The Violence of Preconceptions

I had an interesting and thought-provoking conversation at work yesterday. Because of complex mental health and addictions needs as well as sometimes physical barriers, many of the individuals I work with as a Mental Health Worker have outside workers from different agencies who come to spend time with them. One such outside worker was in our office last night, doing paperwork after finishing up with one of the residents. He casually mentioned that he hadn’t seen me before and I replied that it was likely because, as relief staff, I spend time at three different facilities, not just the one where I was presently working.

Three sites, he asked?

So I explained that we have the long-stay residential site, an eating disorders program, and a shorter stay transitional program that workes with folks on addictions as well as mental health issues.

Addictions! He exclaimed. Are they violent?

The question was innocent enough, but it took me aback. Are they violent? That has never been something I have thought to ask, or really needed to ask myself in the last three years of working in the mental health and addictions field.

Are they violent?

What it does tell, I think, is something about the perceptions and misconceptions within our society as a whole towards those who struggle with addictions, towards those who have mental illness, towards those who live on our streets or in our shelters and transitional housing.

Even in grouping these things together I do a disservice. There are many people who have a mental illness who live and work alongside you and I and are afraid to say something lest they be targeted. There are many functional people in our society who are struggling with or in recovery from addictions. There are many in our shelter systems who have never had an addiction or a mental illness – though they may if we do not do more to house people at affordable rates – they’ve maybe just had a run of bad luck.

So why is it that the first questions asked when we see or hear about a violent crime in the news are, “Are they mentally ill? Do they have an addiction making them do this?” It is a stigma we need to break if we are to become an inclusive and compassionate society.

Screen shot 2014-07-06 at 11.33.34 PMEarlier this week, I retweeted this picture. To it, I added the comment that the beggar at our door also includes sex workers. Over the years I worked in shelters I had the privilege of getting to know a number of current and former sex workers. I am certain that I learned as much or more from our relationship as they learned from me. Which is why I signed my name to this letter; which is why I disagree with the legislation proposed in Bill C-36. Because a mark of our health as a society is our ability to include and care for our most vulnerable: Not how we further marginalize. Not how we legislate or otherwise control. Not how we isolate ourselves, look the other direction, or bury heads in the sand. But how we love and show compassion to all.

 

UPDATE: A press release, blogged from St John the Divine, Victoria. Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t actually credit the original author of the previously linked letter regarding Bill C-36: Bruce Bryant-Scott.

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Thunderstorms

I enjoy a good thunderstorm. When I was a kid, I would sit on Dad’s lap on the large wrap-around front porch of our home in southeastern Ontario. We would listen to the thunder and smell the rain as it pounded down around us.

Storm over the Trans-Kalahari Highway

Thunderstorm over the Trans-Kalahari Highway, 2012

Ten years on Vancouver Island meant ten years with thunderstorms being few and far between. A thunderstorm is an event there: one crack of thunder or one lightning flash sees all taking to twitter: “was that thunder?” or “did anyone else see that lightning in downtown #yyj?” It just doesn’t happen very often at all. For a city surrounded by water, thats not a bad thing. I would not want to be on a sailboat with a tall mast in the middle of a thunder storm.

One memorable night in the Solomon Islands, the Pacific Grace was surrounded by lightning. We had to turn off all of our electronic equipment to ensure it wasn’t destroyed if we were struck. (See Offshore Documentary, part 2, starting about the 2:30 minute mark for the footage.) It was a little unsettling to be in the midst of it, but also an amazing reminder of the power of nature.

Driving into a storm, southwestern Ontario, 2014

Driving into a storm, southwestern Ontario, 2014

We’ve had a lot of storms in southwestern Ontario over the last week. Sunday, after church (and after the Dutch beat the Mexicans in World Cup action), Matthew and I drove up to Lake Huron. We were hoping for some beach time and, since we’re about equal distance between Lake Erie and Lake Huron, we can pick and choose where we want to explore each time! This time it was Huron’s turn. It was a beautiful blue day when we set out. Soon, we noticed an ominous cloud towards the Lake. Then, the wind began to pick up. Next, I saw several bolts of lightning streaking down towards the ground (Matthew was being a safe driver and watching the road so he missed them). Pretty soon we were in the middle of the storm. The rain was coming down so hard that we nearly pulled over to wait for better visibility.

