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Archive for the ‘Peace’ Category

In Canada’s poorest neighborhood, a pastor serves mass and lunch

In Christianity, communities, Dialogue, Lutherans, Peace, Realtionship, Religion, Spiritual Practice, Urban ministry, Work, Working with the poor, World Work on November 6, 2011 at 7:26 am

Brian Heinrich

 
by Alfred DePew

(Reprinted from the Vancouver Observer)

When I arrive at the Lutheran Urban Mission Society in Vancouver’s downtown eastside, Pastor Brian Heinrich offers me a seat underneath a verse from Scripture, I John 3:17-18: “… if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or speech but in deed and in truth.”

Heinrich puts the kettle on for tea and then goes in search of a guy who signed up for a yoga lesson with a teacher who is waiting in the chapel.

The walls are pale and fresh, the atmosphere bright and serene. In the chapel down the hall, I find icons of Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; South Africa’s Steve Biko.

Heinrich comes back from the apartment building next door, having had trouble getting in to find the man he was looking for. “Security,” he says. “It’s not like they don’t know me. They see me every day!” The man spaced out the lesson. Heinrich apologizes to the yoga teacher and asks him to come back at two, when he’s sure the next person on the sign-up sheet will be here.

Once we are seated at the chapel’s oak table, Heinrich tells me that, in a real sense, Vancouver’s Lutheran Urban Mission Society was born in St. Louis. That’s where Heinrich, one of LUMS’ founders, went to seminary some 30 years ago. He was educated and inspired by a small group of progressive theologians who, having been censured by the Lutheran Missouri Synod, formed Concordia Seminary in Exile, or Seminex, in 1974.

“These were the bright young stars of the 60s and 70s,” says Heinrich, “many of them educated in Europe and trained in the historical-critical method, which put Scripture into historical context.” A method that ran counter to the thinking of Missouri Synod leaders.

After repeated reprimands and several failed efforts at reconciliation, 45 of the seminary’s 50 faculty members and a majority of their students walked out in protest.

“They left with the processional cross and the shirts on their backs,” says Heinrich.

By the time Heinrich attended Seminex, the seminary had established itself in a storefront on Grand Avenue and was operating under the auspices of the Jesuits of St. Louis University.

“A reversal of the Reformation,” says Heinrich, chuckling. “Lutherans are like Jesuits,” he explains. “We’re the protestant equivalent. Grounded in deep learning, with a commitment to theology—and action. Because they had been exiled from the church body and had no parishes, [Seminex students] had to develop alternative ministry styles. And that’s the direct link from there to here.”

After completing his studies, Heinrich was called to a church in Oliver, BC, a German community not far from Penticton. He was 29. The elders approached him, clicked their heels, bowed slightly at the waist, and addressed him as Herr Pastor. Heinrich was taken aback. He extended his hand and said, “Call me Brian.” The elders were bewildered.

Heinrich would write out his sermons in English, have someone translate them into German, and then spend three days working on his pronunciation. Though he’d been raised understanding German in his neighborhood in south Vancouver, he usually answered his grandparents in English.

“It was my first parish,” says Heinrich. “When I graduated, I was a bit rigid.” He was first and foremost a theologian. “Oliver was a good match for me. They loved me and took care of me. They taught me to be more pastoral, more human. Later, when I was in New York, they sent me boxes of Okanogan jams and home-knit socks. Many of them are still in touch 25 years later.”

From Oliver, BC, Heinrich was called to Manhattan, St. Luke’s Church near Times Square on 46th Street. “Everything in New York shocked me,” he says. “I was a book learning person up to that point pretty much.” Once there, he ran a soup kitchen and a homeless shelter at the height of the HIV crisis. “Men were dying every week,” says Heinrich. “They were like lepers. Everyone was afraid. We served meals with real utensils, nothing disposable. We were affirming their humanity, not just feeding them.”

Heinrich’s ministry grew to include hospice work. By the end of his time in New York, he served as the chaplain at Bailey House on Christopher Street.

