Two Canadas

two canadas

Every week, our community gathers for a shared meal. We are made up of staff, volunteers, newly-arrived refugee claimant families living in community with one another in the share space of the welcome houses, and families who have already moved out and are in various stages of establishing themselves in Canada.  Someone volunteers to cook, and we indulge in Kurdish or Afghan or Congolese food, getting to know each other a bit better by experiencing the smells and flavors that the cooks for that week have grown up with.

It’s getting late on a Tuesday night, and the crowd is thinning out. My friend has come to community dinner after an early morning and a long day at work, but he stays to wash dishes anyway. As we stand together at the sink, scrubbing and rinsing the plates and glasses, I ask him how work is going. He works in the most impoverished part of Vancouver, known locally as the Downtown East Side. This diverse neighborhood is home to some vibrant and inspiring communities, full of people whose stories of creativity and resilience would take your breath away.  Paradoxically, it is also a place where issues of drug addiction, homelessness, and street prostitution are concentrated and contained in the middle of what is otherwise known as one of the “most livable” cities in the world. It’s the same neighborhood where Andy and I lived with the Servants community for six months when we first arrived in Canada, and it’s currently the epicenter of BC’s fentanyl crisis.

Fentanyl is an opioid 100 times stronger than morphine, and it has become so common in the street drugs sold and consumed in the Downtown East Side that 80% of the street drugs tested in a recent study were laced with it. This means that on a daily basis, the desperate people turning to drugs to cope with their pain and trauma—such as sexually exploited women, abused foster children who have aged out of care, and people with chronic, untreated mental illness—are now at higher risk of losing their lives, because the same dosage of heroin, cocaine, or crystal meth that would have merely provided a short period of euphoric escape in the past is now likely to deal a death blow. Overdose deaths are nothing new in Vancouver, but the result of fentanyl’s proliferation has been such a sharp increase in overdose deaths across BC (922 in 2016 alone) that our provincial health officer has declared a public health emergency, and the province has urged the federal government to do the same.

My friend’s job has made the crisis personal. He’s been trained to use Narcan, an opiate antidote that works as an emergency treatment for overdoses by blocking the effects of opiates on the brain. During one of his shifts, he found a man in the street who had overdosed on an opiate laced with fentanyl, and he saved the man’s life by injecting him with naloxone and waiting with him until an ambulance arrived.

My friend tells me about the sense of fulfillment he gets from being part of a community at work that is building people up, and the happiness he feels in seeing people make progress in their lives as a result of the care and respect they’ve been shown. He reflects on the anger he feels about the government’s complacency in responding to the fentanyl crisis, and the way that the down-and-out people he sees in the neighborhood are robbed of their dignity in a million different ways on a daily basis. He even reflects on the similarity between the indifference of the wealthier people he sees interacting with homeless people in the Downtown East Side, and the privileged obliviousness with which he once lived his life in his home country—before he lost everything, before his family sought asylum on the other side of the world, before they entered into temporary poverty and into the stressful process of waiting for The Powers That Be to decide their fate in a hearing room.

I am moved by my friend’s compassion; by the fact that instead of losing himself in anger or despair over the injustice that he himself is experiencing, he is instead choosing to throw himself into the hard work of confronting suffering, building relationships, and doing what he can to make the world a better place. My friend hails from a country that has been torn apart by war. He and his family were forced to flee their home under threat of death, and so far, they have experienced the refugee protection system here in Canada as an unresponsive bureaucracy that is yet to grant them protection or provide any promise of permanence or safety. (So much depends on the subjective assessment of the particular human being assigned to decide your case, the potential ignorance or inflexibility of the system, or how well or poorly your lawyer does their job…)

Yet instead of feeling self-pity, what my friend feels is a sense of righteous anger on behalf of all those who are unjustly suffering in our society. “You get very tired, but at the same time there is something pushing you,” he explains, speaking of his sense that God strengthens and inspires him to continue being present with people around him who are in difficult circumstances.

