Why I was ashamed of my kid’s mouth

My wife and I were first made aware of our son’s poor teeth when we took him to see the dentist over a complaint concerning what we naively thought was just one cavity. As Sam lay beneath the sterile glair of those fluorescent white lights, the dentist probed his open mouth, speaking to him in the soft and dulcet tones used by adults to sooth and placate nervous children. From time-to-time, however, she would— in a far more clinical voice— call out certain codes to her assistant, codes which I could only guess were in reference to the kinds of cavities her trained eye was identifying in my son’s mouth. “3MOD,” she would say coldly, interrupting her own stream of soothing chit-chat. Every time she did this, I felt a cold stab of anxiety. Indeed, my son had not one, not two but five or more cavities. By the time we left her office that day, Jasmine was nearly in tears and we both felt like the world’s most incompetent parents.

 
To make matters worse we eventually realized that, in order for all of our son’s cavities to be treated, he would have to go to the OR in either Saint John, or for less of a wait time, Sussex. There, he would be put to sleep by an anesthetist while a dentist tinkered away in his open mouth, all the while (as we imagined) cursing the incompetent and neglectful parents who had allowed their kids teeth to rot in this manner. Needless to say, the anxiety that my wife and I endured during that six-month long waiting period between diagnosis and the surgery was considerable. Would the procedure take place before Sam’s dental situation worsened and extractions were necessary? How would he cope with the pain of the tooth aches between now and then? Is it safe for a child that young (Sam was 4 at the time) to undergo general anesthesia? And, in addition to all of these questions there were the feelings of guilt and shame— feelings that were vocalized in the hardest question of all: How could we have allowed the situation to have become so bad?

 
Here’s what I’m getting at: There’s a lot of shame and guilt that comes with finding out that your kid has bad teeth. However, that sense of shame and guilt is not mitigated but, rather, intensified if you happen to be a single parent living in poverty (and, hence, at a statistically greater risk of having children with poor dentition). In fact, we have observed that, for many people living in poverty, the shame surrounding tooth decay is emblematic of a far greater shame that comes with being poor.

 
Indeed, if there’s one thing that I’ve learned about poverty in the course of my three years of ministry in inner-city Saint John it’s this: Poverty is one, great quagmire of shame. For example, I just recently met one man who was ashamed of the fact that he never finished high school and, despite being in his thirties, is barely able to read. Before then, I met a woman who was ashamed of the fact that she didn’t know how to cook a simple meal from scratch using basic ingredients. But the shame often runs deeper than these relatively superficial things. It can flow from sexual abuse experienced at an early age or a mental illness that has made the task of living nearly impossible. I even, at one time, befriended a young man who would punctuate nearly every other sentence with the phrase, “I’m so ashamed!” Whenever he said that, he seemed to be speaking, not only for himself, but for his entire family— indeed, for his entire neighbourhood

 
Intertwined with the economic issue of poverty and all of its accompanying ills there is the spiritual problem of shame— a collective and pervasive shame that holds whole neighbourhoods in its grip. Needless to say, any church community that lives in such a neighbourhood and is intent on serving it must bear this in mind. No doubt it is a fine thing to offer free meals, run literacy classes, offer addictions recovery programs and even provide free dental care services. However, as we do so, we must not treat our impoverished neighbours as mere objects of our charity— guinea pigs upon whom we inflict our good deeds. (Indeed, this only intensifies an already great shame). Instead, as we go about serving them, we must offer them the same dignity and respect as we would anyone else. This may, frighteningly enough, involve allowing them to serve us. In short, we must bestow upon them the honour that every other human being is due as beloved creations of a God for whom Christ died. This, perhaps, is the greatest service that any church can provide; namely, to exorcise the spirit of shame that holds so many of our neighbours in its grip.

