The Peaceable Kingdom

In my last blog, I asked where you saw the best hopes of abolishing the division between “the poor” and the rest of us. Since no-one took up the challenge, I thought I would bring my own example – the Wednesday Night Suppers.

For the past fifteen years or so, over fifty people have eaten dinner together on Wednesdays at Danforth Baptist Church. The individuals come and go, but the diners are always a mix of church members, people from rooming houses or the street; social housing tenants, business- and home-owners, and friends-of-friends. So are the cooks, the servers and the clean-up crew. The food is always good. There’s lots of joking and interesting conversation, and I always have a great time.

But it took me a long time to muster the courage to come and eat. For years I supported the Suppers with my donations, but always found reasons why I couldn’t be there in person. The real reason was that I was afraid – not of the other diners – but of my own flaws: my condescension, my know-it-all-ness, my oppressive cheerfulness, my smugness. I knew I didn’t want to come as Lady Charity. So I didn’t come at all, until finally Joe, one of the Suppers’ amazing leaders, said, “please, please come just once.”

The place where the lion lies down with the lamb

As soon as I started coming to the Suppers, I saw my  “Lady Charity” fears were unfounded. People accepted me as I was. Shortly after I started coming, a newcomer asked, “Why are you here?” There was a moment of surprised silence at the table, and then another person said to my great delight, “She’s one of us.”

Now, my persistent image of the Suppers is “the Peaceable Kingdom” described in Isaiah – that hoped-for land where the lion lies down with the lamb (although it’s actually a wolf and a lamb, a leopard and a goat in my translation).

I think many us read this passage from the perspective of the lamb, who can rest knowing it is safe and protected. I see it from the perspective of the lion. When I sit down to eat at the Suppers, I know that at among the people at my table I will probably be the rich one, the healthy one, the pain-free one, maybe the sober one – although not, I have learned, the educated one, the smart one, or the well-read one, even though I think of myself as all these things.

But I’ve learned that I can be a lion, and still “neither harm nor destroy,” as Isaiah says. I know this because of a strange encounter with Marcel. Marcel is not a Suppers-regular. He is a man who was staggering outside the church on a freezing afternoon. I was rushing from a church meeting to a doctor’s appointment when he literally fell into my arms. I was bending under the weight of this heavy, drunken man who could not hold himself up, whose face was smeared with tears, snot and drool, and whose words were a blur. Then a young woman pushed herself under his other arm,  saying without irony, “I just love these people — such beautiful spirits.”

Her example led me to an uncharacteristic act – to forego my reputation for reliability and punctuality, abandon my appointment, and stay with this man.  We half-carried him into the now-empty church, I phoned Anishnawbe’s Street Outreach line, the woman left, and I sat down with Marcel to wait.

It was a revealing time.  As Marcel warmed up, he began to talk. He’s a wild guy. At one point he grabbed the church’s ice-chopper and began to swing it around. He said he’d knifed a guy. But he also talked about himself, his birthplace on the West Coast, his kids, and all the things strangers talk about. So when he grabbed my wrist and slyly pulled my watch off, I firmly grabbed his wrist and took back my watch. And we both laughed and joked until the wonderful, easy-going outreach worker appeared.

I want to be very clear. This encounter did nothing to help Marcel. He left me in the same condition as he arrived. I doubt he would recognize me on the street and I might not recognize him. We are not friends.

The beneficiary in this story was me. I now know I can be a “middle-class, white-bread, tea-totaller” and Marcel can be a “scary, wild, drunken man,” and we can still find common ground as middle-aged parents from the west coast.

I think I am still a lion. Maybe Marcel thinks he is the lion in this story. In any case, I know that not every lion has to endanger the lambs.

Friends, I am not really sure why these “bridging the divide” stories are so meaningful to me, only that they are, and I would love to hear yours.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “The Peaceable Kingdom

  1. elizabeth sherk

    Well, that is a nice story: You & Marcel.
    I do not feel able or willing to try to tell a story like that from my life, although I’m sure I have one.
    But I do say “Thank you, Joy for your “oppressive cheerfulness” and energy to keep these stories & thoughts in our prayerfulness.

