Living Amidst the Tombs: Mental Illness among the Homeless of Saint John

Robert* is a thirty-five year-old schizophrenic man whom I first met through my volunteer work at the homeless shelter. With his well groomed, neatly trimmed beard, fashionable glasses and intelligent gaze, he did not fit my stereotype of what a homeless, mentally ill man is supposed to look like. It was only by observing his behaviour that I came realize that Robert wasn’t well at all. Pacing back and forth between the long rows of tables, Robert would mutter to himself, carrying on an internal discourse with the voices in his head. At times, he seemed to be on good terms with these inner voices, chuckling merrily at some secret joke that only he could hear. At other moments, his tone would grow harsh and scolding— so much so that I began to worry that his anger might erupt into some physical act of violence. Thankfully, though, he kept his cool throughout the course of that night.

In the weeks that followed, Robert became a staple feature of my ministry in this city. I would see him at the Men’s Shelter and at the Romero House soup kitchen; at our church services and at our free laundry program. He even became a regular at our weekly, Thursday afternoon drop-in program. I vividly remember one time when he came to our drop-in, sat down at one of the tables and picked up a small container of plasticine clay that my son had been playing with several days earlier. Then, using the lump of plasticine, he moulded the effigy of a small man— a man with whom he proceeded to carry on a conversation for up to  half-an-hour. It was only after he began to grow angry with his creation (and, presumably, his creation with him) that I felt the need to intervene by diverting his attention to other things.
Over the course of a few weeks I was gradually able to, in piecemeal fashion, put together a general sketch of Robert’s current status in life. He was not originally from our town. Rather, he came here only recently from another city in the Maritimes— a city where his parents, along with most of his friends and relatives, continue to reside. What drew him here was a girl whom he had met online. However, for several reasons (not the least of which being his mental illness) this relationship didn’t last. Eventually, he found himself alone, unhoused and unemployed— a man with a severe mental illness trying to make his way in a city where he had little or no natural supports. For a time, he was utterly adrift. Then, after disappearing from our radar for several weeks, we finally learned that he had returned to his hometown, presumably to live with his parents and reconnect with his natural support system. From time to time, I remember to pray for him.

In the course of our ministry in the inner city, Jasmine and I have met a number of people like Robert— men and women who, due in part to severe mental illness, have ended up living on the outskirts of society. Perhaps you’ve seen them yourself. They amble along sidewalks, loiter on street corners and huddle within bus shelters. Some panhandle; some stare blindly into space. They are, in a purely physical sense, alive. But to the people who pass by— people with schedules to keep, responsibilities to attend to, families to look after— they are little more than ghosts, phantoms that can be either attended to or ignored at will. They don’t live in this city so much as they seem to haunt it.

Here, I’m reminded of a certain character from the gospels. This character has no name although he is sometimes referred to as the Gerasene Demoniac — a violently possessed man, shunted to the outskirts of the little seaside village that should have been his home. The picture that the gospel writers paint of him is horrifying: “He lived among the tombs,” Mark writes in his Gospel. “And no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain… Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always crying out and cutting himself with stones” (Mark 5:3-5).

This is the stuff of nightmares. I envision him as gaunt and thin yet supernaturally strong, his eyes wide with terror and rage, his flesh marred by ugly, self-inflicted gashes. Skulking alone in this lonely place of death, he is a figure that inspires both pity and dread in equal measure. Indeed, for some of us, he may illicit the same response as people like Robert. No, I don’t mean to suggest that the Gerasene demoniac was really mentally ill instead of demon possessed. Nor do I wish to suggest the opposite: that the people of today with severe mental illness are really suffering from some kind of demonic oppression. What I do wish to suggest is this: both the man from this story and our neighbours suffering from severe mental illness do have at least one thing in common. They both illicit great fear and discomfort and, for this reason, are both abandoned— pushed to the margins of society.  Indeed, I know at least a couple of churches and service organizations that banned our friend Robert from being on the premises. Frankly, I don’t blame them given the kind of disturbing behaviour he was capable of exhibiting in public.

But, at least with regard to the possessed man from Gergesa, Jesus didn’t leave him to his loneliness and isolation. Instead, he intentionally sought him out— boarding a boat, crossing the Sea of Galilee into gentile country and purposefully approaching him. Although Jesus could have gone anywhere he chose to seek this one lost soul whom everyone else had abandoned in the tombs, in effect, writing him off as already dead.