 
I’ll end this post on a positive note. Thanks to both the fine dental coverage provided by our Diocese and some highly competent dentists, all of my son’s teeth were fixed (thankfully, without any need for an extraction). We were then able to maintain his new thousand-dollar smile with a strict dental care routine that we had instituted the day after that fateful first appointment. We greatly limited his sugar intake (which, to our surprise, was coming from a pre-bedtime glass of milk) and insisted on following a twice (sometimes thrice) daily routine of flossing, brushing and rinsing. Once those cavities were fixed, so was our sense of shame and guilt. It would be a joy to see the far greater shame experienced by our friends and neighbours now living in poverty lifted also.

 

By Terence Chandra

Ladies and Gentleman: David Watkins! (Homeless Shelter Worker)

At around 7:15 this evening- on whatever day you happen to be reading this post- a knot of roughly half-a-dozen men will begin to form by the heavy oak doors of the former baptist church on Waterloo Street- now the headquarters of Saint John’s only men’s shelter, operated since 2015 by Outflow.  As the hour progresses, this little knot will grow into a huddle: men with their shoulders hunched and backs turned against the spiteful wind, stamping their feet, bumming smokes, spitting, muttering  curses and trading insults both playful and malicious.  Then, at 8:00 sharp, those oak doors will open wide to receive them, welcoming them into a world of light and warmth.  The first thing they’ll do, after descending the stairs into the newly renovated church basement, is stop by the front desk and give their names to one of the shelter’s staff.  Depending on the night, there’s an excellent chance that the staff member working will be David Watkins.

If you were to simply look at David you wouldn’t guess that he works at a men’s shelter (not that I know what a typical men’s shelter worker is supposed to look like!)  Dave has a slim, somewhat lanky frame, making him appear taller than his actual 5’9 height.  His shoulder-length hair and thick frame glasses suggest that he’d be most at home skulking around the rear aisles of a dusty vinyl record store or sifting through back issues of The Amazing Spider-man at Hero’s Beacon.  Indeed Dave is, like the author of this blog, a bit of a geek.  During the quieter moments of my evening shifts as a volunteer at the shelter, I’ve sat around with Dave in the office, listening to him lecture authoritatively on all of the various incarnations of Doctor Who since the series began in the early 1960s.  When he smiles (which is easily and often) you catch a glimpse into a heart that is genuinely open to nearly everyone he meets, no matter how damaged.

Dave, being the son of two Salvation Army officers, is a peculiar mixture of army brat and preacher’s kid.  While he was still toddling around in preschool, his parents were enrolled in the Salvation Army training college in Saint John’s Newfoundland.  A short time later, they were stationed in the town of Spryfield, Nova Scotia- the first of many towns that David and his four other siblings would inhabit before finally settling down (at least for a seven year period) in Woodstock, New Brunswick.  Like the typical preacher’s kid, Dave found himself being dragged along to a myriad of  church functions and outreach programs, unconsciously acquiring a whole toolkit of interpersonal skills along the way.

“It wasn’t conscious learning,” he is careful to point out.  “My parents were very good at teaching without your realizing that you were learning.”

When I pressed him further on this, trying to get a sense of exactly what kind of skills he managed to absorb from them, he responded without hesitation: “Easy interaction with people.  My father can walk into a room and talk with anyone.  He can have a free and open conversation with somebody who has been homeless and addicted to any three substances and, ten minutes later, a millionaire and be completely comfortable with both conversations.  He has a very smooth, simple way with them.”

“I see that ‘very smooth, simple way,’ at work in Dave as he interacts with the men at the shelter- particularly in the way he uses humour.  It’s a peculiar mix of humble, self-deprecation and facetiousness, often resulting in an affectionate laugh directed his way.

“The thing about the person whose been homeless for most of his life and the millionaire,” explains David, “Is that they’re people and want to be treated like people.  When you’re joking with the guys at the shelter you break down one of the barriers that stands between you and them.”

David, however, isn’t always about the jokes.  In fact, there have been a number of occasions when I’ve seen him get tough.  One night, for example, I was the sole volunteer working in the kitchen and, consequently, a bit overwhelmed by the orders. When a couple of the men, frustrated with my slowness, began to act rudely, Dave immediately walked into the kitchen, coming to my defence.

