Cars trucks siren puddle splash cars buses rain
grey clouds brown leaves concrete crumbling
sidewalks splashed bus fresh cool air bright grey
People tough surprising smiles or head down walk past shame
rich busy rushed business lonely insulated dressed to impress numb
hurt feeling poor grimy grim real silent eyes away or friendly
Vancouver, blue roofs,
streets of pink trodden leaves and of fragile trodden people
“If life was easy, it wouldn’t be East Van”.
As I walked down East Hastings street for the first day of our Vancouver urban plunge, the poverty, addictions, drugs and mental illness was overwhelming. The street was crowded with people sitting or standing, and there were syringes scattered on the sidewalks. I’ve never seen drugs being used so blatantly. In comparison to our Winnipeg urban plunge, the downtown East side was an older, more different demographic, and had a deeper sense of hopelessness. Then I met Mario.
In small groups, we toured the streets and we were told to find someone to have lunch with. We stumbled across Mario and got into conversation which included a bit of his life story, a song and many jokes. He proudly told us that he has gotten over most of his addictions and that even though he still is an alcoholic, “Jesus isn’t giving up on [him]”. Although it boggles my mind, he has chosen to stay in the neighborhood for around 30 years and he actually likes it. Yes, it is hard (as his quote above states), but he has many friends and enjoys the community. After talking to him and other individuals, I have much more hope for the neighborhood and the people who live in it.
From that point on, I watched for signs of community. When we were offering ‘free prayer’ on one of the street corners, random people (including a friendly marijuana seller) began chatting with us, and not just to get prayer. As well, people were defensive of us outsiders and stood up for us on multiple occasions. Even though the area was ‘dangerous’, people were watching out for us and taking care of us. We came in to pray for people or “help”, but the ironic reality was that people were protecting us, and several people even encouraged my group. Another fascinating thing is that when children walk down certain streets, people yell “kids!” all down the block to let everybody know to cover up their drugs and behave nicely. Their respect for childhood innocence is just one example of how “East Van” is actually a community.
We also had the opportunity to tour a Mosque, a Sikh Gudwara and a Buddhist temple during our urban plunge week. Learning about the different religions left us with a lot of questions about why we believe what we do. Personally, I was most interested in the Sikh Gudwara because they were welcoming, inclusive and valued equality. As well, their hospitality was amazing! Because they believe that food for the body is as important as food for the mind, they offer meals whenever they have services and anyone is welcome to come and eat. Originally, they decided the meals would be vegetarian so that both Muslim and Hindu people could come and eat with them. This definitely challenged my idea of hospitality, and I hope that as Christians we can learn more of what it means when Jesus calls us to feed the hungry and shelter the poor.
As middle class (but actually rich in comparison) young adults walking down East Hastings, we stuck out (way beyond any cliche metaphor one could insert here). I felt incredibly out of place and sheltered. The worst part, however, came after exploring the poverty of East Hastings and as we walked a few blocks into the downtown core. It was beautiful, spacious, rich and shockingly isolated from the poverty and hurt that lay a few hundred meters away. The people seemed to have a right to be there. Whereas before I could admire the beautiful buildings and shop without a second thought, I now felt so out of place. As part of the tour, we sat on the sidewalk and watched people walk by for awhile, and the people all blurred together- nice clothes, shiny shoes, cellphone in hand. Many people wouldn’t look at us or give us the time of day. Those who did see us either stared openly or glanced then averted their eyes and pretended not to notice. We walked into a fancy hotel (to find out the price of the average room as part of an assignment) and were greeted by two friendly, fluffy, well-groomed dogs. It was so nice petting the dogs until I realized that these two dogs have been pampered with more love and attention than any of the hundreds of people who live just a short walk down the street- and that almost made me sick.
It’s hard to think about all of these things and process the unbelievable disparity. All in all, the Vancouver Urban Plunge left us with more questions than answers and with a lot of experiences to sift through and think about.