We discuss the idea that there are actually two Canadas: one inhabited by wealthy people who can choose to go about their lives without ever facing the brutal realities of poverty, addiction, and injustice in their country, and another inhabited by marginalized people like the ones my friend meets at work. He views the world of the Downtown East Side as the more honest one because the people he’s gotten to know there are so real. “There’s no fakeness,” he explains. “If I had to choose between the two,” my friend states with conviction, “I would choose to stay with those guys [in the Downtown East Side].”

Tears spring to my eyes as I realize that in the solidarity my Muslim friend describes, I am encountering the heart of Christ. I realize that, in the relatively brief time that he has lived in this country—with precarious status, no less—my friend has engaged more fully with Canadian society than the majority of people who have lived here their entire lives without ever having to justify their presence within these borders. I realize that this man’s life challenges me to embody the ideals that I myself profess but so easily fall short of living out. My friend is a refugee, but that label doesn’t even come close to capturing who he really is.

I pray for the day when my friend’s family will be allowed to officially call this place home, the day the beauty of their lives and contributions will be recognized and welcomed, and the day that my friend’s longings for justice will be fulfilled.

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Glimpses of the Kingdom

This is the second week of Advent, the season of waiting for Christ to come to us in the midst of our darkness. Having spent the last several years getting to know people in poverty and on the margins of society, I am pretty much constantly aware of that darkness, and it is sometimes easy to lose sight of the light altogether. That’s why I want to hold onto any glimpses I catch of the kingdom slowly but surely breaking in, and I want to share a few of them here.

I recently completed a three-month volunteer training with Battered Women’s Support Services here in Vancouver, where my fellow trainees were a group of brave women with beautiful, compassionate hearts. Most of those women don’t identify as people of faith, but I felt the presence of God in the midst of the safe and loving community we built together. That strong sense of community was absolutely vital during the twelve intense weeks we spent staring injustice and violence in the face and sharing some very raw pieces of our own stories.  Exploring the ugliness of the world with a bunch of people who are committed to doing something about it helps keep my hope alive, and reminds me that there is strength in our shared vulnerability as human beings.

I’ve now begun fielding calls on the crisis line. From police to hospitals to courts, it’s been sobering to realize how often the systems that have been set up to protect the vulnerable actually let people slip through the cracks–or worse, further traumatize and isolate them. Sometimes, people struggling with mental health issues are given criminal records instead of help. Sometimes women are arrested for defending themselves against abusive partners while the men who batter them go free. I know this now, not only through statistics or reading articles or listening to experts talk about it, but from speaking to these women on the phone.  All too often, factors such as race, income level, and immigration status determine whether or not a woman will get the help she needs.

Volunteering with BWSS has been a steep learning curve, and the stories of violence and abuse that I have been hearing over the phone are heartbreaking. Yet I also feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the chance to support these brave, resilient women in resisting violence and pursuing lives of dignity and safety.  I am humbled by their tenacity in working against staggering odds to reclaim their own identities and the lives and to heal from trauma.

In other news, I’ve just landed my first paid job in Canada! Yesterday, I accepted a position working directly with refugee claimants: people who have fled their countries of origin because of violence or persecution based on their race, religion, nationality, political opinions or membership in a particular social group. In contrast to privately-sponsored or government-assisted refugees, refugee claimants undertake their dangerous journey without knowing whether or not they will be granted asylum when they reach their destination. They often face detention upon arrival, and the months-long refugee claims process that follows can be a stressful and scary time while claimants struggle to navigate an unfamiliar system, gather evidence for their case, and wait for their fate to be decided by the powers that be.

My job will bring me into contact with families at all stages of this process, but my main responsibility will be to support those whose refugee claims have recently been approved, journeying alongside them as they begin the process of integrating into the local community and helping them to find employment.

