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St. Paul’s Anglican Church: prayer and advocacy in Vancouver’s West End

In Christianity, communities, Realtionship, Religion, Urban living, Urban ministry, Vancouver, Working with the poor on May 18, 2013 at 5:34 am
St. Paul's Anglican Church. Photo by Iota 9 Source: Wikimedia Commons.

St. Paul’s Anglican Church. Photo by Iota 9 Source: Wikimedia Commons.

It’s Palm Sunday, and I’m standing in Nelson Park with parishioners from St. Paul’s Anglican Church, waiting to proceed to the church on Jervis Street two blocks away.

There’s a trumpeter, a trombonist, a few drummers and choir members in robes. A few people hand out palm leaves. After the priest, Markus Dünzkofer, tells us how we will proceed, he adds, “If bystanders ask what we’re doing, refer them to Clare, our seminarian.”

Everybody laughs. Clare looks uneasy.

As people begin to sing “All Glory, Laud, and Honour,” I get the image of a Salvation Army band, and offer a silent prayer that I see no one I know along the way.

I am here, after all, as a journalist, not a churchgoer.

Once inside the church, after the Opening Versicle, the Hosannas, hymns, prayers, the Gospel, and Confession and Absolution comes the Peace, during which we all turn and nod to one another, or shake hands briefly and say: “Peace be with you.”

I know the drill.

But what’s this? It goes on and on. People wander up and down the centre aisle, in and out of the pews, embracing one another and greeting more and more people.

I think: Good Lord, we’ll be here until Tuesday! Let’s get on with it.

The truth is I’m uncomfortable. All of this flies in the face of what I’d come to view as the stuffiness of the Anglican Church. Not that I like stuffiness. It’s just that all this kissing and hugging throws me off balance.

The truth is these people seem to know and care about each other in a way I don’t normally associate with church.

My reaction surprises me. Even more surprising is that I return for Good Friday services and again for Easter Vigil.

“The Anglican Church isn’t the church of your grandmother and grandfather,” Markus Dünzkofer tells me in a phone interview many weeks later.

Apparently, it’s also no longer the Church of the Empire, or the last bastion of British immigrants in Canada, an image that many Anglicans have been trying to change for years now. And Dünzkofer, a German who studied theology in Edinburgh and was ordained in Chicago, is emblematic of that change.

Curiosity and openness

“We’re an ever-changing community,” Dünzkofer explains, “a crazy and wonderful community. There’s an openness at St. Paul’s, a real curiosity about people, a willingness to engage with the divine, with each other and the neighborhood.”

The young woman to whom Markus Dünzkofer wanted to refer questions during the procession on Palm Sunday is seminarian Clare Morgan, aged 27, a self-proclaimed “Christian punk Goth.”

“I’m like normal here, not anybody’s mascot,” she says. “I still consider myself part of the Cathedral, but you come in with tattoos and a weird haircut and people love you, but they’re a little titillated to know someone like you. I never noticed until I was at St. Paul’s that no one here made assumptions. People don’t kind of slot you into something like: Oh look! A young person with blue hair!

“We may look as if we’re all WASPS,” says parishioner Leslie Buck, “but you look a bit deeper, and there’s an impressive diversity: Dutch, German, French, Turkish, Iranian, Japanese, Korean, Russian, Spanish.”

Ordination of women and same-sex marriage 

A British-born, life-long Anglican, Buck came to St. Paul’s in 1993 when he and his wife moved here from Ottawa.

“We do things now that would have appalled people 50 years ago,” says Buck citing the ordination of women and same-sex marriage. He also cites shifts in the teaching.

“There was a time when the message was primarily keep your nose clean and don’t worry too much about what you do at work the rest of the week. Nowadays more is made of the social gospel, issues like homelessness and poverty. Which is not to say that one’s individual relationship with God or one’s behavior is not an issue, but the church is also responding to the world.”

Buck gives me a bit of St. Paul’s history. The church was first formed in Yaletown, and parishioners included Canadian Pacific Railway workers and their families.

As people prospered, they moved to the West End to build mansions. In fact, a friend of mine insists it was Benjamin Tingley Rogers (of BC Sugar fame) who started the trend in 1900 by building his massive stone house on the corner of Davie and Nicola. And when Mr. and Mrs. Rogers moved on to Shaughnessy, the socially ambitious followed suit, which in turn marked the beginning of what the West End has become today—primarily apartments and condos for single people, small families, and pensioners.

The present St. Paul’s was built in 1905, at a time when the West End was still home to Vancouver’s prosperous.