As compelling as his work was in New York, Heinrich had always believed that he was called to serve the Canadian church. And yet when the first call came from a bishop asking him to come to White Horse, Heinrich declined. “I thought and prayed and said ‘no.’” Six weeks later, the bishop called, asking him to reconsider, and this time the answer was yes.

It was time to come home to Canada.

After a year or so in White Horse, he returned to Vancouver and settled in Strathcona. While working at a L’Arche community for the disabled, Heinrich noticed that there were no Lutheran churches in the downtown city core. “It’s not that the downtown eastside needed to be Christianized; it was that the church needed to be engaged.” When he mentioned that to the church hierarchy, they all nodded, and, as he says, “that was about it.

“So I called a meeting with people in the community, and we founded LUMS as a separate not-for-profit organization—grass roots founded and supported. We were building out of nothing. I had to convert the churches: here was Lazarus at our doorstep, Christ clothed in the poor. I had to coax Lutherans who are internally focused into external, politically challenging situations. I went out to churches and took youth groups around the downtown eastside. It was intense and demanding.”

At first, LUMS had no office. Everything was on Heinrich’s cell phone. He worked part-time as a street priest for St. James Anglican Church Community Services until they ran out of funding. Next LUMS was invited to First United Church on Gore and Hastings, where they stayed for eleven years. Then came 18 months at Christ Church Cathedral. And then last November, LUMS moved to its own space at 360 Jackson Avenue.

LUMS is run on individual donations, not church structure. “Financial support for churches is shrinking,” says Heinrich. “The whole institution is in a huge recession. Some churches are closing.” So in a sense it’s good that LUMS doesn’t depend upon the church for its survival. “Individuals of conscience believe in our work, and this gives us broader support and keeps us truly independent. It’s the church as organic community vs. the church as facility,” he says.

And it’s this same community that helped Heinrich and his partner, Nathan, when their house burned down in February of 2008. “The fire has been very difficult,” says Heinrich. “The house was my place of refuge, its garden an immediate experience of life and breath. It was also a place of hospitality and welcome, with a chapel where I’d serve weekly Eucharist. Being in exile has connected me even more to the people in the downtown eastside. Your whole world is turned upside down. Where to sleep and do laundry? I have that much more understanding and empathy for challenges of the homeless.”

Heinrich’s passion for social justice is fueled by ecumenical impulses. He has always had close ties to Catholics and Anglicans engaged in the downtown eastside. He preaches regularly at the Anglican Cathedral.

Brian’s style is unconventional, more of a conversation than a sermon. He maintains that it’s not just his job to interpret biblical stories. “I speak freely,” he says. “It’s a dialogue. I’m not so much a preacher as the conductor of an orchestra—a living thing—the spirit is there. This is a living community, struggling with the text.”

From time to time Heinrich returns to preach in the church he grew up in, Martin Luther Evangelical Lutheran at 46th and Fraser. It can be challenging. “The old German people tell me ‘we had nothing when we got here. We worked hard and pulled ourselves up. Why don’t those people just work hard and pull themselves up?’ It’s always dicey.”

Heinrich explains that the circumstances of life have so wounded the homeless, they don’t have the same choices.

“I don’t think the old people get it,” says Heinrich, “but they’ve come several times to put on the meal. And they see some of the same people and get to know their names and establish relationship—that’s the conversion.”

The fourth Saturday of every month, the Lutheran Urban Mission Society serves a hot meal at 373 East Cordova Street. Before the gate opens, Heinrich serves mass to the volunteers at St. Paul’s next door.

Today, the volunteers are from a protestant youth group in Burnaby, 15-20 of them, mostly Asian teenagers, and not quite sure what to make of it all. They are in unfamiliar territory—Canada’s poorest neighborhood, a catholic church—and before them stands the imposing figure of a pastor well over six feet tall, sporting a Mohawk, and with both earlobes full of cobalt blue spiral earrings.

Heinrich invites them to come closer, into the front pews.

“I need your help,” he says. “I’m not going to do all the work here. I want you to listen to the text. Then I’m going to ask you some questions.”

A boy gets up to read from Jeremiah.

“For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, … then I will dwell with you in this place.”