“Be respectful, guys,” he said quietly but firmly.  “He’s the only volunteer on tonight and he’s doing the best he can.”  After some muttered apologies, the complaining stopped.  Later on, as the activity died down and most of the men were turning in for the night, I had a chance to ask Dave about the incident and how, in general, he deals with hostility form the guys.  He suggested the need to be calm and assertive, even when the tensions are high and it’s looking like a fight is going to break out.

“You’ve gotta be the alpha male,” I recall him saying to me at the end of the conversation.  The thing is, I don’t see David as the Alpha male- as one who achieves compliance by means of threat or intimidation.  Rather, he achieves compliance by means of respect.  David has spent so much time living with these men, serving them, observing them, interacting with them, learning from then that they can’t help but hold him in esteem.  It is a respect born, not so much from fear, but from hard-earned trust.

“Like the men of the shelter, I too respect David.  Indeed, since Jasmine and I began our ministry in inner-city Saint John, I have come to respect, not only David, but people like him- the ‘front line workers,’ as they’re called, who see urban poverty face-to-face in their day-to-day lives.  People like David toil away in the hidden anterooms of our society- the messy little closets of our collective urban home that we know exist but that we dare not look into, deliberately opting for ignorance.  They work with addicts for whom no treatment program seems to have worked.  They work with the kids of those addicts whose little psyches have been scarred beyond repair by things that no child ought to see.  They work with the outcasts who have fallen through one or more of the web of cracks that mar the face our our society.  They have seen people cheat the system but, more often, they have seen the system cheat them.  Needless to say, the kind of work that people like David do is difficult and, as he himself admits, the burnout rate is high.

So, until we fix urban poverty, we’re going to need people to run homeless shelters and soup kitchens, food pantries and drop-ins.  In short, we’re going to need people like David Watkins.  If you happen to see him sometime on the streets of our little city (or haunting the isles of a vinyl record store) maybe you can introduce yourself, tell him you read this blog post and take him out for a coffee.  I myself plan on doing that very thing sometime soon.

by Terence Chandra

The Trouble with Martha: Volunteer Burnout in the Church

It was at an inner city Toronto soup kitchen on a September evening in 2003 that I first came face-to-face with the reality of volunteer burnout. I was working behind the kitchen counter with a fellow helper named Ken- a middle-aged hospital administrator who had been serving here on a twice weekly basis for as long as the soup kitchen had been run from this location. Before we unlocked the doors to let the “clients” in, he seemed to be in a fine mood, making small talk with me in an easy, amicable tone. There was no indication that he was in any kind of distress. However, as he began to serve our guests, I quickly discerned that all wasn’t well with him.

It began with the little complaints he would mutter- half to me and half to himself- as we stood side by side, ladling the oily beef stew into the row of soup bowls laid out along the counter. He was frustrated with the board of the soup kitchen for not getting the broken dish washer fixed or replaced as they had promised to do weeks ago. He was frustrated with the volunteer coordinator for not managing the pool of helpers as efficiently as he felt she should. Most of all, however, he was frustrated with the clients themselves- some of whom were (in his words) “demanding” and “entitled.”

And he was right. Although most of our guests were gracious and polite- indeed, almost to a fault- some would return to the counter again and again, ordering around the volunteers like we were the paid help. That evening, Ken had little patience with any of the clients- let alone those who fell into that latter category.
“What do you want?” he would snap. “Why are you asking me for napkins? Can’t you see there’s a whole pile of them in the middle of the tables? No, I am not going to give you extra stew- you’ll get what everyone else gets!

As the evening wore on, Ken seemed to grow progressively more embittered and his comments increasingly sharp and caustic. It felt like the already tiny kitchen where we were working was somehow getting smaller and smaller- the emotional tension building to a level that made me quite uncomfortable. And then it happened.

An overweight man somewhere in his early twenties came to the counter for the fourth or fifth time, asking for an extra sandwich. His skin appeared unusually clammy and pallid. His eyes had that languid, hooded look that I’ve noticed in people who are high on narcotics.
“I want another sandwich,” he said in an even tone, holding the edge of the counter for balance.
“No!” Snapped Ken. “I’m not going to get you an extra sandwich! You’ve been up here five times before and, now, I’m cutting you off.”
“ But that isn’t true!” returned the man. “This is only my second time!”
“The hell it is! Now go away!”

