Sunday, March 25, 2012

Following Jesus Into The Downtown Eastside

"Whoever closes his ear to the cry of the poor will himself call out and not be answered."  
- Proverbs 21:13, ESV

"By this we know love, that He laid down His life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers...Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth." 
- 1 John 3:16, 18, ESV

    Since the experience of my last post, I have found myself spending a lot of time over the last two days in prayer and meditation, trying to understand what is happening to me. I feel as if several significant things are slowly but surely stirring in my heart, accompanied by a great contemplative silence in the presence of God with a longing for sanctification and holiness. In the midst of this time of prayer that I'm still pursuing, I felt the prompting and leading of the Holy Spirit to go into the one area of Vancouver that I have heard much about since first arriving here, but never dared to traverse thus far - the Downtown Eastside.

   Vancouver's Downtown Eastside (DTES), titled "Canada's poorest postal code" by The Dominion Newspaper [1] is an area spanning a few blocks, and one of it's oldest neighbourhoods. In addition to being a victim of urban decay, it is also one of its most destitute, inflicted with a high incidence of poverty, alcoholism, drug usage, the sex trade, violent crime, and the highest HIV infection rate in North America. Till today, my encounters with it had only been from an insulated, sanitized distance - newspaper reports, and the secure, air conditioned interior of the #135 transit bus that I'd taken numerous times from SFU to downtown, passing along Hastings street in the middle of the neighbourhood. 

   And so it happened following God's prompting through His Spirit, that today afternoon I drove downtown after running some errands, parked some distance away from the DTES and walked the several city blocks that led straight into it. I felt nervous, never having been into a neighbourhood like this in all the time that I've been in Canada so far. But trusting God's call, I followed Him all the way to the heart of the DTES -  East Hastings and Main streets, which has acquired a reputation for being an "open-air market" for drugs.

   It was early afternoon and although the sunshine and warmth of spring has begun to move into the Lower Mainland over the last few days, the air was still cool when I got there. Nonetheless, there was no mistaking or avoiding the stale smell that hung in the air - unwashed bodies and clothing, alchohol, cigarette smoke and the telltale occasional whiff of smoked marajuana that I have learned to identify after moving to BC. But it wasn't so much the smell that caught my attention as I walked along the blocks towards Hastings and Main streets - it was the people - multitudes of them, lining the sidewalks.

     I was struck by how many of them were using walking aids - wheelchairs, crutches and braces, both the reasonably young as well as the old. A number of others limped by with difficulty, including one native Indian man with a vacant expression expression in his eyes, clutching an almost empty Cocoa-Cola bottle. Many others stood aimlessly against the walls or in front of entrances to buildings, with their only possessions in suitcases, garbage bags or shopping carts. I passed a rather skimpily clad lady who seemed to be trying to pour some liquid into what looked like a whiskey bottle. There were several small groups of people along the sidewalk, huddled together trying to buy, sell, trade or exchange random things - appliances, clothes, odds and ends. Others slept in makeshift shelters or on the sidewalk in sleeping bags or blankets. Most of the storefronts had a look of dank decrepitude, and almost all of them without exception had barred windows and doors. I passed by elderly chinese man, bent over and holding on to a walking stick, receiving in his open palm what looked like white pills being shaken out of  an unlabelled prescription bottle by another man. I didn't stop to take a closer look, just kept walking along at as steady a pace as I could.

   After arriving at the intersection of Hastings and Main streets, I was surveying the sight of the neighbourhood when a short middle-aged woman passed, carrying her possessions in two black garbage bags and trying to cross at the traffic lights. "Careful what you're looking at or doing around here, baby", she said. "Somebody gets upset, and they might kill you. Heck, I've felt like doing it myself to other people a few times." I nodded silently. She kept going and crossed the pedestrian crossing, talking to herself. Crossing the adjacent sidewalk to the opposite side of the street, I started heading back in the opposite direction. 

   The scene didn't look too different on that side of the road. I hadn't gone to far when I happened to pass by a young boy and girl heading in the opposite direction along the sidewalk. Seeing me, the boy stepped in my direction, waved his palm towards my face and said "hey, good-looking Chindian!", and then carried on walking up the street. "Chindian" is a slang expression for someone of mixed Indian and Chinese descent. I was startled for a bit, wondering what made him think that I possessed Chinese heritage, but kept walking. Looking across the street, I saw a building with "Potter's Place Mission" written on the board at its front. I remembered two friends of mine during my time at SFU - Steve and Kitty (who are now engaged) serving at a soup kitchen and homeless shelter on Hastings by that name, run by Korean missionaries. I concluded that it must have been the same place, and made a mental note of it for later.

     Having roamed around the DTES and on my way headed back out, Ifelt my heart beginning to break for the broken lives, mental, physical, emotional and spiritual lostness that I was seeing around me. I suddenly remembered the words of a passage from the Old Testament book of Isaiah that had been the topic of a bible study session in a small group that I used to attend last year. In His indictment and proclamation of judgement against the hypocrisy, injustice and indifference that was rampant in ancient Israel, God had this to say:

"Is not this the fast that I choose:
  to loose the bonds of wickedness,
  to undo the straps of the yoke,
  to let the oppressed go free,
  and to break every yoke?

  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
   and to bring the homeless poor into your house;
   when you see the naked, to cover him,
   and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?

  Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
  and your healing shall spring up speedily;
   your righteousness shall go before you;
  the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.

   Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
    you shall cry, and He will say, 'Here I am.'
   If you take away the yoke from your midst,
    the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
   If you pour yourself out for the hungry
   and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
   Then shall your light rise in the darkness
    and your gloom be as the noonday."
- Isaiah 58:6-10, ESV

   In the opening chapters of Isaiah, the prophet sees a vision of the glory of God, and after seeing his own wretchedness in the light of the majesty of God and being cleansed of it, hears God ask:

   "And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, 'Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?' Then I said, 'Here am I! Send me.'" 
- Isaiah 6:8-9, ESV

   Isaiah encountered the vision of the holiness and the person of God, and was ready to take the word of God to the people of his nation. Having followed Jesus into the Downtown Eastside today, I have to ask myself - what am I doing to declare and demonstrate the healing message of the Gospel to the destitute of this city? Guide my mind, mouth and hands to think, speak and work for you, Lord Jesus.
- The Wisdom Seeker