Revillaging: transforming charitable food ministry to an agent of shalom

Christ Church Cathedral sits at the corner of Burrard and Georgia in the centre of downtown Vancouver. Photo: Diocese of New Westminster.

Andrew Stephens-Rennie presented this paper as part of the Christian Witness in Cascadian Soil conference at St. Andrew’s Hall May 10 – 11.

Hosted by Ross Lockhart and the Centre for Missional Leadership, the gathering featured some 20 papers from the front lines. This paper is posted by permission.

My church finds itself at a crossroads, and a busy one at that. Christ Church Cathedral1 sits on the northeast corner of Georgia and Burrard streets in the downtown financial district of the city colonially known as Vancouver, on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded lands of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh nations.

Although it didn’t start this way, the Cathedral now finds itself at the intersection of luxury hotels, office towers, high-end retailers and many of our neighbours who live close to the street.

This neighbourhood swells by 145,000 people each day as commuters come to work. It is an area where most encounters are transactional – whether at the bank, in the retail space, with young non-profit contractors seeking to secure a donation, or religious communities handing out literature to prospective converts.

With all of this seemingly anonymous activity, the under-reported stories are those of the downtown’s residents who do not leave, who do not live in the high-rise towers that surround us, but who, instead, take shelter in the alleyways and loading docks hidden from view. We might see them, but rarely do we know them by name.

One Friday, I biked – as I always do – up Hornby Street from Dunsmuir before jetting across a few lanes of traffic to duck into the laneway behind the church. Turning the corner, heading uphill past couriers huddled together before early-morning deliveries, it became clear that something was amiss.

The pallet and tarp structure that had housed a regular at the Cathedral’s Maundy Café – our five day a week food ministry – was gone. He had been connected to the Cathedral for longer than I had. A decade, I’m told. That morning, the only remaining evidence of his existence was the pattern in the dirt where his makeshift residence once stood. By Sunday, that too, had been rolled away.

The spirit of homelessness

Andrew Stephens-Rennie presented this paper as part of the Christian Witness in Cascadian Soil conference.

In their expansive theological treatment of homelessness, Steven Bouma-Prediger and Brian J. Walsh observe:

Ours is a culture of displacement, exile and homelessness. Socioeconomic homelessness is growing, with many people seeking adequate housing. Ecological homelessness is increasing, with its sense of alienation from a degraded and defiled earth.2

Displacement is not limited to the kind of homelessness experienced by our neighbours who live in the alleyways, parks, empty lots and loading docks of the downtown core. It takes the little effort to think of the ways in which this sense of displacement pervades peoples’ experiences of the region’s housing crisis and the world’s climate emergency.

The problem is becoming more acute year after year. In Divisions and Disparities in Lotus Land, David Ley and Nicholas Lynch observe that neighbourhoods throughout Greater Vancouver have seen increasing income stratification for over 40 years. In their words, “the middle-income city of the 1970s has become the polarized city of the 2000s.”3

I have come to see some of the ways in which this culture of displacement affects a broad cross-section of people through relationships developed over shared meals in the Cathedral’s Maundy Café.

The crying of the times

Since becoming involved with the Cathedral’s food ministries in 2016, three interrelated themes have dominated conversation: social isolation, food insecurity and a lack of affordable housing. These themes have demanded our attentive response as we have sought to live faithfully alongside the neighbours we meet in our downtown parish.

These problems are not new, of course, and they are not aberrations.

As Paul Taylor, executive director of FoodShare put it in his address to the Maple Leaf Centre for Action on Food Security’s symposium in April 2018: “Let’s never forget that our food and political systems aren’t broken  –  they are working just the way they were designed to.”4

The poverty we see isn’t an aberration, but rather the result of our current political system in which “colonialism, patriarchy, white supremacy and racism all shape who gets to eat. They shape where we live. Or who gets to work. And who gets to lead the solution finding.”5

When I started with the Café, our program saw 50 people each weekday. Over the last three years, these numbers have multiplied. I’m not convinced this is a good thing, even though it provides more of a chance to connect with our neighbours.

Today, an average week sees between six and seven hundred people through the Café. Where previously the folks who visited the Café were limited to street-involved men in their fifties and sixties, these same folks have now been joined by many women and seniors living in rental apartments in the city’s West End – a neighbourhood on whose edge we sit.

In addition to my experience, and that of many of my peers, it has become apparent through conversations with members of the Café community that the disparity between the cost of living and access to resources in this city is increasing. The number of people we see each week continues to rapidly increase.

With all of this as background, how then is a church to respond?

The fruit of the Spirit

Like many churches throughout the region, Christ Church Cathedral has operated a charity food program for many years. The Cathedral’s foray into charitable food work began in the early 1980s when, in response to the economic tumult of that time, it opened its doors to the hungry, becoming the first site of the Greater Vancouver Food Bank. In the decades following, the Cathedral began to offer free take-away and sit-down meals for those who needed them. The evolution is complex and messy.