At this point, I noticed two things: One, that our friend on the other side of the counter now seemed less stupefied. His eyes had lost some of that drugged sleepiness and his body stood upright into what could be interpreted as a fighting stance. Two, Ken was standing at his full, six-foot-one posture, his hands balled into fists. I was sure that, were it not for the counter separating the two of them, one of them would have thrown the first punch of an epic fight the likes of which this soup kitchen had never seen. But it didn’t. To his credit, Ken didn’t let the situation escalate but, instead, stormed out of the kitchen (but not before spitting out a final insult that I’d rather not reprint in this blog). After that, he was finished. His work at the soup kitchen was over.

The incident just described took place over ten years ago. However, as one who has spent most of his career either serving as a volunteer or coordinating volunteers, I have met countless Kens: exhausted and embittered workers who feel that they just don’t have anything else to give. Indeed, like so many of you, I’ve been there myself: serving in a ministry that I should have stepped away from years ago, but continuing on from a sense of duty or obligation.

But burnout in Christian ministry isn’t a new thing. Take, for example, that familiar story from Luke’s Gospel- the one where Jesus and his disciples visit the home of a woman named Martha and her sister Mary from the Judean village of Bethany. Here, Mary does something rather surprising: Rather than taking on the traditional role of hostess- the role that women of this time were expected to fill- Mary sits at the feet of Jesus with the male disciples, listening to the Rabbi’s teachings. This means, however, that Martha is left on her own to prepare the meal and serve the guests. My five-year-old son’s picture bible features a cartoon depiction of Martha: Her face fixed in an embittered scowl, sweat dripping from her forehead, one hand holding a broom, the other stirring a pot- a woman locked in multi-tasking overdrive. Eventually, the poor woman reaches a kind of breaking point- lashing out at her sister by scolding (believe it or not) Jesus himself: “Lord,” she says, “Do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

Have you ever been in Martha’s position? Have you ever felt like Ken? Are you there right now? If you can say “yes” to three or more of the following conditions, then perhaps you’re on the verge of ministry burnout.

1. You were COMPELLED rather than CALLED to do this ministry: Did Martha genuinely want to serve the Lord and his disciples in this way? Or, did she feel compelled to take on this role of hostess by social custom? I suspect the latter. Perhaps you too have found yourself serving year-after-year in the same frustrating ministry because you were pressured into it. Maybe that pressure was external: Somebody (your pastor, perhaps?) used just the right combination of subtle shaming and ingratiating praise to get you to sign up as a youth leader. Or, maybe that pressure was internal: You feel you need to stick with this ministry to prove something to yourself. One thing’s for sure: You never truly felt that this ministry is something that the Lord himself ever wanted you to do. In short, you have no genuine sense of call.

2. The work is exhausting and gives you no life: With the kind of volunteer work that you do, you never feel that pleasant sense of weariness that comes after having laboured at job that was challenging but, at the same time, deeply fulfilling. Rather, you feel empty and drained, as if none of your efforts, in the end, actually amount to anything. This is probably how Martha felt.

3. You have grown resentful: Like Martha, you’re resentful of the people whom you think ought to be helping you, wondering why they’ve stuck you with all the work. Like Ken, you’re resentful of the people you’re serving- people who seem to be “entitled” and “ungrateful.” You may even, if you’re honest enough with yourself, be resentful of Jesus himself, offering prayers that sound a heck of a lot like Martha’s: “Lord, do you not care that my sister (or brother, or pastor, or fellow volunteer) has left me to do all of the work by myself?”

4. The tasks involved with your role have become more important to you than the people you are serving and, indeed, the Lord himself. It could be that, at the beginning of the evening, Martha began serving food out of a genuine love for Jesus and his friends. However, she eventually becomes “distracted by her many tasks.” Perhaps the same is true for you. You’ve lost sight of the very people your ministry was created to benefit. Indeed, you’ve lost sight of Jesus himself. The greater purpose of your volunteer work (perhaps what Jesus means by “the better part”) has been eclipsed by the details: making sure the event flows smoothly, making sure the paper work is submitted correctly, making sure that there’s no mess in the kitchen afterward. Nothing else matters.