And, no, although I do believe in miracles, I plainly acknowledge that we may not be able to cure them as Jesus did. We may not be able to, with one firm command, silence the legion of voices in their heads, leaving them as Jesus left the man from the tombs— “clothed and in his right mind” (Mark 5:15). But we can, as Jesus did, begin to draw them back into the life of the broader community— inviting them to our church services and programs; connecting them with people and services that could help them and, in short, drawing them into the ordinary world of conversations and laughter, meals and friendship. We can get to know them by name, wave to them when we see them on the street and have supper with them at an Outflow meal. In short, we can treat them as human beings and not as ghosts. We can welcome them as our own rather than abandoning them to the outskirts of community life, left for dead to haunt the tombs.



* Robert is not the real name of the man I write about in this post and minor changes have been made to his story to obscure his identity.



The Democracy of the Dead: Reflections on All Saints Day

I know Saint Paul personally.  Or that’s the way it felt roughly fifteen years ago when, for two whole semesters of my theological education, most of my academic reading centred entirely around the Apostle.  That year, whenever I had occasion to preach, I’d invariably base my sermons on excerpts from his epistles.  In preparation for my homilies I’d go through the passages verse-by-verse, studying all the nuances and turns of phrase, often using multiple English translations. And, as I became increasingly versed in his writings, I became increasingly familiar with the man himself— his character and his personality. Even what I thought to be his physical likeness began to coalesce in my imagination.

Needless to say, for me Saint Paul was no longer a two-dimensional figure on a stained-glass window; no longer a flat, lifeless image rendered in egg-tempera on an icon board.  Instead, he was a living, breathing man with whom I could, in a manner of speaking, converse and, ultimately, get to know.

I remember conveying this experience to a classmate of mine, sharing with him this growing sense that the Apostle Paul truly was my mentor and friend.  He, in turn, shared a story about one of his favourite professors— a Catholic priest and academic who had devoted the better part of his career and the whole of his considerable intellect to the study of a more recent Saint; namely, Saint Thomas Aquinas.  No doubt, this professor had read the Summa Theologica in great detail, studying it in the original Latin, along with the various writings of the saint— his sermons and his correspondence.  When he lectured (so I’m told) he spoke with passion on his subject matter, inspiring within his students something of the same love the for the saint that he himself possessed.
One morning, before wrapping up a lecture, he even told his students that he himself was personally acquainted with Aquinas— an announcement which his students greeted with bored and indifferent stares.
“I don’t think you understand,” he said quietly but more emphatically, his face growing uncharacteristically grave. “I know Thomas Aquinas.  I have spoken to him.  He as spoken to me.”

Take this as you will. For now, the only point I wish to make is this: This professor’s ongoing dialogue with Saint Thomas Aquinas along with my ever-growing sense of truly knowing the Apostle Paul gets to the heart of what All Saints Day is all about. For it is on All Saints Day when we remember that the fellowship of believers does not consist merely of the Christians who are presently alive (what the Prayerbook calls “the church militant here on earth”) but the vast, uncountable army of men and women who have followed the way of Christ before us— some canonized saints others, simple, nameless souls whose stories will (on this side of the resurrection, at least) remain entirely obscure. Indeed, I will take this idea yet further. Not only are the saints who have gone before still members of the Body of Christ but they are living members of that body— men and women who speak to us still. I’m not (necessarily) saying that they can speak to us as the Catholic Professor claimed Saint Thomas Aquinas spoke to him— in “real time,” as it were, a living voice whispering in the depths of his soul. But they do speak to us through a variety of, perhaps, more prosaic means: through the stories of their lives told, retold and sometimes embellished. They speak to us in their writings— whether massive theological tomes or brief, intimate epistles to their most trusted companions. They speak to us through their prayers— the prayers which form our liturgy— ancient prayers uttered generation after generation by the lips of pious (and not-so-pious) souls.
The implications of this are grand. For one thing, it means that what we as the church do here and now— in our own time and in our present context— cannot be done without proper consultation with our brothers in sisters in Christ who have gone before us— those who are with us still but whom we see no longer. This is done, in part, by honouring our own tradition— the many layers of tradition which the saints have, from generation to generation before us, established and enriched. For, as G.K. Chesterton once argued, to honour tradition is to give the dead a vote.

“Tradition… may be defined as the extension of the franchise,” he states in his book Orthodoxy. “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death.”

It is on All Saints Day that we are reminded of this truth; namely, that the church universal does not consist merely of us; that is, “the small and arrogant oligarchy” of disciples, still making our way through this earthly life. Rather, it consists also of the vast “cloud of witnesses” that have gone before us— the celestial chorus of apostles, prophets and martyrs whose spirits stand before the very throne of God. Their voices have not been silenced by death. Rather, they live on in their stories, in their writings, in our liturgy and in our traditions. As we make our way through life, we as individual Christians— we, as “the church militant here on earth”— must be mindful of this.


By Terence Chandra

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   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.


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