeup time constitutes a leisurely sleep-in. This means that my phone is set for 5:30 AM, wrenching me from my dreams with a piercing, staccato squeal that (for some reason unknown even to me) I’ve chosen for my wakeup call.
From bed, it’s off to our home office where I brew my coffee and settle into the black, faux-leather couch that doubles as our guest bed. As I sip my coffee, I go through my prayer routine: a process that begins with the groggy recitation of one or more of the Psalms followed by the reading of 2 scriptural passages— one from the Old Testament and another from the New. This discipline serves as a lodestone for the day, grounding me firmly in my first principles and orienting me in the direction I need to move in.
By this time, my son has woken up. The next hour (from roughly seven to eight o’clock) consists of the organized chaos typical of most families with small children: hurried breakfasts, jostling for space in front of the bathroom mirror, the hasty packing of lunches and the mad rush to the bus stop where my son is whisked off to school.
The next two hours of my day (from 8:00 to 10:00) are the golden hours: a time when I enjoy a high degree of mental clarity and energy— energy that, from noontime onwards, will begin to decline. For this reason, I schedule the heavy mental lifting for these mid-morning hours: whether that be preparing a sermon or a talk, strategically planning my ministry or, yes, working on a blog entry. After a couple hours of this mostly solitary, mental work, I venture out into the street-corners and coffeeshops, the church halls and community centres where I and my neighbours live out our glorious and messy little lives.
This morning my first stop is Romero House- a soup kitchen based in Waterloo Village that, for many years now, has daily served free breakfasts and lunches to an, unfortunately, growing clientele. I go to the kitchen counter, pick up a tray with my spaghetti dinner and settle down on one of the long, plastic tables that fill the room. Immediately, I’m accosted by a woman who appears to be in her mid-forties— a woman who, at the moment, is fuming. I, as it turns out, am the object of her present wrath. Apparently, she had just been banned from a drop-in put on by another local church and feels the need to vent upon me— a visible representative of the Christian community.
“I could fit the number of Christians that I trust on the tip of this spoon,” she snarls, waving the greasy piece of cutlery inches before my face. “All of you are hypocrites and if you think that I’m going to burn in hell for my so-called ‘sins,’ then it only shows the world how stupid you all are!” She then goes into elaborate detail on how the churches of our city have failed her along with a brief, historical survey of every atrocity ever committed in the name of Christ.
Here, I have two potential options: (1) I can either engage my irate friend in dialogue, acknowledging her objections and trying to articulate why I believe what I believe, contrary to the failings of the church. Or, I can (2) remain silent and simply absorb the abuse. Today, I choose option 2, largely because the woman is simply too worked-up at the moment to listen to anything that I, or anyone else, would have to say. Within a few minutes, after most of her venom is spent, she cleans the remaining spaghetti from off her plate, gets-up from the table and exits Romero House, back onto Brunswick Drive, back into a world and to a life that, I presume, is far from easy on her.
Within moments, I find myself chatting with another patron who tells me the sad story of her eldest son: a young man now living in Alberta and waging a life-or-death battle with a recently acquired narcotics addiction. She asks me to pray for him— right there in the noise and chaos of the lunch room— and I oblige, laying my hand on her shoulder and asking the King of the Universe to intervene for the sake of yet another desperate human soul. “That was beautiful,” the woman half-whispers, praising me for the prayer as if it were a piece of poetry that I had just recited, before gathering her bags and proceeding out the same door as the previous woman. After a conversation with one or two others, I too am off to my next destination: a nearby elementary school where I’m scheduled to do one-on-one tutoring through New Brunswick’s Elementary Literacy Program.
Upon arriving, I find myself in one of the second-grade classrooms waiting, along with the other volunteer tutors, for my student to arrive (a little girl whom I’ll call Brianna). When she gets there, we settle into our chairs and start the lesson. Beginning with some literacy games, we eventually progress into reading. Brianna selects a book that’s appropriate to her reading level, sits down next to me, and begins to work laboriously through the sentences. When I praise her for the proper pronunciation of a particularly challenging word, she looks up at me, rewarding me with an enormous grin.
In the neighbourhood where I live, there is a strikingly high child poverty rate of 47 percent— much higher than the national average. And, with child poverty, comes significant educational challenges— a difficulty picking up the fundamental principles of reading, writing and numeracy upon which success in the later years of learning depend. That’s why I, along with the other volunteers in the NB Literacy Program, find this work so rewarding.
After a trip to the gym, a quick shower and a hurried supper with my family, I’m off to my final destination: the Saint John Multicultural Association where I teach a weekly intermediate English class to half-a-dozen of our city’s newcomers. Some are from South American countries like Columbia and Brazil; others are from the Ukraine; a couple are from China. Some are full-time students whilst others are already in established careers. Some have families and others are single. They’ve each come to this obscure Canadian port city for reasons that are as diverse as they are: to escape the growing political and economic instability of their home countries; to find adventure and new opportunities. Some, even for love.
I tend to wear my clerical collar to English class. It’s not that there’s any conscious religious element to to my teaching. I simple want to show my students that my work with them is part of the mission of a broader Christian community (namely, Stone Church) whose calling is, in part, to provide welcome to people just like them. And, incidentally, if one or two of them ask questions about what I believe, so much the better.
So goes a typical day in my ministry. Sometimes, I come home celebrating— thanking God aloud for the things that I’ve seen and done. Other days, I come home exhausted, wondering if I did any good at all. At any rate, if you’ve stuck it through to the end of this post, I hope it gives you a better sense of what my day-to-day ministry looks like. I wish you all the best in yours!

