Monday, April 13, 2009

The Least of Us

Written with assistance from Nathan Rieger, pastor of Wininipeg Centre Vineyard.

Situated on one of the worst corners in the city, Winnipeg Centre Vineyard has a Good Friday tradition of carrying a heavy cross through the neighbourhood to visit the places around our neighbourhood where some of our people have died of violence in the last year. We remember and tell their stories. Their suffering points us to Jesus' suffering, like a window into His life.

Before we began, Nathan set the stage for us: We are all members, or parts, of one body--Jesus. In a sense, all mankind is connected to each other in a similar way. If one part suffers, the whole body suffers. In the human body, when one part is in difficulty, the whole body knows it and mobilizes to do what it can to bring healing and relief--unless the body has leprousy. Lepers feel no pain so, if a nose, finger or toe is injured, they may not be aware of the infection or wound until it is too late.

As a city and, indeed, as the human race, we ignore the parts of us in pain to our peril. But people, like lepers, have become numbed to the tragedies of our neighbourhood. They stay away in droves or, if needing to pass through, put on their blinders, believing it has no connection to them. We must, however, pay attention to the pain in our neglected neighbourhoods so that we can be healed as a people together.

Our neighbourhood walk on the evening of Good Friday was intended to help un-numb us. Nathan asked us to consider: "Am I willing to open my heart and see like Jesus sees? Am I willing to share in the pain of our city?"

We walked right outside the church.

Michael Wilson played drums on the first CD the church recorded many years ago. He was 42 years old when he died. This was probably the hardest death for Nathan to tell us about because he feels responsible. Michael's wife was staying at the church to come down off crack. During detoxication, a person needs to be isolated from others so she can concentrate on the job at hand so when Michael came banging at the door asking to see his wife, Nathan said no. He came back several times with the same request and each time, Nathan said no.

"Look! I'm not a criminal you know," he yelled. "I want to see my wife."

"You mean your estranged wife," Nathan responded. They'd been together off and on for ten years. This was currently one of the off times.

A couple of days later, Michael ended his own life in someone's garage. Nathan was crushed. Devastated might be the better word. I can't imagine the weight he felt when he was given the news.

But Nathan wasn't responsible. He loves the people of our neighbourhood and suffers with them in their pain. Michael died because of the choices he made, built on lies. He believed a lie--the lie that said, "People think I'm a criminal. I'm trash. I'm worthless." Far too many believe such lies about themselves and see no hope. I myself struggle with this at times. Sadly, it was people who believed this same lie about Jesus who killed him. Nathan encouraged us to commit ourselves to speaking about how truly precious people are as a way to combat the lies.

We walked down Main Street to a clinic.

Brian Sinclair was a double amputee. He lived on the streets but was a resourceful man who knew who Jesus was and came to Winnipeg Centre Vineyard when he could find someone to push his wheelchair. He died because of a broken, corrupt and perverse system where some people are shuffled to the top of the list and others to the bottom, based not on need but on appearances.

Brian went to Emergency one day and was found dead in the busy waiting room 34 hours later, never receiving the care he came for. How could such a thing happen? Nathan wanted us to know there are many at the hospital who care and grieve his loss but, again, how could something like this happen?

Systems, as well as individuals, need to be confronted and mended by the cross. As Christians, we need to speak out about broken systems. The cross speaks truth to power. We were asked to consider, "How will I speak truth to power?"

Louis and Terry lived close to church in a run-down apartment. Louis was a big man who had lots of experiences in life and loved to share what he had--drink, drugs and sex. People loved to come and hang out with him. He'd get stoned early in an evening and be oblivious to whatever was going on as the evening progressed.

Louis had a trailer on the reserve where he often stayed for weeks at a time. One day a bunch of buddies from the city gathered there to party. As usual, Louis was stoned early in the game and clueless. After everyone had left but him and Terry, the woodburning stove overheated and the trailer burned to the ground, both too stoned to know what was happening.

We all struggle with addictions. What is addiction other than a pleasure we use to help take pain away? Whenever we try a short cut between the sadness of Good Friday Friday and the joy of Easter Sunday, we develop addictions. This is true for all of us, though the addictions of some are more noticeable than others. It could have been any of us stoned in that flaming trailer. Addictions that are more respectable aren't less deadly.

I was convicted here. I use food to dull my pain and give me pleasure. When I do, I'm taking the shortcut that bypasses suffering. I had a counsellor once who told me it's important, when we're feeling pain, to sit in the pain rather than trying to ameliorate it. Or, as Nathan said, say no to the pleasure that offers itself. When I allow myself to feel the pain, I become open to seeking God for the pain rather than substitutes that solve nothing. Alas, I continually forget or obstinately refuse to come before God with it.

There is power in the resurrection for all who submit to it. Sunday is coming!

Maria (not her real name) lives in the same apartment as Louis and Terry. Someone noticed water coming through the ceiling from her apartment and alerted John. He went into her place and saw her sitting on the floor, all her possessions around her, chanting--oblivious to everything. She had taken the wrong medication for her bi-polar and schizophrenic illnesses and would have died if someone hadn't noticed that something wasn't quite right. Part of her did die (Nathan pointed out that mental illness itself is a kind of death), but she was taken to the hospital and is now alive. Thankfully, she wasn't found swinging at the end of a rope.