Then a girl comes forward to read from Mathew, the parable of the man who sowed good seed and his enemy who came and sowed weeds among the wheat.

“What do you hear God saying to us?” asks Heinrich. “Come on, you have to help me.”

There’s a long, awkward silence. Heinrich can’t wait too long. There are people to feed.

“The stuff that we do in here in God’s beautiful house,” says Heinrich, “has everything to do with our everyday lives. If worship is separate from what’s happening outside, as if our lives have no connection to this source—don’t think God doesn’t notice that. Many say the church ought not to concern itself with politics. But Jeremiah says, act justly with one another. Do right things in the world. If we make war or take advantage of others—is that connected to what we do here in church? I think not.

“And the parable of sowing seeds—what’s that about?” he asks.

Again a silence, but this time one of the volunteers ventures an answer, and from that follows a bit of a conversation, though cautious.

“Does God want us to be fruitful?”

“Yes.”

“Do we want to be wheat, or do we want to be weeds?”

“Wheat.”

“Sometimes it’s too easy to say ‘we are wheat, and they are weeds.’ The truth is we are each both. It’d be easy to pull up the weeds and burn them. That judgment is not ours. We’re all mixed fields. The time we’re in is full of opportunity. Seize the time and be fruitful. The parts of us can be whole and integrated as we live out in the world.”

Heinrich concludes by acknowledging his listeners.

“This way of preaching may be different from how it’s done in your church,” he says. “Thank you for being gracious.”

Before serving communion, Heinrich says, “This is preparation for what we are about to do next door. Here we can practice generosity as we offer each other the body and blood of Christ.”

Next door, we take our places. Everybody has been assigned a role: food server, plate carrier, table wiper, dish washer. They need someone to circulate with coffee, so that’s what I’m assigned. I have two plastic pitchers, one for black coffee, the other for coffee with milk.

Heinrich opens the gate and lets in the first 43 people with free tickets in hand. It’s a bit chaotic at first—who to serve what first? I pour coffee into cups for people who really want juice. Some don’t speak English, so I lean over and let them look into the jug.

“Juice over here,” I call out. We are angling around each other and there are some near misses.

Pasta with meat sauce. Pasta without meat sauce. Juice. Coffee. A bag of three cookies. Ice cream in back and a small bag of fruit to take home.

“Coffee!” I head over to a table. “Not black. With milk.”

“Anyone for black coffee here?” I ask. “Yes? OK. I’ll be right back with the coffee with milk.”

“Where’s the sugar?”

“Already on the table. Right there.”

“Thanks.”

“More juice over here,” I call out and then head back to the counter to get the coffee with milk. But which table wanted it? And someone over there hasn’t been served a plate yet. Where’s a food server? Never mind. Not my job. They can handle it.

Not everyone is finished when Heinrich lets in the second group. Some in the first group have shoveled pasta into plastic bags they brought and are calling for more.

The pace picks up with each new wave of people. It’s hot. People are impatient. They’re hungry. Also gracious, grateful, and obliging. The kids from Burnaby are steady, unflappable.

Each seating seems a little more chaotic than the one before, and yet we begin to meet the increased confusion with a graceful rhythm in our bodies, as we learn to work together as a team by instinct.

“Hey!” a man shouts. “Hey. She’s had three meals! She’s stealing.”

When I go over to him, he grabs my arm and pulls me toward him.

“It’s those Chinese,” he says. “Rob you blind. Tell Brian to stop letting them in. It’s not right. It’s just not right.”

“I’ll tell him,” I say, and pour him a cup of coffee.

When I’m near the door, I peer out to see if the crowd is thinning. All I see is more people.

Then suddenly there’s no more pasta.

“We’re not out! We’re not out!” shouts one of the cooks. “There’s more cooking!”

A grim irritation settles over the room.

“Welcome,” I tell the newcomers. “Have a seat.”

I keep pouring coffee.

Someone brings out the new pot of pasta, and the servers are at it again until, after eight seatings, we have fed more than 300 people.

As the crowd thins out and we start cleaning up, a woman approaches me. She’s wearing a hoody and several bright scarves. She unwinds one of them, a fine, delicately coloured one made of something like silk, and presses it into my hand.