By Terence Chandra

A Peculiar Odor

I can smell him before I see him – the odour of cat urine and stale cigarettes reaches all the way down the stairs. He is always wearing the same leather jacket and black baseball cap. When he opens his mouth to speak his yellowing beard reveals a number of missing teeth. His words come out as bursts as if it’s an effort to push his thoughts out into the world.

This outward description probably wouldn’t put this gentleman on your list of dinner guests you’d like to have over, and yet, I am honoured to call him a friend.

I wasn’t always so sure about him. The first time he came to the Drop-In he announced to the group that he had found his housemate dead 2 days before. He didn’t seemed too affected by this experience. His appearance, gruff speech and nature of conversation were all off putting, but it was the smell that was especially noticeable. In our 2nd floor space where the windows don’t open, it was stifling.

I have to admit that I was not disappointed when he left after only a short stay. He did come back to have more coffee and eat more muffins. He also came back the week after that, and the week after that, always interspersing his time at Drop-In with panhandling to get a few bucks.

And slowly, week after week, I have come to notice all the details that got missed during my first encounter with him.

It turns out that he has a sweet, almost child-like nature that is rare to see in a 64 year old man. His eyes twinkle when he speaks as if in every word he says there is a valuable secret to be earned. The week of his birthday he could barely sit still, telling us about every encounter with friends or family members bringing their good wishes or gifts of cash.

He is always polite and courteous, noticing details others would walk past. When it’s windy out he uses his breaks to check on our sign and props it back up when it falls. When we’re closing things up and I ask someone to take in the sandwich board outside, he runs to complete the task before anyone else can say a word. He loves to take part in the trivia games that one of our volunteers creates and organizes. Energetically announcing answers no matter how wrong they might be and often showing a hidden brightness that takes everyone by surprise.

A few weeks ago when he promised my son that he would bring him some toy cars, I wasn’t sure that he would remember. On our way to Drop-In, my son kept saying “That guy has hot wheels for me today”. I had my doubts that bringing toys to my son would be a priority to someone who spends most waking hours walking the streets. But the moment he saw my son, he grinned and jumped up to go get a plastic bag of cars and other toys he had somehow collected over time.

There are days when we really wonder if running our small Drop-In is really worth it. We wonder if it is truly fulfilling its purpose and if it is really meeting a need in the community. There are days when we get caught in the trap of looking for success in numbers or in big transformations.

On other days, days like today, I see success as offering my friend a place to belong, to laugh, and to share. I see success in offering this gentleman a place to be himself and in a world that is too often built on first impressions – a place to be discovered. This kind of success does not belong to me or to any one person, it is rather something to keep aiming for as we walk our streets and interact with those around us. I’ve learned from my new friend that you can tell you’re close when you take a deep breath in and the smell makes you smile.