God will often nudge us to do or say something for someone else--even for strangers. We need to watch for the cues that someone is in trouble and not be afraid of asking a question. We might save a life as Maria's was saved. I think of the times I have done this and gape with amazement to see God working through me when I listen and obey.

What would have happened if people had interfered when Jesus was walking to Golgotha?

We walked under the underpass and stopped by the collection of plastic flowers woven into the chain-link fence.

Tim Knutson a gentle giant, soft-spoken and generous, stepped out of the Salvation Army Booth Centre for a bit. When he didn't have a cigarette to give someone who asked, four men beat him to death. There were people watching, but no one stepped in to stop it.

What was in these four men for them to say, "If you don't have what I want, I'll kill you?" Jealousy, coveting and stealing--the same things that killed Jesus. The religious leaders were jealous of his popularity and tried to take it by killing him. (If only they had known!)

What of those who watched? What do we do when we see violence? Nathan saved a man's life once by lying down on top of him to keep him from being kicked to death. The victim had watched a rape and done nothing to stop it--hence the attack. As we stood where Tim was murdered, a man who knew Tim personally, joined us and shared more about him. He also told how one time he walked up to two kids fighting and told them to "say no to violence." The boys stopped fighting and shook hands.

What would we have done had we been nearby as Tim was beaten to death? What would we have done had we seen Jesus dragging his cross to Calvary? Do we isolate ourselves from the violence we see, say it's none of our business and look the other way, or do we take the risk of stepping in to do something? One thing we can pray, Nathan said, is "Send me to the hate, Lord, so you can let me be your love in the presence of hate!"

Raymond Williams liked to call himself the toughest fighter and the gentlest lover. He was one of the first people Nathan met in our neighbourhood and was stopped by the unexpected scene of this scruffy street person helping a glamorous woman who was a mess inside. Nathan was grieving a recent family death and new to the city when Raymond came up to him at church, saying, "Hey man! You look awful! Let me get you a coffee." That's the kind of man, Raymond was. He did what he could to help others and intervene when they were in trouble. He stepped in more than once to stop a rape.

Raymond was a homeless sniffer. No one is certain why he was shot, execution-style in the head as he slumped from sniff against a brick wall a few steps off Main Street. Was he a nuisance to Main Street businesses whose customers felt intimidated by his presence?

When Nathan asked him why he sniffed, Raymond told of the recent deaths of five family members. "How am I supposed to mend the pain?" Another time he told Nathan, "Either you have sniff or you have love. If you have love, you can face things."

There are some who, to gain power for themselves, will put others down to get it. Is this why Raymond was killed? It's what happened to Jesus. Nathan urged us, "If you want to know Jesus, look at these streets. Let's be the people who come alongside people like Raymond and help them."

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A number of interesting things happened on our walk, in between the stories that I'd like to share.

As we walked between stations, we took turns carrying the cross. I was particularly moved when I saw one of us in a wheelchair taking his turn at carrying it.

We also had a number of people join our group as we walked--all were welcome. At least one of them was using sniff as we walked. The smell was strong.

James (not his real name) was walking with us when Nathan drew our attention to him and asked, "The paints all gone, isnt it, James?" James used to continually have a ring of paint on his face from huffing it from a paper bag. There was a time when this man could only grunt - he had lost the power of speech. Now, the ring of blue or red paint on his face is gone. He can speak again. And as the crowd listened, James gave credit to Christ and declared that He is the Lord, and that all who hear should believe in Him.

Near the place where Tim died, a man with only one shoe joined us. His other foot was bare. There is still a lot of thick ice and deep snow on the ground and this man had a bare foot! Dear Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on these people! It was swollen and looked to my inexperienced eyes to be on the verge of gangrenous (I did notice, as I was researching some of these deaths online that Brian Sinclair's double amputation was due to frostbite, so maybe my assessment of this foot wasn't far off.)

A number of us gathered around him trying to find a solution. The only one with shoes big enough to fit him happened to be wearing sandals. That wasn't much help. However, he did have another pair of shoes at church. He sent the man to wait in the lobby of the Booth Centre and, with a friend, went back to the church to get the shoes. Meanwhile, another size-12-footed-man from our church saw the problem, took off his shoes and socks, gave them to this man, and walked the rest of the way barefoot through the snow. Thank you, Lance, for showing us Jesus. And thank you, shoeless man, for also showing us Jesus in his neediness when He walked, stripped of his clothing, to the cross.

At our last stop I felt someone come up behind me as though to give me a hug from behind. Wondering which good friend was just showing herself to me at this point, I turned to see a large native man I'd never seen before. What should I do? What were his intentions? Unsure, I stood there and the man, now beside me, put his arm around my shoulders and stood that way for quite sometime before he and a friend continued to where they were going--a passerby who saw I wasn't dressed warmly (I was sweating--it was the only way to stay dry) and, concerned, offered some warmth. I tried to thank him as he left but I don't know if he heard me.

"...there should be no division in the body, but...its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it." 2 Corinthians 12: 25, 26 NIV

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