My heart goes out to Martha of Bethany. I see her in so many good friends that I’ve served with over the course of my ten years in ordained ministry. Indeed, I see her spirit at work in my very own heart- driving me and pushing me to do things that I think count as ministry but, actually, have nothing to do with Jesus. I want to tell Martha that she doesn’t have to do all this stuff- that I can get my own figs and olives, thank you. I want to fix her a drink and invite her to sit down.

Are you Martha? If so, then maybe its time to graciously step aside from whatever volunteer work is driving you insane and, instead, take the time and space you need to renew your bond with Christ. Don’t let it get to the point where, like Martha, you find yourself scolding Jesus over his inability to manage his disciples. Don’t let it get to the point where, like Ken, you’re on the verge of punching a homeless man in the face. Instead, step down, choose the better part and take a seat next to Mary. She’s saved a spot for you- indeed, the very best one- closest to the feet of Jesus.

By Terence Chandra

One Good Thing

There are seasons in life when things are just hard. It could be emotionally, financially, spiritually, or any of the many factors that affect us. We can probably all think of a time when we’ve thought “Can’t anything go right for me?” In these times we have our coping mechanisms- our supports that help us get through. We may scroll through Facebook, turn on the T.V, call mom, or eat a whole package of cookies. If you’re anything like me, prayer usually ends up further down the list, once I’ve tried a few things and still feel drained and empty. And even when we do pray, we sometimes lack the belief that prayer will actually change anything.
It was during such a season that I ended up at the beginning of August praying for “one good thing”. It had been a hard summer with multiple losses and unexpected challenges and it felt like hope was too distant a thing to grasp. And even as things settled down, I invoked the “one good thing” prayer a few more times before I noticed that it had been answered. Thankfully, it wasn’t the only good thing that’s happened in the last couple of months, but this one good thing was clearly God’s answer to my prayer.
This one good thing began on one of the days that I did my community outreach shift in the Waterloo Village area of town. On Wednesdays, members from various organizations in the neighbourhood go out in pairs to walk around and talk to people. The idea to do this emerged from the observation that there were people in the neighbourhood who clearly need help but who aren’t walking through to doors of our respective organizations to get it. So, as representatives of these organizations, we go out, in big yellow vests (the joke is that NASA called to say that they can see us) and meet people where they are.
On this particular shift I was paired up with Erin Cortes, the program director for Sophia House. The Sophia Recovery Centre is a place for women to go who are recovering from addictions. As Erin and I got to know each other, we discussed the need for God in the recovery process. Erin expressed that she would like to have more of a spiritual element for the women who attend programs at the Centre. We met with the director the next week and soon had plans for a 6 week program on prayer and spirituality.
As I write this, we just finished the 4th week of this program. We’ve had 8 women attend faithfully. And we’ve discussed our experiences with spirituality and prayer. We’ve looked at ways to pray including journaling, prayer through art, using the Psalms, and using prayer beads (the Old English word bede actually means prayer, showing that prayer beads have a long standing tradition in the Church). Over the next couple of weeks we’ll look at praying with music and going on prayer walks. Each week we talk about where and how we’ve encountered God and where God seemed absent. Many of the women have little to no religious background and for some praying has been an entirely new experience. The group is amazingly diverse, open, engaged and absolutely wonderful!
They have been my “One Good Thing” and since they asked for the group to extend passed the six week mark, I may have something good for a while yet to come.