From its beginnings, the Cathedral’s approach to food ministry was rooted in a sense of Christian duty offered with a charitable spirit. What ought we to do, parishioners wondered, for “those less fortunate?” In response to the need for food, members of the congregation stepped forward to provide out of personal excess.

In the early days, sandwiches were prepared at home and brought to church where they were frozen until needed. After the local health authority (rightly) ended this practice due to safety concerns, food preparation was moved in-house.

Over time, the congregation added two sit-down meals to complement sandwiches handed out the other three days of the week. As the food ministry expanded, so too did the number of residential fridges shoe-horned into back corners of the building.

The ministry grew and sprawled in response to need. The initiative, driven by parishioners operated largely outside of the Cathedral’s official governance and authority structures. Over time, it became part of the regular Cathedral budget, and flows of power and authority over the ministry were informally cobbled together. Change emerged organically in the shadow of a far more regulated and organised system.

The freedom to act responsively came with a shadow side. Dedicated lay volunteers who had invested time, physical labour and emotional energy in the ministry did not feel empowered or supported to initiate significant changes to the larger church structure that were required to properly respond to the needs before them.

Like the residential fridges tucked into any remaining available space, the ministry grew piece by piece, without an integrated, overarching vision.

Transforming vision

The Cathedral’s approach was called into question in 2015 when, prompted by a significant fundraising campaign to replace the roof, raise a bell spire, and to renovate the kitchen, a prospective donor asked Dean Peter Elliott what the Cathedral would do differently with its additional space.

While that exploration began with an assumed need to increase capacity (more meals, more of the time), it ended up in a startling, transformative question:

How might we transform our food ministries in ways that honour the agency, creativity, dignity, intellect and worth of all who come to share food at the table?

Since 2016, Christ Church Cathedral has centred this question as a means of embedding a transforming kingdom vision in the Maundy Café. At its core, this question seeks to involve all who encounter it in discerning the way forward together. It also got us a walk-in fridge freezer.

This vision, as with any social innovation, has transformed the Cathedral’s approach by challenging “the defining routines, resource and authority flows, and beliefs” at play within the Café and the larger Cathedral community. 6

Perhaps one day, these shifts will be experienced, and even embraced within the broader faith-based and region-wide charitable food system. Where we had previously served food to people who were poor out of charitable impulse, we have now harnessed our way of sharing food as a means of cultivating connection, holistic health and community resiliency.

Put in other words, we are seeking the peace of the neighbourhood and city to which God continues to send us. In a city plagued by loneliness, this is a table of connection across dividing lines. In short, this transformation has allowed us to bear witness to and to hear the Good News in a more holistic way. On a more personal level, it has become a place where I regularly encounter God through conversations with, and the embodied presence of those who welcome me to the table.

Months before my work with the Maundy Café began, in one of my long, rambling conversations with the late Bishop Jim Cruickshank, we found ourselves reflecting on God’s reconciling mission and the church’s participation therein. I clearly remember Jim sharing his contention that we can be certain that God’s kingdom is near when people who appear to have no business eating together are found joyfully sharing food at the same table. For him, this was a picture of God’s shalom. For me, it seemed a vision worth participating in.

The kingdom of God is like . . .

As the Cathedral sought to receive, respond to and live in light of this kingdom vision, we began to name the biblical traditions of sabbath, shalom, jubilee and eucharist as core to the Cathedral’s philosophy of sharing food.

More than that, rather than centring a food bank lineup or a soup kitchen as our starting point, we have begun to ask members of our community, including guests, volunteers and staff, to reflect on their favourite experience of a shared meal. When they think of their favourite meal, what do they see, hear, smell and taste? Who is there? What conversations did they have? How did it change them? Most importantly, how did it feel?

This act of imagination is helping us to develop – not as individuals, but as a community – a more holistic vision that points us towards tables of love, hope, belonging and enough.7

Put into conversation with people within and people beyond Cathedral walls, this vision has continually evolved with the help of multiple providential conversations and the experiences of local and national organizations whose approaches to sharing food were already challenging the status quo. There were conversations with the likely suspects: leading food security practitioners, church leaders and social service providers.

When several key Cathedral volunteers visited the Oasis Café at Tenth Church in Mount Pleasant, new questions were seeded. Over time, we were led into conversations with artists, business owners, people of other faiths and, most importantly, the people who called the Maundy Café community home.

These were the people whose stories helped illuminate the challenges faced when people are seen as clients, rather than community members in food programs elsewhere in the city. Through these conversations, we became more deeply aware of the uneven contours and power dynamics of the faith-based charitable food system in the region.