    I know!

    I could tell about the last time it was “my turn” to cook for neighbourhood supper. Joe, the good organizing leader you mention in your story called me on Monday night at 10:30 just as I was crawling into bed, dog tired, to remind me that I was on call for supper Wednesday. My first response was: “Oh no! I cannot do it. I am too tired & I have too much to do tomorrow to fit in this job that I have completely lost track of in my schedule.” Joe listened. He did not offer to help me out. He went & confirmed from his schedule that it was in fact my turn. So I said, “I’ll think about it between now & tomorrow morning & let you know.”

    Then I went upstairs & got all my cookbooks, brought them back downstairs, & laid them open on the bedside table & the floor beside my bed & went to sleep. I asked the Lord to help me choose a dish that was really easy. I was thinking of curried goat from the “Extending the Table Cookbook” published by Mennonite Central Committee which I have made on one other occasion for the supper.

    In the morning I looked at curried goat & then I thought of “chicken Adobo” which is marked in the cook book with a TS (‘time saver’) & also commented on with this quotation, “This is the best chicken I have ever tasted!” So I called Joe & MerryLou assuring them that I could indeed fulfill my responsibility to the community that meets in peace & conviviality around supper on Wednesday nights.

    I went to Soon Lee’s, the Vietnamese Grocery store, purchased enough chicken legs & thighs for 60, a litre & half of soy sauce, garlics already peeled, all for the total of $65.00. I have never spent so little on the ingredients for a WNS supper before. I had the chicken & the soy sauce bubbling away in my big pot by 2;30 on Tuesday afternoon in time for Merry Lou to take the dish with her after she finished her physio therapy appointment with my aged mother-in-law. And when she came back the following Tuesday, she reported that the guests had really enjoyed that chicken too.

    So God answered my prayer, the easiest meal I have ever made for WNS on the fly….

  2. Hmmm. A few random thought-associations:
    1) for a Christian, you seem to suffer from Marxist guilt. 2) for a Christian, I like Marxist analytics. Follow the money, brothers and sisters, always follow the money. 3) charity will never abolish the gulf between the rich and the poor. Never, Ever. 4) the gulf in the Bible is not between the rich and the poor but between the saved and the unsaved. The kind and the wicked. 5) is a rather more complicated thought. I think the obscure guilt we all suffer from, from which I do not excuse myself, is the same guilt that Dickens suffered from. Our Christian, Victorian, grandparents and great-grandparents struggled, in Britain, for the rule of law, and for the rule of common decency, crafting a society that was fairer and kinder at the end of a long drawn out political process, fairer by far than it had been at the beginning. The difference in British society between 1790 and 1890 was startling: and by the middle of the next century the political process launched by pious Scottish liberalism in the 18th century came to its fruition with the creation of the welfare state. And for some 25 years we seemed to have achieved a fair, kind, decent society, free of the worst horrors of the factory system of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, a kinder society, whose badge was our system of universal socialised medicine.
    But the arrival of true globalism has done two things to this proud equilibrium: it has recreated the worst horrors of the early Victorian factory system: and it has informed us of them. We have exported the misery of industrial production, for the sake of cheap prices, and we have proceeded to rub our own noses in the fact. Hence the guilt.

    H.