By Jasmine Chandra

A Food You Don’t Know About

While chatting with a friend the other day, the subject turned to how things were going in our respective churches. As we spoke, it gradually became clear that my friend wasn’t entirely happy with his church life. A number of complex, overlapping issues had made his involvement in this church challenging- so challenging that he believed going elsewhere might be what’s best for him and his family. For at least half-an-hour I listened, acknowledging that many of the issues he had with his church were indeed understandable. Towards the end of our conversation, though, he said the phrase that I have heard a number of times before, usually from the lips of churchgoers of an evangelical bend who have grown dissatisfied with their Sunday morning experience. He said, “I’m not being fed.”
When people say, “I’m not being fed” in the context of their church involvement, they usually mean that the preaching isn’t quite satisfactory. Speaking more broadly, however, the phrase could also mean that the churchgoer just doesn’t find that her needs (or the needs of her family) are being properly met in her place of worship. There could be any number of reasons for this: a sloppily run youth program, music that is either too traditional or too contemporary or liturgy that seems bland and irrelevant. “I’m not being fed,” is often code for “My church isn’t delivering what me and my family need right now.”
By now, you may have figured out that this phrase troubles me. It troubles me, firstly because of the spiritual immaturity and passivity that it not only reflects but engenders. Indeed, the phrase is passive even in a grammatical sense, written, as it is, in the passive voice- “I’m not BEING fed.” At least when we go to a restaurant we go TO FEED. We go TO EAT. These words imply that, even though we’re not actually cooking the meal, we’re at least taking the fork and knife into our own hands and actively putting the food into our mouths. When we go to church, however, we somehow expect to “BE fed”- words which conjure up the image of a parent spoon feeding a small child.
Furthermore, the phrase “I’m not being fed” suggests that the church is an institution that simply exists to meet the needs of its members- a church that is, in the words of Pope Francis, “in itself, of itself and for itself.” It suggests that the church exists merely because there is something that we, the members, can get out of it. Depending on our needs, that could be a quality Christian education program for our children, a rich, emotionally rewarding experience of worship, a sense of belonging or good, biblical preaching. And, when that institution fails to deliver what we expect (that is, if we’re “not being fed”) then we have every right to move on to another church.
Naturally, we see the opposite of such an attitude at work in the heart of Christ. On one occasion, the Lord seems to have become so engrossed in his labour of preaching and teaching that he skipped a meal (or two or three). Noticing this, a couple of his disciples start pushing food into his hands: “Rabbi,” they say, “Eat something!” To which Jesus enigmatically replies, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” Knowing that the disciples would probably drive themselves crazy trying to decipher what he was saying, Jesus tells them plainly, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.” What Jesus is saying here is that his life and his vitality- his sustenance and strength- has nothing to do with what he passively consumes but what he actively gives out in obedience to His Father’s will. Indeed, for Jesus it is his Father and his Father’s will that is at the centre- certainly not his own self. All that Jesus says and does is anchored in Him.
If our experience in a particular church community seems utterly empty and unfulfilling then it may very well mean that its time to move on. However, before doing that, we need to wrestle with a question that is far more valuable and relevant than, “Am I being fed?” That question is, “Is there work for me within this church that feeds others and, as an indirect consequence of this, feeds me?” In other words, “Is the Father calling me to a kind of life-giving ministry here in this place?” If so, then our food will be the very same food that sustained our Lord, day-after-day in his ministry’; namely, to do the will of Him who has sent us. It is this food that will truly satisfy us- far more than the music of the world’s greatest praise band or the sermons of an outstanding preacher.

 

By Terence Chandra

Elitist Veggies

It isn’t easy to have a well balanced diet when you live in the South End of Saint John. It’s not impossible, just not easy. Since I have the luxury of owning a car, I usually drive to get groceries. But last Saturday I decided to do what many of my neighbours do every week – I walked to Giant Tiger.

Giant Tiger is many people’s answer to issues of food security. After all they sell frozen meat, dairy, fresh fruit & vegetables, dry goods, as well as clothes and toys and giant packs of batteries. Giant Tiger is the closest thing we have to a grocery store in the downtown area of Saint John (Uptown for the locals). The city market is wonderful, but not always affordable and our vast array of convenience stores just don’t have the produce or the pricing to make them viable options (though they are many people’s main food source).