Lake Huron, 2014

Lake Huron, 2014

Then, just like that, the rain stopped, the sky cleared, and we were at the beach to enjoy the rest of the afternoon.

Yesterday was another one of those days. I was nearly caught in three torrential downpours whilst cycling around town. After missing the first, a London Hydro employee encouraged me to buy a lottery ticket…I guess that first deluge was a big one! It intrigues me how localized the weather systems are in London. While I could see that there was a magnificently dark cloud over part of the city yesterday, I couldn’t tell that it was raining elsewhere. While I smelt the rain when I got to a different part of the city, and witnessed the second downpour from the safety of my favourite coffee shop in town, I have no idea if it rained a third time in a different part of the city. One neighbourhood: bone dry. Six blocks away: rivers in the street from the rainfall.

One thing is for certain: thunderstorms are fun to listen to, but I’m glad I haven’t been caught outside in one yet!

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New Domains

I bought my domain name. Now this site redirects to gillianhoyer.com instead of the previous wordpress.com address. I suspect that it will continue to redirect, however if you want to ensure continued reading (when that actually happens…) it may be best to update RSS feeds and bookmarks. I don’t think that email subscriptions are affected.

Also: You’ll notice a new category above. I’m gradually moving my photography over here rather than having a wholly separate site linked. Keep checking for updates.

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Summer

The thing about writing is that, if you don’t do it, you can’t do it.

It seems strange to think about losing the practice of writing. After all, over the course of a year in school, tens of thousands of words and hundreds of pages of writing are produced.

But it is different.

The writing was accomplished as spring was bypassed in the abrupt shift from winter to summer. The term ended and a sigh was released as the flowers gradually began to show their faces above the dirt.

Summer.

Summer is fully upon us: Yesterday was 35 degrees and today will likely be much like it.

Summer is long days and the possibility for adventure. Interspersed between sporadic shifts at work – the life of relief staff – have been trips here and there. First to Toronto to spend some time with an aunt and being treated to an afternoon on the water.

IMG_1145Lake Ontario. It isn’t an ocean but it seems as vast from the shoreline. However it lacks the smell of the Pacific, that smell of salt and seaweed and sea creatures stuck on ancient rocks as they are bashed by waves. It is also conspicuously lacking tides, something strangely disconcerting to one used to charting their shifting movements. There was something distinctly tropical about its look at the end of May.

IMG_1165Then it was off to Sarnia and visiting aunts, uncle, and cousin. Theatre, rummage sales, and art shows. Boardgames and barbecue.

Meanwhile in London it is dinner, pastries, coffee, beer, spontaneous conversations, and so much more with godparents and family.

One of the joys of remaining in Ontario throughout the summer is the proximity of people I haven’t spent enough time with over the years. When filling out my tax return this year, I had to detail the distance between old address and new school versus new address and new school. I discovered that I have moved over 4200km – that is if I were taking the shortest route through the northern United States – and it would take me about 41 hours to drive.

So I’ll look forward to the visits when they come and enjoy the novelty that is summer in southwestern Ontario.

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Sermon for May 4, 2014, St John the Divine, Victoria

Over the last weekend, May 1-4, the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund’s Youth Council met in Victoria, BC for our spring meeting. A lot was accomplished and we had a wonderful time meeting new members and enjoying the lovely surroundings of spring on the south Island.

On the Sunday morning, we had the opportunity to spread across four different Anglican churches in greater Victoria and share about the work of PWRDF. For some, public speaking is ‘old-hat’ and they are used to it, for others it is a scary event that needs coaching.

One of the wonderful things that youth council does, in addition to tell the stories of PWRDF, is develop young leaders from across Canada. Our speaking groups were made up of new youth council members and veterans. In my group was a brand new youth diocesan PWRDF ambassador. She’d spoken at her own church before, and at high school youth events, but never to a group as large or as unfamiliar as the congregation at St John the Divine, Victoria. So I did most of the talking, and she told a story in the middle. She did an excellent job and I think we’ll be hearing more from her in the years to come!

