'These people are our friends'

A Downtown Eastside church preaches the Gospel more with action than with words

Douglas Todd
Vancouver Sun

Monday, June 02, 2003

It was Rev. Ruth Wright's first week in charge of First United Church in Vancouver's shell-shocked Downtown Eastside. Staff were waking up the homeless people they permit to sleep under blankets in the sanctuary's pews during the day, because it's too dangerous for them to sleep on the streets at night.

CREDIT:Glen Baglo, Vancouver Sun

Volunteer Karli Bereska prepares a foot bath on Friday for needy people at First United Church on East Hastings as part of the church's outreach.

One man, however, wouldn't arise. At 32 years of age, he was dead.

After spending the early part of her career in refined academia, Wright realized more than ever on that day six years ago that she had committed herself to a mission that needs to use totally different rules of engagement to heal a harsh world.

First United staff have long realized the Downtown Eastside's dramatically bad (and worsening) situation needed bold and innovative responses -- some of which might have never before been tried on the continent.

During more than 70 years of remarkable ministry to the many walking wounded of the Downtown Eastside, First United has pushed the envelope of what it means to do God's mission. It's not lost on First United that Jesus embraced society's outcasts.

Recently, Wright and Rev. Brian Burke, the congregation's two clergy out of a staff of 17, were threatening that First United would set up its own safe-injection site for intravenous drug users, because governments appeared to be dragging their heels on the promise of one.

"We've watched too many people die not to support something that will keep people alive until they're ready for treatment," Burke asays. "We don't support drugs, but we also don't support dying. We can't help but care. These people are our friends."

First Church's vision is to provide something more than charity for the 18,500 people in the Downtown Eastside, the vast majority of whom live under the poverty line, 5,000 of whom are addicted and many more mentally and physically disabled.

Instead, staff talk of social change, empowering those with no power and creating community in the nation's poorest neighbourhood, which happens to lie in the most expensive city in the country.

First United's non-sanctimonious, non-proselytizing attitude led it to establish almost two decades ago the country's first drop-in for female prostitutes. Now, under the auspices of WISH (Women's Information Safe House), roughly 100 sex workers gather at First United Church six nights a week -- to eat a hot meal, drink the church's endless supply of coffee, take advantage of a needle-exchange program and generally support each other in a hassle-free atmosphere.

The church's concern for the female minority in the Downtown Eastside is one of the reasons its clergy were among the first to push hard for Vancouver police to put more effort into resolving the cases of more than 50 missing women from the area. Port Coquitlam pig farmer Robert Pickton was charged last year with murdering 15 of them.

Noting poor women (and men) can't survive on the B.C. government's shrinking welfare cheque of $517 a month and harder-to-obtain disability payments, Wright says more females than ever have been showing up in recent months to get their only safe sleep in First United's pews.

When it's not pressing for justice for the disenfranchised, First United is offering a biblically inspired therapy. Just as Jesus expressed his equality with humanity by washing the feet of followers, volunteers come to First United twice a week to cleanse the battered feet of people who must wear ill-fitting second-hand shoes as they trudge Vancouver's wet streets.

"Feet problems are a major issue in the Downtown Eastside. But the real emphasis is not on washing feet. It's a great chance to give someone undivided attention and listen to their stories," Wright says inside the angular church edifice at the gritty corner of Hastings and Gore, which opens its bruised doors to about 1,000 people a day.

In their attempt to honour the beleaguered, First United Church also adopts a different attitude from some other Christian missions in the area, such as The Salvation Army and Union Gospel, which typically require clients to sit through a church service before getting a free meal.

"We don't ask people to sing for their suppers," says Burke.

And unlike many service agencies in the neighbourhood, First United, in keeping with its non-prudish approach, also allows clients to come in who are intoxicated -- as long as they're respectful.

In addition, the church doesn't offer big Christmas dinners. Since other organizations devote a lot of effort and publicity to that extravaganza, First United instead focusses on providing hot free meals in the dismal months of January and February, when food is more urgently needed.

What other inventive programs run at First United?

- It was the first to offer paralegal "advocates" to help bewildered clients deal with a maze of health, disability, workers' compensation, housing and employment bureaucracies.

- It provides a "safe-mail site" where thousands of people a year pick up cheques and GST rebates that might otherwise be stolen from run-down hotel lobbies.

- It hands emergency groceries to a rapidly expanding client list of 7,000.

- As well as free clothes, it gives out toiletries (deodorant, for example, is a luxury most can't afford).

All this and more is accomplished on an annual budget of $1.3 million, almost all of which comes from individual donors. Although Palmer Jarvis advertising agency recently donated ads to highlight the church's mission (see or phone 681-8365), the church doesn't do organized fund-raising. Financing remains a perennial struggle.

Still, the work goes on, quietly, under the public radar -- in deeds, not self-congratulation. Each morning at a worship service staff remind themselves they are called to "walk with justice, walk with mercy, walk with God's humble care."

I like the way Burke puts it, "We preach the Gospel 24 hours a day. Occasionally we use words." 

 Copyright  2003 Vancouver Sun



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