This is that weekend when we find ourselves both reflecting on how fast the summer blew by and also planning for new fall season beginnings (school, church, work, etc). For me, this Labour Day weekend of reflection and preparation seems multiplied by a gazillion. There’s so much that I’m leaving behind and there’s also so much to prepare for.
16 years ago I was hired as director of The Friendship Room; a tiny Salvation Army drop-in center in the heart of Toronto for men and women who were on or close to the street. We were opened 5 evenings per week. The 5 of us on staff served dinners to those 120 or so people who came every day and it was a wonderful place to work. I inherited the motto of ‘The Hand of God in the Heart of the City’ when I arrived, and went about the business of making that the focus of everything we did.
Then we transitioned 14 years ago from that location to a new one which we called ‘Gateway’. I took that motto with me and insisted that this be our focal point. We went from being a tiny drop-in center to a 108 bed shelter with 50 staff that served 320 meals per day that was opened 24/7. Those 14 years have been life changing for me-to say the least! Not only was the time at Gateway incredibly rewarding and challenging, but also during that time my family life was established. My wife and I had our wonderful daughter Cate and bought our beautiful home in our really great neighbourhood and we put down roots there.
At some point during my 14 years at Gateway I realized that people far and wide were taking note of the work that was happening at Gateway. We were developing a reputation, mostly positive, of being a little unorthodox in our approach to homelessness. People were noticing our counter-cultural, somewhat subversive approach to ministry amongst the poor. We did some very cool things at that place. We refused to slip into an institutionalized, policy-manual driven form of ministry. We insisted that this was work that needed to be focused on Jesus’ example of how to live, and were driven by a central focus on mutually beneficial relationship building. As a result, we kinda stood out.
Due to the fact that I was the founding director of Gateway, its reputation became my own and now follows me wherever I go.
Thankfully, even though I have often been criticized far and wide for my approach to sheltering/ministry (some of it admittedly deserved), The Salvation Army has seen value in my contribution to its work and has offered me a new way to express my passion and skills. This opportunity comes at a perfect time in my life, especially in light of where my health has taken me particularly as it relates to my life with MS.
The 5 SA homeless shelters in Toronto are, for the first time in our history, going to be integrating (not amalgamating nor merging) under one management structure. The purpose of this is to have a more focused and coordinated approach to housing and homelessness in Toronto. Under the leadership of my long time friend and colleague Bradley Harris (he was the director of Friendship Room before I was), I will have the role of ‘Mission Strategist’. This is a brand new position working for and with the shelter staff and the broader community/church. This position will be about engaging in conversation around our Christian mission, developing training opportunities for staff, and engaging in strategy around mission effectiveness. It will also include responsibility for the Causeway (www.thecauseway.ca), an initiative I’ve been working on for more than a year now, aimed at engaging the church in our work.
Again, it is the perfect job at the perfect time for me in my life. It takes away the things that drain my energy, that I am not great at and that don’t bring me much joy. And it gives me the opportunity to focus on the things that I love to do like writing, thinking, creating, speaking, teaching, and mentoring. These things are life giving to me. They bring me joy. They bring me energy, which in light of how MS is affecting me these days, comes at a premium.
As one dear friend pointed out in an email recently, I am transitioning from the role of being a boss to that of an elder. (Which has come at an earlier stage in my life due to, yet again, my fading health.) It is a role of influence rather than of power.
And I am more than ready for it and excited about the coming chapter of this amazing journey God has set me on.
My heart is still here in Toronto. I believe my calling is still on these streets with the folks who call the streets their home. I too feel at home here. And I am ready to keep trying to be The Hand of God in the Heart of the City.
As always, I’d welcome your prayers.