Because we couldn’t all be in the same place, I said I would post my sermon for those interested. The gospel reading from last Sunday was the Road to Emmaus, found in Luke 24:13-35. We focussed on that reading for our preparation for speaking, and I also spoke out of my knowledge of the engagement St John’s has with their community.

*****

Good morning!

Thank you for having us here this morning! It is an honour to be worshipping with you.

We are members of the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund’s justgeneration program – a body of youth from coast-to-coast who care deeply about the work of the PWRDF are involved in both speaking with the Board of Directors in order to bring a youth voice to that forum and in developing resources and telling the stories of our PWRDF partners in such a way as to engage youth.

A group of 16 of us have been having our spring meeting in Victoria for the last three days and this morning we are excited to be spread across Victoria, talking about the work of PWRDF in different Anglican churches. I am thankful to be back worshipping with you this morning, along with Matt from Winnipeg and Gillian from Brandon.

We have had a full weekend, participating in the lock-in hosted at the Cathedral on Friday night, meeting together as a group in the beautiful and peaceful surroundings of a retreat centre by the ocean in Metchosin, and talking and sharing with each other as we have been preparing meals and eating together throughout the weekend.

Immersed as we have been in eating good food and discussing issues relief and development and food security, it is unsurprising that talk of food jumped out to us as we were reading through the gospel as a group this weekend.

The gospel writer writes:

As they came near the village to which they were going, Jesus walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay here with us, because it is almost evening and the day is nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them.

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him.

They recognized Jesus in the sharing of food in the breaking of the bread.

This got us thinking about the centrality of food in our lives and how important food really is to daily life.

Most of you, I am sure, participate in feeding people. Whether it is preparing food to eat yourself or with your family, or making food to bring for breakfast or supper at the Out of the Rain Shelter, or bringing non-perishable food for your food bank, this is a community that knows about the importance of food.

When I lived in Victoria, before moving to Ontario for seminary, I worked for the Victoria Cool Aid Society. An off-hand remark I made to a coworker one day made me realize the importance of food in a new way. In the middle of a particularly busy day I remember saying that I really needed to go and take a break to eat my lunch before I got too cranky to do my job. As the words left my mouth, I stopped and realized the irony of what I was saying. Here I was, working at Rock Bay Landing where people often come hungry and cranky, taking a break to eat so that I could continue to function well in my job. I like to hope that this realization gave me a lot more compassion for the people with whom I worked both here in Victoria and around the world through my work with PWRDF.

I think it works like that in so many other areas of life as well. We have known for some time that ensuring kids in school have enough to eat will help them with their school work. Gillian is going to tell you about one of our PWRDF partners who is doing just that….

[Gillian: Many families in Haiti are stretched beyond their capacity to feed everyone. Children are often kept out of school so that they can help support their families by working. Through the Fred says "some like it hot" food campaign, we are providing hot lunches at schools in Haiti, which encourages parents to send their kids to school system and takes some strain off of the parents. Giving the children the food helps them bring them back to school and keeps them focused to study and learn. So far, PWRDF, in partners with the episcopal church in Haiti and CFGB (Canadian Food-grains Bank), we have helped feed nearly 8000 students, increase the enrolment in schools and the academic performance of schools substantially. ]

So here in Haiti they recognized Jesus in the hot lunch given so students could learn.

In 2009 I had the opportunity to visit a food relief project also being carried out through our partner the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. The project was responding to longstanding drought in Kenya, providing beans, maize, and oil to families. The standard process in each village was for the hungriest, as identified by the community council of elders, to be the ones selected to benefit from the food aid. Unfortunately everyone can receive food in a food relief project – only the worst of the worst – because there isn’t enough to give to everyone in the region. Each village seemed to accept this, except one. One village we visited, down in the Masai Mara took a different approach.

The beneficiaries who were selected to receive the food aid still lined up to get their sacks of beans and maize. However as they left with the bags, they stopped, opened them up, and scooped out the top 10% of the beans and maize into another pile. From this pile, the rest of the villagers were able to have some food to supplement their meagre diets.

Here in Kenya, they recognized Jesus in the sharing of beans and maize.

In November, the youth council met together with the PWRDF board members and diocesan representatives in Toronto. Joining us was Bishop Griselda of the Episcopal Church in Cuba, one of our PWRDF partners. Bishop Griselda shared with us the incredible story of some of the Cuban farmers. In some of their communities, the church was finding that a number of people were going hungry, despite the fact that they had the land to grow food for them to eat.