So I grabbed my reusable grocery bags, tied my 5 year old’s shoes, and off we went. It took about 10 minutes to get there. After walking through the clothes and being distracted by some toys, we finally make it to the groceries. The fresh produce was very reasonably priced ($2.79 for 4 red and orange peppers, 88 cents for a cucumber) but there really wasn’t much variety. Eggs were more expensive than other stores and the dry goods were priced about the same. The fruit was on its way out. Only the grapes would last more than a day and I just couldn’t trust the meat which was in big open deep freezers. People tell me they’ve grown up on meat from Giant Tiger and never gotten sick, so maybe I’m just being over sensitive. There was no fresh meat available.

I got out the door, meatless, but having only spent $41. But then there was the walk home. With my backpack filled and my reusable grocery bag slung over my shoulder, things quickly got heavy. It would be a struggle to make the trek with younger children or if I wasn’t healthy or if I lived further away.

The reality is that getting food without owning a car is not an easy task. It takes more time and energy and would require more frequent visits. There are those who take the bus to a bigger grocery store (costing $2.75) then take a taxi home (costing a minimum of $9). This reduces the amount of money that can be spent on food. Other options are  to rely on friends with cars, access the food bank, or just go without fresh produce.

The Food Basket which is our local Food Bank serves about 600 individuals and families a month. When they changed locations (they are now close to Giant Tiger and up the hill from many South End residents) they recognized the need for easier ways of transporting groceries. They now sell grocery caddies for $3 (they’re $20 at Giant Tiger). It’s a help, but not a solution.

Another help is the monthly Food Purchasing Club offered through the Community Health Centre. The Food Purchasing Club offers one reusable bag full of fresh produce for $15 or 2 bags for $25. You don’t know ahead of time what will come in the order, but there is always a good variety. These orders have to be paid for a week ahead, but they can be delivered right to your door if you are unable to pick them up.

This week I drove to the brand new Sobeys that opened up on the East side of the city. The store is huge (at least 4 times the size of Giant Tiger). The selection seems endless. My heart warmed at the availability of locally grown produce. I bought some fresh lean meat. I saw friends there. I even passed a nutrition course with people sitting at nicely set tables as they listened to 2 chefs instruct them. I felt so very elite, so middle class and I kept thinking how nice it would be if everyone had access to this. But for those without transportation the new Sobeys may as well have a $12 entrance fee.

By Jasmine Chandra

 

A Church Without Masks

I first met my friend Gary (not his real name) sometime during the initial year of my ministry here in central Saint John- not through any particular church program- but simply through our frequent encounters on the street. Gary might fall under the category of what many would call “the working poor”- those who toil away at multiple, low paying, part time or seasonal jobs, hustling to scratch out a living in an economy that is far from burgeoning. Currently, Gary is between jobs- spending his days circulating resumes and not-so-patiently waiting for interviews that never seem to come his way. This might explain why I found Gary in such a state during a recent chance meeting at the Saint John City Market.

 
A word about my friend: Gary has the air of one who always has his life together. The wry grin that plays permanently upon his flushed, clean-shaven face reflects a default emotional setting that is seemingly one of cheerful amusement. One would think that that he has a perpetual arsenal of funny anecdotes and amusing observations all stockpiled in his head, ready to be deployed upon a moments notice at whatever familiar face he happens to bump into on the street. The way he dresses, the way he presents himself, his tone and his inflection all seem to scream, “Everything’s cool! I’m okay!”

 
The day I saw him, however, he did not seem okay. Approaching me from out of nowhere, the first words out of his mouth were, “Pray for me.” Even if he hadn’t vocalized the request, I still would have somehow heard his plea. His shirt and hair were drenched in sweat, a three-day beard adding to his exhausted and disheveled appearance. As he began to unburden himself, his whole body seemed to vibrate with desperation and anxiety like an overworked machine on the fritz, about to shake itself to pieces. I got the impression that he was trying, with all his might to hold back from either exploding in a rage or breaking down in a fit of weeping.