I start tomorrow, and I can’t wait. In the face of all the violence and hateful rhetoric lately, I am beyond thrilled to be able to extend the welcome of Christ to refugee claimants from around the world—Muslim and otherwise—who have come to this country seeking safety. I look forward to all of the beautiful people I will meet, and to all the ways they are sure to challenge and humble me and force me to grow, causing me to see more (and differently) than I did before.

I give thanks for every step a woman takes towards freedom and safety. I give thanks for every refugee’s safe arrival, and every successful application for asylum.  I celebrate every small victory for justice in our world, and I recognize Christ’s coming in our midst. Still, I wait impatiently in the dark, willing these pin-prick stars to turn into daylight.

God, be born in our hearts. In our fractured world, let us be the midwives of goodness and truth coming into being.

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Good News to the Poor: What I Learned From an 80-year-old Nun in India.

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During the time I lived in the slum, I sometimes interacted with other Christians who viewed Muslims as spiritual projects. They were confused about why I would choose to live with people in poverty and/or people of another religion for any reason other than to use cloak-and-dagger evangelism to convert them.  If I responded that following Jesus compelled me to love my neighbors and seek to work for justice alongside them, other Christians sometimes concluded that all that neighborly love must be a way of warming up the crowd for the REAL message of Jesus later, and it seemed impossible to explain that–as far as I was concerned–love, justice, community, and belonging in God’s family WERE the message.

At a time when these sorts of conversations had left me feeling discouraged and misunderstood, I met an octogenarian nun with a crinkly face and a compassionate heart. Her understanding of my strange life was a much-needed comfort at the time, and to this day I continue to unpack the wisdom she shared with me in our conversations under the neem trees.  This month, I got to write about my friendship with her in an online article for Plough Quarterly. Here’s an excerpt:

“There were the unjust laws and corrupt officials. There was drought and impoverished soil in the villages our neighbors hailed from, where fields could not be endlessly subdivided between generations of sons. The education and healthcare systems were inadequate. And among those we got to know, malnutrition, family cycles of violence, and psychological trauma all took their toll. Generations of discrimination too often meant that people in poverty didn’t expect much from themselves.

We were discouraged not only by the enormity of the problems faced by our neighbors, but also by the church’s failure to respond. Of the local Christians with whom we interacted, many seemed focused on a “spiritual” agenda – gathering adherents – though to be sure, they had material concerns as well: maintaining historical church buildings and air-conditioned auditoriums…”

Head on over to Plough to read the rest!

 

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When I think of Muslims, this is who comes to mind.

The most frequent command in Christian scripture is, “Do not be afraid.” The New Testament even presents fear being the opposite of love, stating bluntly that “perfect love casts out fear.” At first glance, this may seem a surprising idea, but on closer inspection it makes perfect sense. Fear propels us to act first and ask questions later; to reason carelessly; to prioritize self-preservation over compassion. Fear can make us irrational, destructive, violent. When we experience terror, we are often willing to scapegoat or accuse or punish anyone if we believe that doing so will bring our unbearable terror to an end. We become obsessed with restoring our sense of safety and comfort as quickly as possible, and all other concerns can easily take a backseat to that one, compelling priority.

Two nights ago, I dreamt that I was back in the slum in India, hanging out with some of the women and girls I know there. Frequently over the past year, I’ve had realistic dreams about visiting my friends’ homes, eating and talking with them, but this time it was different—the next morning, my former teammate (who is still there) emailed to say that he had visited our old neighborhood and that many of the people there had asked about Andy and me and passed along their greetings to us. He had likely been talking with them at the same time that I was dreaming about them.

In the wake of the Paris attacks, my friends in India are on my mind a lot. Every time someone makes an ignorant generalization accusing all Muslims of being terrorists, I think of the generous and hospitable families in the slum who welcomed me into their lives. I think of the children suffering malnutrition and forced into tedious labor instead at a young age instead of being able to attend school. I think of their parents’ struggles with illiteracy, unemployment, and prejudice from the majority of society. I think about how they could do without any more obstacles placed in the way of living dignified, healthy lives, and I worry about the ways that negatives stereotypes and hatred toward Muslims will affect their lives.