By Jasmine Chandra

We are expecting, but…

Terence and I have the very wonderful joy of expecting a baby. She is due sometime in mid July. While we are over the halfway mark and things are looking good, we have been hesitant to share the news for a few reasons.

The first reason is fear. The truth is that I’ve been pregnant for most of the past 2 years. We’ve had 2 miscarriages in that time. These were under the form of missed miscarriages. That means that we only found out that the hearts had stopped when we went for ultra sounds – one at 13 weeks and the other at 12 weeks. It is very difficult to go through 12 weeks of hoping and imagining new life only to see death. So after 2 miscarriages we weren’t sure if this one would make it.

Another reason we’ve hesitated is because of our many friends who either have had miscarriages as well, who are having trouble conceiving, or who know that they won’t be able to have a child in a biological way. Before going through it ourselves we couldn’t imagine the full extent of the pain that these things bring. Even if our experience wasn’t lasting, we know of what it is to have hope turn to despair. So we’ve held off on Facebook postings of ultra sounds and baby bumps, just in case this is a vulnerable time for someone else.

And finally, I think we haven’t blasted the loudspeakers because we’ve had trouble really believing it ourselves. Even with the bounces and rumblings in my body, I find it hard to wrap my mind around the reality that there is living child in there – a miracle. Around the 15 week mark, when we knew things were going to be ok, I felt a need to speak out against our hesitancy and claim the hope that we have been given. The next week, we finally let our church congregation and friends know.

But all of our hesitancy and fears have left their mark. I think others picked up on this. As we’d announce our news, some understood our undercurrent of joy, but others saw our tentativeness and asked “This is a good thing, right?” or more to the point “was it planned?”. The fact that these questions were asked at all, indicated our own lack of confidence, our own story of disappointment and grief.

As we approach Easter, I am finding that the emotional roller coaster of the last 2 years, has somewhere to land. I find that Easter understands me and understands life. Holy week is filled with stories of disappointment, betrayal, and deep grief. The God-man takes on all the violence of the world and instead of confronting it, he lets it seep into himself. Death and all it claims remains in him for three long days.

Those of us who know the story, anticipate the bright light and pastel colours of Easter morning. The grey stone of the tomb is surrounded by lush green grass as yellow daffodils bloom. But perhaps we anticipate too soon. The reality of the resurrection is met with hesitancy, mistrust, and uncertainty. Even those first eyewitnesses aren’t quite sure what to make of the neatly folded linen wrappings – all the evidence left of a brutal and unjust death.

After grief and loss, the mind struggles to make sense that there could be an alternative to the darkness and powerlessness we are used to. The bright light blinds us and we seek proof and reassurance before we dare to hope. “Could it be He?”.

Indeed, He is standing there, before us, with his hands out. He rushes in to comfort us even before everything is in order, before returning to the Father. And he stands before us still, waiting to take on our griefs and disappointments, waiting to share our pain, hoping that we will believe so that we can share in his joy and in his glory.

As we hand over two children that have been lost to us, we are finding that we are finally able to enter into this joy and this hope. But I think that it’s normal to hesitate. There are many who are not hearing good news around this time. There are many still feeling death and all it claims. Many in our community are still in the grips of loss and distress and uncertainty. And there are many in between wondering if this is really good news. If this can be trusted. If this blinding light is really leading us to a new way of being.

All I can offer to those of you who may be in those places, to those who are not feeling hope and joy bloom afresh, is the true certainty that Jesus is indeed standing before us wanting to comfort us and be near to us. I know this, not because of the joys and hope of Easter, not because of the kicks of new life, but because it is He who got me through the long months of hopelessness and despair. I know this, because I knew then, as I know now, that I am not alone. The only way I can not be alone is if He lives.

As we go through the turmoil of holy week with its stories of betrayal, loss, and despair, may we see our own lives reflected there and may the deaths we face and the deaths we mourn be bathed in the hope of resurrection.

By Jasmine Chandra