Members of the Café community knew a great deal about the city, not least where to find the best meals, and the places where they are treated with the most dignity. As ministry leaders began to shift our understanding, and to centre the experience and witness of those coming to the table as to the state of the faith-based food system in Vancouver, so too did our approach to sharing food.

It took building relationships with and learning at the feet of these diverse individuals to expand our understanding of God’s kingdom, and how the Cathedral might participate more fully in that grand reconciling vision.

Vision required change

To do this required change at multiple levels:

  • Initially, we reflected on every step of the journey between entering our building, receiving and eating food, cleaning up and leaving, and asked, “How do each of these typical interactions reinforce isolation or connection?”

  • In light of these responses, we moved the Café into a brighter, more inviting space, eliminating the sandwich lineup and offering sit-down meal service at all meals.

  • Musicians are regularly brought in to play popular classics and familiar hymns, creating a more celebratory atmosphere.

  • We began to prepare fresher, healthier food from scratch. We eliminated processed foods, and foods high in sodium and sugar.

  • We extended food service times from 30 minutes to two hours, creating the opportunity for people to relax and connect with one another free from the pressure to move along.

  • Volunteer shifts began to include time eating at the table with those who had come to share food, slowly shifting our understanding of who needs food (hint: we all do).

  • We made space for a four-week contemplative art practice culminating in “The Beautiful Table,” an art exhibition focused on themes of love, hope, belonging and enough that was displayed upstairs in the church sanctuary for three weeks.

  • We hosted a four-week sermon series in October 2018 focused on the intersection of food justice and Christian faith.

  • This year, we have begun the process of developing an approach to advocacy alongside those who are underhoused, and to pay attention to what connections Holy Spirit might be revealing to us next.

An urban village

In response to this evolution, we’ve heard a significant change in community members’ experiences. People now talk about acceptance, of the ability to open up, and to be heard. There is talk about the Café as a place of calm and beauty. It’s a place where folks now celebrate the quality and freshness of the food, where you can hear an entire table taking time to reflect on the flavours in the homemade salad dressing.

More often than not, I’ll end up in a conversation where someone says, “That’s all fine and good, but that’s not why I come here – I come here for the people.” It’s becoming (or perhaps re-embracing its role as) the centre of a modest village in the midst of the city. Or, as one person put it, “a place where everybody knows your name.”

And that’s true too. When a member of the community recently announced a cancer diagnosis, she did so with fear and stress in her voice. She wasn’t sure how it was going to go, or how she would get to her first appointment alone. That’s when a long-term volunteer stepped forward to share her own story of treatment, and offered, without skipping a beat, to accompany her to the hospital. Three years ago, that kind of response would have been unthinkable. All of which say that this is just a start.

As a church, we required a renewed imagination, one that imaged God’s inbreaking kingdom as a giant feast, with all of the family drama that can bring. Watching this transformation take place, I’m starting to ask the question that guided our exploration in other places, too. And so I’ll ask it again today:

How might we nourish our communities in ways that honour the agency, creativity, dignity and worth of all who come to the table?

It’s a question I grapple with daily. It’s a question in which I find great hope. It’s a question meant to get us thinking and exploring together. I don’t know where the question ultimately leads, but there have definitely been signposts along the way.

A few days after our neighbour’s disappearance, I found that he – after a decade’s worth of homelessness – has been relocated to one of the city’s new temporary modular housing units. Speaking to a colleague of mine earlier this week, he said with a glint in his eye:

I haven’t said these words in a long time, but I’m going home. I’m going home, but don’t worry, I’ll see you soon.

1 To find out more about the Cathedral, its ministries and programs, visit www.thecathedral.ca
2 Steven Bouma-Prediger and Brian J. Walsh, Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in an Age of Displacement, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005, 40.3 David Ley and Nicholas Lynch, Divisions and Disparities in Lotus Land. Cities Centre, University of Toronto 2012 , 35.
4 Taylor, Paul M. “Food, A Sort of Right.” medium.com (blog). April 29, 2019. Accessed May 5, 2019. https://medium.com/@FoodShareTO/food-a-sort-of-right-bb58805e20df?fbclid=IwAR0KWwzdz3_FjpbXHnaw8C7KjAezEtz9RYdHKxrjYYV9j-vXDSX33pZc6Is
5 Ibid.
6 Westley, Frances, and Nino Antadze. 2010. “Making A Difference: Strategies for Scaling Social Innovation for Greater Impact”. The Innovation Journal: The Public Sector Innovation Journal 15 (2): Article 2., 2.
7 To read more about the Cathedral’s Food Philosophy, visit www.thecathedral.ca/food-philosophy

For more information:

Andrew Stephens-Rennie
Director of Ministry Innovation, Christ Church Cathedral
690 Burrard Street | Vancouver BC | V6C 2L1
andrew@thecathedral.ca
604.682.3848

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