I learned so much from my Muslim neighbors about compassion, loyalty, hope—and, yes, faith. They accepted me into their community despite the fact that we came from different races, different cultures, and different religions. When I remember the risk they took in choosing to get to know me as a person instead of allowing stereotypes to keep me at arm’s length, I can’t help but feel anger at the injustice of others in the West allowing stereotypes of Muslims to erase the humanity of my friends and neighbors in India.

But these are not the only people on my mind. I also think of my refugee friends here in Vancouver. One of them is a young woman from Afghanistan who was forced to flee her country with two young children to keep them all alive. Her daughter, little more than a year old, is nearly the same age as two of my beloved nieces/goddaughters in the United States.

If her case were being handled the way that refugee claims are in my home state of Texas, then she and her children would not be accessing counseling, supportive community, and legal aid to help them cope with the crisis they are in—instead, they would have already been sitting in prison for several months without access to a lawyer, and they would now be looking forward to indefinite detention with no one to help them.

If some of my friends on Facebook had their way, then this vulnerable family would not have even been allowed into North America because they are Muslim. Possibly, they would already be dead.

I think about all of these dear friends every time I hear or read about Muslims being cast as a single, monolithic group characterized by violence. I think about the real people that so many of us are eager to condemn, but whose faces we have never seen, whose stories we have never heard, and whose lives we are willing to hastily cast aside in pursuit of the idol of our own “security.”

The young men playing love songs on their cell phones and flying kites on the roof in my neighborhood in India, my friends’ babies learning to walk and talk, giggly teenage girls walking to school, grief-stricken parents who will risk anything–even a dangerous voyage across an ocean in an inflatable raft–to save their children’s lives: these are all Muslims. Perhaps if we could recognize our own hopes and fears in them instead of directing our fear against them, we would be able to see them for who they really are.

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photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/37890481@N04/6174828711″>Bangladesh, Ramadan 2011.</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/”>(license)</a>

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Choosing Love Over Fear When It Comes to the Refugee Crisis

Palestinian refugees in Damascus at Yarmouk camp, 2014

Yesterday I wrote a blog for the Huffington Post about what it means to respond as Christians to the plight of Syrian refugees.

This week, I’ve continued to read news stories about the refugee crisis–a crisis which had been unfolding for quite sometime before the Syrian civil war produced enough refugees and enough shocking images at one time to awaken our collective conscience. I attended a town hall meeting here in Vancouver last Tuesday where I learned that despite that bloody civil war and the expanding empire of ISIL, the vast majority of the world’s refugees still come from Africa rather than the  Middle East. At Kinbrace, I’ve also spent time talking with refugees and refugee claimants from Ethiopia, Nepal, Iran, Afghanistan, and other countries, and their stories remind me that even in places that don’t make the headlines, millions of people fear for their lives every day because of oppressive government regimes and armed conflict.

These stories fill me with sadness, but also with frustration and anger over the way that many of us in the West have allowed fear to prevent us from extending compassion to those who are in urgent need of our help. Hungary has now closed its borders to Syrians fleeing the conflict, and the government is arresting those who deem an illegal crossing their best bet for survival. Refugees continue to drown in the Mediterranean as “Fortress Europe” deliberately refuses to help as a matter of official policy, in order to deter further immigration. But those who are desperate enough to risk the lives of themselves and their children on the rag-tag dinghies of human smugglers will not be deterred from making these deadly voyages, because they clearly have no choice. These journeys are their last hope: either they risk losing their lives, or lose them for sure by staying where they are.

Many in Europe are afraid that the influx of Muslims will threaten the “Christian identity” of Europe, but as Giles Fraser so starkly pointed out in an article for the Guardian newspaper on September 4, the Christian identity of Europe is threatened not by Muslims, but by Christian politicians who refuse to live out the Biblical mandate to welcome the stranger and care for the oppressed.