“Give this to Brian,” she says.

I thank her and assure her I’ll pass it on to him.

“Tell him it’s from Luella. He doesn’t know who I am.”

“He will, Luella. Keep coming back,” I say, “and he’ll know you.”

Becoming Still (Reprinted from the Vancouver Observer)

In Inner Work, Peace, Relationship with Self, Spiritual Practice, World Work on January 4, 2010 at 11:40 pm

Let’s just say it’s not at the top of my agenda most days, which is why at Christmas I usually choose to make a retreat.

Chances are, if I had a regular sitting meditation practice, I wouldn’t need to take such drastic measures: booking the retreat, explaining to friends and business associates why I won’t be at their Christmas parties again this year, taking a bus to the ferry, the ferry to Vancouver Island, and a taxi to the retreat centre.

That’s the easy part. The hard part is living in my own skin for four days without the distractions I keep saying I want to escape.

Once they are nowhere to be found, distractions seem like a mighty good idea.

Who wants to face one’s failures and shortcomings? Who wants to face one’s loneliness and cravings?

And who the hell wants to listen to what goes on inside my head?

I sure don’t. And yet that’s exactly what I am faced with in the early stages of any retreat I make. To a certain extent, that’s the whole purpose. The aim is to get beyond the “monkey mind.” My fear is always that it’s nothing but monkeys as far as the mind can see. Experience has taught me that I can get beyond them, but not without going through a considerable amount of chatter.

So far, I haven’t found any short cuts.

I was trained in the retreat process by Sufis. Once—sometimes two or three times—a year, I would drive to a small centre in southern New Hampshire and sit in a tiny hut from three to fourteen days of silence. My guide would give me various spiritual practices when she came to sit with me each morning. And in the evening, she would leave a hot meal outside my door.

The retreat process is analogous to alchemy, the practice of turning lead into gold. Unhappily, it involves a lot of burning, melting and putrefaction along the way.

Not everyone’s idea of a good time. In fact I was sure I had gone stark raving mad my first time out. And I had. That was what I needed to get through before I could find anything akin to peace of mind.

This is the point at which many say the real retreat begins.

Not for me. My retreat starts shortly after I make the intention and finalize the travel plans. I’m eager, and then resistance sets in. I’m suddenly convinced that this is not the right time. My business needs attention. What about Christmas cards? You might meet someone important at one of those parties, you know. They’re going to stop inviting you if you keep refusing.

Then I encounter everything in my life that is out of whack—a sneak preview of what I will be alone with at the outset. The theme. Then I stay up late the night before I leave, trying to get everything done. (O! Human Folly!) Then I’m up in the morning, drinking coffee, then running for the bus, having forgotten to bring along the phone number of the cab company in Nanaimo. But I get there—somehow I always get there—and I begin to settle in.

It’s lovely at first. I usually start out with a nap. And then a long walk or some basic practices before the first meal break. It’s as if my mind wants to let me believe it’s going to behave itself this time and not interrupt the proceedings. Ha! Just another ploy, so it can jump out and get me when I’m not looking. I’m much easier with it than I was when I started. The mind does what it does—distracts, bedevils, tells itself bad stories, worries, and comes up with great ideas like smoking a cigar or sneaking out for ice cream. It’s a wild ride until the mind is also brought in line with the breath and the heart. And it always takes time.

Whether I intend it or not, an examination of conscience begins. Years ago, one of my Sufi guides gave me a short form—three questions. Where am I not right with myself? Where am I not right with others? And where am I not right with God? “Right” here is used in the sense of right relationship, not right vs. wrong. No matter how much experience I have with this, it’s always agonizing—and humbling. An act of radical acceptance. And essential if I am to gain any peace at all.

Peace begins with glimmers—something I read, perhaps, or after I weep. On a walk. Sitting on a stone above the lake. The silence itself is what brings it about. That’s what I’ve come here to find.

Peace is like a pulse that gets stronger as fear and resentment and worry loosen their grip.

And I remember the verse from the 46th Psalm: “Be still and know that I am God.”