 
He managed to hold it together long enough to get his story out: For the past five days, Gary had been on a massive drinking binge. Small setbacks had triggered something in him- a suppressed woundedness, an inner vulnerability- and he spent the next couple of days in a fog of depression. Finally, he wandered down to the liquor store, bought a couple bottles of wine, and spent the next few days holed-up in his bachelor pad, drinking glass after glass and binge watching TV. Based on his appearance, I doubt he had showered or shaved in all that time. I’m guess that he barely ate. Whatever sleep he got was likely of poor quality- neither rich nor restorative. The only time he left the apartment was to stumble to the liquor store to purchase another bottle of wine, further draining a bank account that would soon be as empty as the bottle itself.

 
Naturally, I encouraged him to reach out to somebody- anybody- who could give him help. Professional help, ideally, but any help, for now, would do. Were there guys from his church that he could talk to? No, he explained: They all have their lives sorted out. They’re happily married and capable of raising their kids. They can hold down a job, manage their rent, pay their taxes and keep the electricity flowing. In short, they have their act together. Gary didn’t. How could they possibly understand what he was going through?

 
“But,” I insisted, “How do you know that they’re not hiding anything? Are you positive that they’re not playing the same game as you are- trying to put on a front of respectability when inside they’re falling apart? What if they’ve been through what you’re going through and could possibly offer some help?” I’m not sure if he had an answer to this question and I didn’t want to press the matter. He was obviously in an extremely fragile state and I didn’t want to make things any worse than they already were. But what about his pastor- a wise man whom Gary deeply respected. Could he talk to him? No. His response here was even more vague: “I just can’t imagine sitting in his office, across from his desk, telling him this stuff,” he explained with his eyes downcast.

 
At the end of our conversation, I did pray with him. I also checked in on him a couple of times over the course of the next few days- worried about whether his body was capable of enduring what he was putting it through. Eventually, he stopped binging, resumed his job hunt and adopted the same, cheerful demeanour that I described earlier. As far as I know, he never did seek any kind of help.

 
Gary’s reluctance to share his struggles with the members of is own church- even with those with whom he was the closest- betrays something about his understanding of what Christian community is all about. To him (and, indeed, to many of us) the church is not a place where we can be open about our brokenness or our struggles. It is not a place where we can be fully honest about our need for help. Quite the opposite: It is the one place where we must hide our true selves at all costs. “Nobody here must know that we’re having so much trouble in our marriage” or “nobody here must ever find out that I’m having serious doubts about my faith.” Or, as some pastors might think, “Nobody here must know that I’m depressed and that I detest my job.” It’s as if we assume that the Christian community to which we belong is the Club of the Perfect Ones and if any one were to find out that the fact that we wake up at two o’clock each morning, crying and sweating over a recurring dream of drowning, we’d be kicked out. And so we dawn the mask, put on the phoney smile and pray that nobody finds out about who we really are.

 
I don’t think that this is something that only people with substance abuse issues do. Nor do I think this kind of behaviour is limited strictly to the religious. It’s human nature to want to hide the parts of ourselves that we assume would be ugly to the rest of the world. This is why Jesus spent much of his time in what I call “a ministry of unmasking.” Like the time he met the Samaritan woman at the well- a woman who may have been seeking to fill the terrible emptiness of her soul with men.
“Go and call your husband,” Jesus invites her midway through their conversation.
“I have no husband,” she answers.

 
To which Jesus replies: “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.”
She has been unmasked. Only now that her true self has been revealed- in all of its loneliness and emptiness and need- can she receive the gift Jesus has to offer her: the life-giving waters of his Spirit.

 
I certainly don’t want Christian community to be a place where people feel forced to share the most fragile and intimate parts of their souls with absolutely everyone they see on Sunday morning. Much less do I wish to see the church become a place where people are “outed” without their consent- not so much “unmasked” but “stripped” in a way that can be cruel and humiliating. I do, however, wish that Christian communities were places where it was truly recognized that everyone is, in some way, crippled and needy. In a community such as this, people might feel free to unmask themselves- setting aside the tiresome work of faking it and simply allowing themselves to be. Only then can people like my friend, Gary (and you and me) find true healing in Christ.

 

By Terence Chandra