So they began to teach people in community development: teaching about gender issues, farming techniques, and nutrition. This has led to better access to healthy food, increased income from the sales of food, and a decrease in gender-based violence through improved understanding between the men and the women within the communities. People have become more confident, creative, and hopeful through learning how to farm for themselves.

In fact, Bishop Griselda told us, some of the communities had grown so much food that they began to bring it to the church. They would place it on and around the altar to be blessed before sharing it with the less fortunate in their community.

The Cuban farmers recognize Jesus in the growing, blessing, and sharing of farmed produce.

A little over a year ago, I found myself in South Africa, visiting PWRDF’s partner, the Keiskamma Trust. Keiskamma operates in a region of South Africa with an HIV/AIDS infection rate of 40%, with one in three pregnant mothers carrying the disease and potentially infecting their child. Keiskamma has been working for a decade to reduce the rate of HIV/AIDS by providing education around and access to life-saving anti-retroviral medications.

One thing that we have learned about Antiretroviral medications is that they need to be taken with food. What some of our partners have been finding is that people have stopped taking their medications because of a lack of food. With partners in Mozambique, we have been helping to fund food baskets so that people can continue their medications. Our partners at Keiskamma got people in the community together to start organic gardens to grow produce for those needing more in their diets to continue their medication regime.

They recognize Jesus in the giving of food so that health can be restored.

These are the stories of just a few of the people we have the privilege to partner with through our work with PWRDF. This is the work that we all participate in.

Again, thinking back to our gospel reading this morning, an interesting thing about the story of the road to Emmaus is that they didn’t actually recognize Jesus right away. They almost missed him. They encountered Jesus and travelled with him as a stranger – yet welcomed him in to share their food anyway.

This is the work of PWRDF that we all are a part of. Most of us have never shaken the hand of one of the Cuban farmers or served a hot lunch to the Hatian students. But through the work of PWRDF and the sharing of lives and stories back and forth – much like the exchange on the road to Emmaus – we participate in that work. We participate in God’s work. We are walking along the road together. Welcoming those strange or unknown to us, never knowing where or in whom we will find Jesus.

It wasn’t until travellers invited Jesus in to share food with them that they saw. It was in the breaking of the bread, when Jesus did what Jesus does in the way that only Jesus does it that they recognized their companion on the walk.

I wonder when have you and I been completely oblivious to the work of Jesus in and around us? I wonder when we have missed Jesus appearing right in front of our face, or missed the work of Jesus in the world because we are so caught up in the drama of our daily lives.

As we prepare to come together to the table to break bread in the way that Jesus taught us, I pray that we would recognize Jesus in the friends and strangers beside us, across the table, on our streets, and around the world. I pray that our eyes would be opened and Jesus made known to us whenever and however we share food.

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The Last Few Weeks

The last few weeks of this term (and my first year of seminary) are under way… As a fantastic end-of-term gift, three out of five profs have made 80% of our mark to be determined by papers and presentations due within these final weeks. It is less fun than it sounds.

Earlier this term I did some writing for the blog on the Diocese of BC website. It was published this week: What I learned from singing…

Enjoy.

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Encounters at home

It was an ordinary day on my recent visit home to Victoria. Midmorning on a weekend, walking up a less-busy downtown street, enjoying the smells and sights of home after nearly eight months away.

I didn’t tell many people I was in Victoria. It was a short visit and I was on limited time. But suddenly I heard my name yelled out. Yelled.

Unsure if it was me (but how many Gillians are there?!) I turned to see where the call was coming from. And then I saw him, one of my former clients from the shelter, running across the street. He reached me on the other sidewalk, picked me up in a giant hug and, as he set me down started to talk.

He’d just moved into his own apartment – first one since transitional housing at the shelter. He was doing really well and was really excited about life … and he just wanted to tell me that since he hadn’t seen me for awhile.

I was smiling for the rest of the day.

 

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Young Leaders Thrive Amidst Opposition

This was written for justgeneration and has also appeared on pwrdf.org.