And what about North America? Canada welcomed 19,233 government assisted refugees in 1980, but that number has plummeted to just 6,900 in 2015. Furthermore, despite the government’s promise to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees over 3 years, Canada has settled just over 1,000 Syrians so far. Meanwhile, the United States has taken in fewer than 1,000. So far, we North Americans haven’t shown ourselves to be any more hospitable than Europe.

Another security concern that has been raised is the possibility of terrorists slipping in amongst the flood of legitimate refugees seeking asylum. Security experts have already addressed the unlikelihood of this happening. Yet few people have talked about the way that welcoming refugees from Muslim countries actually offers our nations an opportunity to address the root causes of terrorism: poverty, lack of opportunity, traumatization and loss of loved ones in conflict zones, and hatred of the West due to foreign policy and military interventions which negatively impact Muslim civilians in the Middle East. This is a chance to show genuine love and concern to our Muslim neighbors, and to provide a secure future for exactly the kind of children who might otherwise be at risk for radicalization by opportunistic terrorist organizations who prey upon those who are impoverished and discontented.

As citizens of a world increasingly interconnected by economic ties, military involvement, and technology, the refugee crisis is not some distant issue from which we can pretend to be entirely separate. The current situation forces us to confront our political and military contribution to the crisis, and challenges those of us who follow Jesus to live out some of the core tenets of our faith.

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Encountering the Enemy

encountering the enemy

illustration by Seth T. Hayne for CAPC Magazine

I wrote this piece awhile back, but today my feature article for Christ and Pop Culture Magazine–on nurturing peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through film–has been made available  for free.

At a moment in history where more people around the world have been displaced by violent conflict than ever before, now is the time to ask ourselves hard questions about our role in cultivating conflict or peace. Now is the time to question the narratives we tell ourselves about war, vengeance, “redemptive” violence, and enemies. The same ignorance and fear that generates war in the Middle East and Africa and pushes refugees to the shores of Europe and North America also plays out in our own society as alienation between people of different races or faiths, and as destructive relationships between individual people. Forgiveness of others’ sin, and repentance for our own, are both central to the Christian faith. So for those of us who seek to be shaped by the life of Jesus, enemy love and reconciliation should be central to our understanding of our role in the world.

As a Jew, Reena Lazar has worked towards reconciliation in Israel/Palestine by finding creative ways to bring Israeli and Palestinian youth face-to-face with “the enemy” (each other). Yet the wisdom she has accumulated in the process is applicable far beyond the scope of this particular geopolitical conflict.  Her work has much to teach us about building bridges instead of walls, regardless of the role or the part of the world in which we find ourselves. Head on over to Christ and Pop Culture to read the article.

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Lessons from Ramazan

arabic script

 

Today I have the chance to share some of the things I learned from my Muslim neighbors in India about life and faith in a guest post for the Missio Alliance blog. Writing about the experience of observing Ramazan and celebrating Eid with my friends in the slum brings back memories of breathtakingly difficult and beautiful times spent with wonderful people. I am so thankful for everything they have taught me, and for the ways that their friendship continues to shape my journey with Jesus.  Head over to MissioAlliance.org to read the post!

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Ramazan and Eid

          We decided to try the fast that first day of Ramazan, just to see what it was like for our neighbors. We set our alarms to wake up at 2:45 am, early enough to make breakfast and eat before the first azan, or call to prayer, reverberates through the the pre-dawn darkness and everyone stops eating or drinking anything for the next 16 hours—until the fourth call to prayer ends the fast a little after 7 pm. It was difficult to do, especially in such hot, muggy weather. We’re used to feeling hungry from time to time, but the most intense thing was the thirst. I was amazed by the way that our neighbors—and especially the women—go about their same routine of housework all day without food or water: scrubbing their family’s clothes, making food for small children or working men in their household who aren’t fasting, hauling water for cooking, bathing, and laundry, walking out in the sun to buy vegetables at the market.

