Ron Cole and his wife Colleen are empty-nesters living on Vancouver Island off Canada’s west coast. Ron works as a health care provider as a clinical laboratory technologist in a local hospital. After 20 years working within various minitries in the church, he now finds himself on the fringe. He is a director in CARTS an non-profit organization, providing food, clothing and love to the marginalized in Victoria’s inner city. Also finds himself regularly in ” hot water ” in the dish pit of the Rainbow kitchen, a soup kitchen feeding the working poor, and street community.
I really dedicate this post to Chris Heuertz, his writing, his passion for Jesus, and his Kingdom have really influenced me over the past few years. Thank you, for words that encouraged me to be bold, to grasp that mustard seed of faith and plant it in the brokenness of my neighborhood.
For me faith has always been a mystery, a journey over the topography of my mind, heart and soul. But, it does stay there it moves me into the broken, and shard pieces of the world around me. So this is where I am. I have left the church, to find the church. Many of my friends do not understand this. They are caught up in Sunday morning…that I have somehow forsaken the assembly of the saints, the singing of spiritual songs, and teaching. Some more critical, that I have lost my way…that I have engaged the slippery slope of losing my faith altogether.
Perhaps, it’s best if I give you a glimpse of my church. It begins somewhere around 2:00pm on Sunday afternoon. A group of 3-4 people gather in a small garage in the high Quadra area of Victoria. It’s a our warehouse where we store our supplies for CARTS. I envision it almost being a sanctuary, because in a sense, it’s here we prepare our sacraments for the journey through Victoria’s inner city streets. I like the thought of a sacrament being religious symbol or often a offering which conveys divine grace, blessing, or sanctity upon the person who participates in it, or a tangible symbol which represents an intangible reality. Or more, it’s the radical scandalous love of God, the redemptive imagination of holiness being justice, and righteousness as God turning the table upside down putting things right in the perspective of his Kingdom.
So what are the sacraments we prepare; it’s underware, men’s and womens; it’s bags of socks; it’s personal packs; it’s touques, mitts, gloves and scarves; it’s ponchos; bibles; it’s fruit, baking, gallons of hot chocolate, sandwiches, cookies, candy.
Some may ask, how are these sacraments? I ask you to let your mind, heart and soul wander into the words of Jesus found in Matthew 25…
When I was hungry, you gave me something to eat, and when I was thirsty, you gave me something to drink. When I was a stranger, you welcomed me, and when I was naked, you gave me clothes to wear. When I was sick, you took care of me, and when I was in jail, you visited me.”
Then the ones who pleased the Lord will ask, “When did we give you something to eat or drink? When did we welcome you as a stranger or give you clothes to wear or visit you while you were sick or in jail?”
Jesus will answer, “Whenever you did it for any of my people, no matter how unimportant they seemed, you did it for me.”
Our service begins, in the vicinity of Queen’s and Douglas Street. Anywhere from 8, to 24 people gather to organize, fill and pull carts.This afternoon its about 2 degrees Celsius,the rain is a mix of snow…almost being hit by a slushy. Across the street we see our friends, our community beginning to gather. They huddle under neath the second floor balcony of Victoria’s solution to social housing, the in need of renovation, ” Traveller’s Inn.” Standing at the edge of the intersection, we wait for a gap in the traffic. They wave at us, we return the wave, making a mad dash across in the intersection…CARTS in tow. Immediately, a middle aged first nations woman embraces me, she hugs me, she kisses me on the cheek. Suddenly from now where an image floods my mind…
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
I am overwhelmed by love…am I the prodigal son, and this first nations woman, struggling with addiction, with poverty, with oppression all the injustice in her world. Is she Jesus? I look at her, she looks at me…we laugh.
We give out the clothing, the food, the hot chocolate…and the wet cold rain continues to fall. But there is warmth that is kindled in this community that seems to push away the cold. There is the constant chatter of conversation, sharing stories, smiles, and hugs. They know, and we know, our community is more than just here… that we must move to visit the rest. We say our thanks, our goodbyes and we move along Douglas into the inner city.
We move a few blocks, and underneath the cover of a run down vacant gas station a man sits on the steps working on his bike. He is wet, cold, filthy and smells…this is the fragrance of broken humanity. This is the incense that attracted jesus…the offering he found wholly acceptable. We stop to see how he’s doing, offer food, a hot drink, socks…a blessings. Our rag tag gang of ragamuffins moves on towards Centennial Square…to the epicenter of Victoria’s political power. There again our community has gathered under a covered space below the mayor’s office, and council chambers. Again, it is the simplicity of community, conversation, stories, chatter, laughter, hugs, handshakes, pats on the back…there is a profound sense of communion, man and God at table…
The servant came back and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’
Sir,’ the servant said, ‘what you ordered has been done, but there is still room.
“Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full.
To my pleasant surprise, giving out hot chocolate I see a friend I haven’t seen since the parking lot behind Capitol Six. He has severe health problems, a constant battle with hepatitis, and HIV. But tonight he is animated, so excited and happy to see us. Again, more hugs and stories, and catching up on all the missing spaces of life.
Just before we leave, we have a prayer circle. I think to myself…this is so ironic. Here we are with Victoria’s inner city community, the homeless, the poor, the addicts, the mentally ill. This small circle of seemingly insignificance, of the powerless and the voiceless…huddled under the political power brokers of the city. It is so…Kingdom.
Before we start there is a testimony from the inner city community…he is overwhelmed. He shares about his discovery of Jesus about a year ago. He exudes with joy…tears flow. He tells us of learning how to love people…how much he loves people. Al shares a beautiful prayer of compassion, grace, mercy, love and protection for our friends, our community. There is profound peace, and silence and we move off.
It has been busy here a contant stream of people. Once everyone has got what they need, it’s time to move again to Johnson Street to the Salvation Army Shelter. Again they are waiting for us. It is a repeat of the other stops.
Supplies are running low, and the church service is coming to an end. We have one last stop… the ” Needle Exchange Van.”
We move along Johnson, and in the distance I see a young woman standing at an intersection. The light changes a few times, she dose not cross…she does not move. She’s waiting…waiting for someone to stop. We arrive at the intersection, she smiles at me, I at her. I know her…I’ve seen her many times. Another image floods my mind…could she be the prostitute that anointed Jesus feet, and washed them with her tears. I wonder…and am filled with compassion, a profound sense of worship.
We arrive and there is two young men getting crack pipes, and soda. There eyes brighen up when they see the bananas and cookies we leave at the van. They fill there pockets and love off into the darkness of the night.
We are now back to where we started the church service is over, the van is packed up. In the distance we hear a voice, ” Carts, is that you.” We have nothing left really. She is living rough on the street…it is wet, and cold. We dig around, we find some polar fleece jackets, some rain gear. She leaves happy that she has something to keep her warm.
Following Jesus has made a profound difference in my faith. My beliefs have changed, my theology has changed. My life, my thinking orbits around the mystery the God-person, Jesus. His divine graviational pull continues to draw me in. The gospels have become a have become the map in which I navigate life. No matter how many times I read it, in the contours of its topography I am blown away by the redemptive imagination that I continue to find. As dangerous, as wild, as scandalous as the words, the life of Jesus is…if we dared embrace it, dared live it as Jesus did. I can only imagine…Father your Kingdom come; on earth as in Heaven. As Jesus lived his life, the Kingdom would be here, now.
Following Jesus has taken the leash of my faith, caused me to run wild…church will never be the same for me.