On Christmas Eve, I step outside and watch the moon growing fuller. I’m aware of waiting in a vast silence, the way that I imagine Mary waited to give birth to something beyond all comprehension.

And as I stand there, looking up, there is nothing more to think or plan. In that moment, all the words fall away, and I am surrounded by blessing.

“Zeitgeist and the Berlin Wall” (Reprinted from The Vancouver Observer)

In communities, International Relations, Peace, Realtionship, TimeSpirits, World Work on November 15, 2009 at 8:58 pm

On the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, I’m aware of not only the spirit of that time, but also a difficult-to-name energy at work around last month’s announcement of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Zeitgeist is usually translated as the intellectual, ethical or political climate of a nation, the “mood of an era.” It is, quite literally, TimeSpirit, and I write the word in the same way that physicist and Jungian analyst Arnold Mindell does when he talks about a felt but invisible force having an impact on how we think and relate to one another. When I work in organizations or with couples, I sometimes feel the TimeSpirits of Racism or Homophobia, as well as the TimeSpirit of last year’s economic meltdown.

Twenty years ago, I followed the events in Berlin with a sense of excitement and dread. On the one hand, I was full a wild hope; on the other, the fear of a massacre along the lines of Tiananmen Square five months earlier. What prevented Berlin from becoming a bloodbath? Nobody knows, exactly. There may have even been something about Tiananmen Square that actually shifted the world’s awareness. But there was something different about the TimeSpirit in Berlin, which I believe helped to shape the final result. Many events led up to November 9, 1989—Hungary opening its border to Austria; East Germans flooding the West German embassy, refusing to return to the East; Erich Honecker’s resignation. And what some observers feel really made it possible: a mass demonstration in Leipzig a month earlier, which in turn was made possible by the Montagsdemonstrationen, or “Monday demonstrations” that preceded them.

Police, and the troops that were later called in, could have opened fire on the demonstrators. According to some reports, they were ordered to do so. But they did not. Why? What had shifted? One remembers the plea of Chinese students to the soldiers: Don’t shoot! Join us; we are your brothers and sisters! It wasn’t enough to turn the tide. And yet, five months later, halfway round the globe in Leipzig, when 70,000 protesters began to chant, “Wir sind das Volk!”“We are the people!”—something was different. And a month later, at the Berlin Wall, whatever the political, economic, and social factors at play, a TimeSpirit seemed to dictate that this would not end in the same way as Tiananmen Square.

Writer and medical intuitive Caroline Myss maintains that people in Eastern Europe simply decided to divest themselves of Communism. It was a shift in thought, in consciousness. And because there were enough of them doing it at the same time, nothing much else was needed to accomplish it. Zeitgeist. A sea-change. Something that, in the end, cannot be explained in any of the usual ways.

Last November, American voters elected the first black president in their history. Like the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, it was one of those things I never thought I’d see in my lifetime. As I watched President Obama being sworn into office in January, I was filled with the same kind of uneasy wonder I’d felt watching the Berlin Wall come down. Against all odds, beyond all the reasons given by political pundits, the inconceivable had actually happened.

Last month, when the Nobel Committee announced President Obama as the recipient of the Peace Prize, there was a kind of stunned silence at first, then criticism of the Committee’s decision because Obama had not “proven himself.” Again, I felt the presence of a TimeSpirit—something larger than political events or one man’s personality and charisma. Something that included people’s renewed sense of possibility and the ability to imagine an entirely different kind of future. Something far beyond political rhetoric: zeitgeist. As if the Nobel Committee were honouring not the man, but all that he has come to embody in this moment.

Obama, himself surprised, said, “I do not view it as a recognition of my own accomplishments, but rather as an affirmation of American leadership on behalf of aspirations held by people in all nations.” Aspirations held by people in all nations. Zeitgeist.

Not one man or one woman, one event, or one single turning point, but a gathering of consciousness, a TimeSpirit that when heard and headed is what can make all the difference in the world. And my hunch is that more than one person on the Nobel Prize Committee is aware of that.

It’s certainly what those gathered 20 years ago at the Berlin Wall found out.