There has probably never been a time in the last few decades that there has not been one or two people living in the yard at St. Stephen-in-the-Fields. Here, in the heart of the downtown west, in a small pocket of deep poverty surrounded by affluence, we have worked hard to be a space that is open to our community – vulnerable, undefended, a space that, as far as we are able, reflects the vulnerable love of the God who came in a breakable human body. But the intensity of need has never been so great.
The intersection of pandemic illness, an economy more and more polarized between extreme wealth and extreme poverty, a massive shelter and housing crisis, a breakdown in social solidarity, and the growing effects of climate change, crash over us all like waves, but most of all over those who are made marginal in our system – Indigenous people who carry the generational trauma of Residential Schools and the Sixties Scoop, racialized people, people who are ill or weak or unable to cope with a viciously competitive society, people for whom one piece of bad luck can turn into an avalanche. Parks are increasingly policed since last year’s wave of violent evictions, many park areas are fenced off, and anyone trying to find space there is evicted rapidly. Shelters are more and more overcrowded, often dangerous, and, simply, almost always full. Our volunteers have spent the last months, even in the depths of winter, phoning Central Intake, trying to find beds for some of our drop-in participants, and being told that their best option was to wait outside the Streets to Homes office on Peter Street, in case a chair in the lobby opened up at some point during the night.
So when tents began to gather in our yard, as other encampments were dismantled by City workers, there was never any question that we would allow people to stay, that we would offer them food and what services we could, that we would learn from them their names and their stories, stories of suffering and survival, of pain and faith and work and fragile hope, of their attempts to live and build in a world that makes no room.
Though the decision was obvious, and everyone in our congregation has been supportive without hesitation, I can’t pretend that it has always been easy. We have had to network with a multitude of service agencies, organize harm-reduction supplies, deal with arrangements for garbage collection and mail delivery, provide first aid and connections to medical care, help with mental health crises, and manage neighbours who are uncomfortable or angry. It has called on all the resources of our staff and key volunteer leadership. It has meant giving up any attempt to maintain our community garden this year. And, perhaps most of all, it has meant that we must live, every day, every time we walk through the yard, with the heartbreaking knowledge that some of our most vulnerable community members are living in tents, in the rain, in the wind, trying to figure out how to carry on basic tasks like laundry, to manage sometimes serious medical conditions, to lead as dignified a life as anyone can while encamped in a churchyard for lack of better options.
But, in a complicated world, our calling has rarely been so clear. If the Church is to be, in our day, the body of Christ, of the Word who “pitched his tent among us,” as the literal translation of the first chapter of John says, then we must be at this sharp edge; we must witness, accompany, live out in our own bodies the tasks of healing and feeding, and of speaking out for a better way of living together. St. Lawrence famously took a Roman prefect, hoping to confiscate gold, into the churchyard, showed him the poor and sick and hungry gathered there, and announced, “These are the treasures of the church.” And so they are.
I am writing this in late October. Recently, the City informed us that our yard is not, in fact, church property, but a transport right-of-way and a “City asset,” and that, therefore, the people we have come to know here may be evicted, even if the church itself is committed to giving them a safe space until they have an acceptable alternative. We do not know what will happen, while shelter hotels close down just as the weather gets colder. By the time you read this, there may no longer be people living in the yard at St. Stephen’s. Perhaps – unlikely as this hope seems – everyone will find safe and dignified accommodation suitable for their needs, and if that is the case, we will be one step closer to honouring God in all of God’s children. Perhaps, even if this doesn’t happen, some kind of temporary indoor shelter will be available, and everyone will get through this winter as they can.
But if the people living in our yard are compelled to leave, are evicted by civic authority and its powers of coercion, it will be without our consent, and over our voices of protest. Until we are no longer able, we will be the last safe place.