  3. I too loved your story Joy! I think it speaks to better things than guilt! It speaks to the joyful occasion where rich and poor eat together because that’s what justice, mercy and true humanity looks like…too rare an event in the segregated lives we lead. It reminds me of Shane Claiborne’s statement ‘it’s not that the rich don’t care about the poor, it’s that they don’t know the poor. If they did, they would care’.
    I have on occasion hosted ‘rich man, poor man lunches’ usually at George Brown College where I get some business people from the church I attend in North Markham together with street friends I know in downtown T.O.
    Below is my journal entry after one such lunch:

    Had a fantastic lunch this past Tuesday, the experience I don’t think I’ll ever forget.
    David Duncan, David Finnegan and myself met with Phil and Mike and 40 minutes into our lunch every line of demarcation disappeared. No telling who the rich or the poor were, no way of telling who the wise ones were or who the ones more blessed were – it was only as we got up from the table 2 hours after we began that the thought dawned on us we’d be returning to different worlds.
    Probably the most astute among us was Mike, a homeless person who I met through my friend Robert over 4 months ago. If you can imagine Einstein in homeless attire, Mike’s that guy. When he wasn’t reciting significant passages from a book he wrote 3 years ago – which has since been stolen – he was answering the tough questions about poverty – why poor people believe the rich make their money off the backs of the poor, how he would resolve the homeless issue, the huge role addiction has on street life, etc.
    Never strident, surprisingly soft spoken given the weight of his opinions, he came to life in our midst. As the two of us walked back to Yonge Street after the lunch was over, he was beaming…explaining a patent he’s submitted which would allow homes to generate their own energy using electro-magnets. As I left him to return to my office and he to his (just outside Tim Horton’s at Yonge and Richmond), he told me that he hadn’t felt this good in years.
    David Duncan was the great conversational stimulant – whose questions to Mike got the ball rolling. There was a smile on David’s face, the kind you see on someone stoking a fire, bringing the kind of warmth to a room where time becomes irrelevant and everyone’s at ease. The other David lent a serenity and respect that made everyone feel valued. For a while I was somewhat frantic – wondering why the two people I had seen an hour before the lunch hadn’t shown up (as it turned out, one got delayed at his doctor’s and the other got sidetracked by crack) but eventually I settled in.
    Phil was his usual caring and engaging self. Phil is one of my oldest and dearest street friends and his input to the conversation did much to affirm Mike’s own observations. Whenever our table broke into two conversations, the one would be between Mike and David Duncan, the other between Phil and David F with me flitting between the 2…

  4. Paul Connelly

    On reading this blog, I don’t have a very coherent response, but I am struck by a powerful memory of Dom Helder Camara’s statement, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a Communist.”

    For me, this blog gets back to Joy’s question in her first blog, “Why is there evil and why do we put up with it?” (I’m paraphrasing here.) And I think Dan’s response – referring to free will – is also relevant. Every day of the year, there are six billion of us making choices – out of a wide range of motives. We end up creating and living in social organizations that seem to work (more or less) and that would involve (more or less) effort to change. To the extent that we think about whether or not these are the “right” structures, I wonder if those thoughts often depend on who benefits. If I’m OK, then maybe the structure is OK too. Maybe it’s not perfect, but it’s OK….

    And if I think the structure is OK (because it works for me) then why isn’t it working for that other guy? Well, the choices are: either there’s something wrong with the structure (do I really want to go there, since I seem to be doing OK right now?) or there’s something wrong with the other guy. That’s it. He (or she) is lazy, or crazy, or a drunk, or is a sinner (add your own favourite reason here).

    And that gets us back to the old problem. My group (however I define it) is OK. The other group isn’t. We have a strong impulse in our genetic makeup, I believe, to identify with a group, get meaning from it and to put down anyone who isn’t in that group.

    But then along comes Jesus, announcing the Kingdom. Whatever group we don’t feel comfortable with, there’s a pretty good chance Jesus is saying they’re in the Kingdom too. Those pesky beatitudes: Blessed are the poor in spirit. (And St. Paul chimes in: no male or female, slave or free, Jew or Gentile.)

    So, what if there were no groups? Or if groups didn’t matter? Or, in the words of Bob Marley’s song/poem “War”, the colour of a person’s skin is of no more significance than the colour of their eyes?

    Maybe that’s why Jesus said the poor would always be with us. There will be poor – to get back to Dom Helder’s point – as long as their fate is not equally important as the fate of anyone else.

  5. Pingback: Getting to “us” | Opening the Window

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