Then, in the early afternoon, preparations begin for aftar (or iftar), the fast-breaking snacks that everyone eats in the evening before going to pray namaz and later having dinner. I spent hours at my friend’s house learning how to make the chana (spicy chickpeas), pakori (onions deep-fried in spicy chickpea flour), tamarind chutney, papar (deep-fried potato chips), and sarbat (lemonade) that people eat at iftar, along with fruit and dates and other tasty snacks. That evening, another family invited us to come over and break the fast with them. The mother of the family waited patiently for the azan, lost in silent prayer, while the younger children restlessly awaited the voice over the loudspeaker that would signal it was time to dig in.  The call rose from the nearest minaret in melodic Arabic, “God is great…” and along with the thousands of others sitting together in their own houses throughout the community, we broke our fast with a date, then lemonade, fruit, and all the deep-fried goodness on the plates in front of us.

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aftar (“iftar” in Arabic), fast-breaking food

          We haven’t fasted since that first day, but we have continued to be welcomed into the celebration of aftar with our neighbors. We’ve tried our hand at making a few pakori ourselves, and we’ve run around delivering fruit and pakori to different families as they send plates of their homemade aftar to our house.

One night, we were invited to the home of a wealthy Muslim lawyer who lives nearby our slum and invites anyone who wants to come—mostly poor people from our community—to eat aftar, biryani, and sweets at his house. Despite our not having fasted and our complete ignorance of how to pray namaz, we were welcomed to eat, to watch, and to talk. That open feast for the poor reminded us a bit of the kind of party Jesus describes in Luke 14:12-14.  Right after that grand feast, we had the experience of breaking the fast in a more humble setting with friends of ours who hadn’t made aftar most nights at all because of the expense. We chipped in supplies and they did most of the cooking, teaching me how to make even more kinds of ramazan treats. I love the patience and the devotion to God, the sacrificial hospitality, and the vigor of celebration that I saw in the way my neighbors observe Ramazan.

          After a full month of fasting came three days of celebration: Eid. In preparation, everyone cleaned their homes from floor to ceiling, painted their houses in bold colors, and decorated with shiny paper with designs cut into it. The women stayed up all night preparing simai (a sugary dessert), pulki (a spicy yogurt curry), and mattar (peas—also spicy), and on that first day everyone dons expensive new clothes and goes out visiting one another, dressed to the hilt. Andy and I ate in fourteen different homes that first day alone, which made us feel very included and happy—but also VERY full, and a bit sick from the ridiculous blood sugar spike that so many servings of simai brought on!
On the second day, we participated in another Eid tradition: big family outings to different parks and attractions around the city. We went with a large family to the zoo, and since one of the sons in the family makes his living as an auto rickshaw driver, all 13 of us piled into his auto for the half-hour trip!  The zoo was, well, a zoo—that’s really the best way to describe the atmosphere of noisy crowds packed in everywhere.  I think at least a hundred other people from our slum must have been there; we ran into people we knew everywhere. It was a lot of fun to go around to all of the different exhibits with these incredibly excited kids (and excited parents) who had never been to a zoo in their lives and were fascinated by each new creature.
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This is what the back seat looks like when you fit 13 people in an auto rickshaw.

 

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Holiday crowd at the zoo

 

          Eid is one of the few times that families in our community get a day off to do something fun together, and the zoo is one of the few fun places in the city that is cheap enough for almost anyone to afford, so we weren’t really all that surprised to see how crowded it was. We were a bit taken aback, though, to see how a giant playground inside the zoo drew even bigger crowds than the animal exhibits—and by the fact that most of the people making use of the equipment were teenage and adult men!
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That is one intense line for the slide.

 

          The third day of Eid was thankfully a bit more low-key, although house-to-house visiting and simai consumption continued. We’re glad to have been able to share another important cultural experience with our friends here, but also tired enough to be happy that all the celebration is over!
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