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Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young… (I Tim 4:14)

Those words were ringing through my head as I sat in a circle with a group of young people working for PWRDF partner CoCoSI (Committee Against AIDS) just outside of Santa Marta, El Salvador.

One by one we went around the circle, introducing ourselves, saying what our role was, and how old we were. “I am 24 … 31 … 29 …” As each one of the other young people told their story of working for CoCoSI I was struck by how this group of young people had all seen a need in their community and responded to it, regardless of opposition.

CoCoSI was founded in 1999 by a group of young people, some of whom still work for CoCoSI. They founded the organization to raise awareness of and promote prevention of HIV and AIDS in their community and in the local prisons. Since then, CoCoSi has also begun to work at preventing gender-based violence, particularly towards women, and promoting human rights to those in the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) community.

And there was opposition: some of the young adults were as young as 15 when they founded CoCoSI. They faced opposition from those who thought they were too young to do what they were doing. They faced opposition from those who did not think HIV and AIDS should be talked about. They faced opposition from those who said they did not have enough formal education. In some cases, they faced opposition from within their own families and communities.

What was remarkable was that these were young people who should not, by all accounts, have succeeded. Most were born across the border in Honduras, in refugee camps that their parents had escaped to during the long years of the Salvadoran conflict. They had, as teenagers and young adults, returned home and begun to advocate within their community for rights of the marginalized. They also began developing HIV and AIDS education and prevention programs in their region.

Despite, or in spite of all of this, they have succeeded. After spending time with the young staff of CoCoSI, I had the opportunity to sit with two of them as they facilitated a women’s support group in a nearby community. Despite only understanding about half of the Spanish conversation, I could see the joy on the faces of the women in the group. I could see the passion and love for the women and for their job in the presentation of the two young women from CoCoSI. And I heard and understood stories of empowerment and safety echoed around the circle. Indeed, CoCoSI has been recognized internationally for their programs and I am so proud that we at PWRDF partner with them to help see that their incredible work continues.

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El Salvador

IMG_2680I’ve been going full-tilt since I arrived home a little over a week ago – so much so that I haven’t even stopped to edit/review my photos. (Though you can see a few that I posted to Instagram while I was down there if you scroll back through my web feed)

This week is reading break so I’m hoping that I will have some time to catch up with myself, if only to prepare for the two papers and two midterms due next week before I head off to Victoria for Diocese of BC events.

Processed with VSCOcam with g3 presetI did do some blogging whilst in El Salvador, though the justgeneration.ca website went down so blogs have been posted since I’ve arrived home. The blogs are, wonderfully, filling two purposes: updating our justgen website with stories about what two of our PWRDF partners are up to in El Salvador and becoming the reflection paper I have to write as a part of the program requirements for school.

Notably missing from the blogs will be my concerns with the long hours while we were there and the fact that I got sick from sheer exhaustion. But evident will be the beauty of the country, the warmth of the people, and the amazing work that our partners are doing down there.

In case you haven’t found them yet, I’m not going to reproduce them here, but the blogs can be found here:

Preparing to Leave for El Salvador

Reflecting on Archbishop Oscar Romero

Observing an Election

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On the same day as reported on with the Oscar Romero blog, I had another, even more moving experience related to a friend of mine from home. It is a beautiful story that I am still deciding on whether it is mine to share. Regardless, some amazing moments out of that trip.

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Off and Away

I’m off on another adventure!

Today I leave, with a group of others from London-area, to spend the next nine days in El Salvador. We will be UN observers at the upcoming presidential election in El Salvador and then will have the opportunity to visit PWRDF partners there: the Cristosal Foundation and CoCoSi. I’m looking forward to learning more about the work that these two partners do.

I may have been quiet on here as of late, but I have been writing! Stay tuned to justgeneration.ca (or like it on Facebook!) to see updates from me as I am able to send them back from El Salvador. I do not expect to have regular and amazing access to the Internet there, so sending blogs and photos back to justgeneration.ca will be a priority over putting them up on this blog. A large story will come when I return, however!

In the meantime, I am anticipating warmth for the first time since…. August?! In a temperature change felt only when I moved to Australia (or on extreme chinook days in Southern Alberta!) I’ll be going from a balmy -19C (-30 with the windchill, I’m told) here in London to a gorgeous high of +32C in San Salvador today. Bring it on!

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