“The original ethos and style remained much the same from 1905 until 1985 when last of the old style rectors retired. David Crawley took his place and started to change things. The church started ministering to AIDS patients. The change came from the rector, but gradually everyone became supportive and more gay people came into the church, which changed the make-up of the congregation.”

Change or close

“After World War II and up to the eighties,” says Dünzkofer, “the parish thought of themselves as the bastion of English. David Crawley gave them a choice: change or close.

He flung the doors open, and people came in: prostitutes and drag queens. It’s heartbreaking reading the records in the mid 80s. There were three or four funerals a week during the AIDS pandemic. People came to think of us as the gay church. I would not use that term. We are the West End church. We reflect the particular make-up of the neighborhood. We put energy into the questions of poverty in the neighborhood, and what it means to be a Christian with social conscience, and how to be a traditional Christian community that’s open to welcome people in, without losing identity.”

“I think the easiest answer is worship,” Dünzkofer continues. “It’s the centre of who we are. I still think it opens ways into the mysteriousness of God—that constant rhythm of prayer. It empowers us to do the work we’ve been given to do. We are very much a praying community.“

In 1995, St. Paul’s established its Advocacy Office to provide information and support to anyone in the community who sought help with housing problems, legal problems, immigration issues, welfare applications, and other access to government services. The office used to see around 1,000 clients a year. Now it’s over 3,000.

St. Paul’s also supports Our House, a recovery house for people trying to break free of addiction to drugs and alcohol.

“We have a grant for a full-time homeless outreach worker,” says Dünzkofer. “The neighborhood puts a high demand on the church. Other parishes have more advocacy resources. We need to be creative in finding more resources for that.”

Some in the community know St. Paul’s because it’s where their chorus meets, or their regular 12-step meeting is. Others know it because it’s church hall houses a labyrinth that one can walk as a meditation.

“The labyrinth program was first established by people in the church,” says Leslie Buck, “but it opened itself up to the community in general, so we find people coming there who have very little to do with the church. Some wouldn’t be caught dead in the church.”

When I ask about St. Paul’s future, everyone seems to point to the past. In other words, they feel they can lean into the reconciliatory history of the Anglican Church, and its stand for freedom of thought and expression.

“The saint of the Anglican Church was Elizabeth I,” says Buck. “She established the importance of common prayer over a confession of faith. And that has persisted. We’re more open to individual interpretation, to the spirit rather than the letter of the law.”

Buck is optimistic about St. Paul’s future.

“My optimism lies in the current situation, on the people who are here and the way in which they go about their business. “In general people here are of good will. The Spirit is among us. If we keep our wits about us and don’t get complacent, I have hope for the future, though I have no idea what it will be.”

Seminarian Clare Morgan says, “I still hold out for a church where we try as hard as we can to stay together as a family, with a commitment to talking and sharing stories. A lot of fundamentalists go and split and form another church and keep splitting. A friend of mine likes to say ‘We’re good at being heretics, but we don’t like to be schismatic.’ So we yell at each other, but we’re all still Anglican.”

A deepening identity, advocacy and community

From Dünzkofer’s point of view, St. Paul’s future includes a deepening sense of identity. “I crave tradition that creates mystery,” he says, “that sense of the numinous. We also want to experience liturgy that meets people where they are. Some conversation needs to happen [about this], and we have great resources to deal with that. It is our tradition—the language of the people—and worship is a common experience. Praying together—that’s how we find out what God is telling us to do.”

St. Paul’s has faced many changes in the past 27 years. And now it faces yet another. At the end of Sunday’s service on October 21, one of the Church Wardens stepped forward to announce that Markus Dünzkofer has been called to be the next rector of St John’s Episcopal Church in Edinburgh, and he has accepted. He will be leaving St. Paul’s at the end of December.

Dünzkofer says what impressed him most about St. Paul’s when he arrived eight-and-a-half years ago was “the intentionality of ministry in this community—in worship and music and the labyrinth. They were intentional about building it and intentional about getting the community involved. It’s the same thing with advocacy.”

One senses that this same intentionality along with discerning prayer and dialogue will be what carries St. Paul’s through its next set of changes.

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Why we aren’t happy

In communities, Loneliness, Urban living, Vancouver on April 6, 2013 at 1:26 am
Scene from "The Happy Land" at the Court Theatre, Illustrated London News, 1873. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Scene from “The Happy Land” at the Court Theatre, Illustrated London News, 1873. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Published in the Vancouver Observer news site | August 20, 2012

Circulation: 100,000 monthly readers

In its recent survey of 3,841 people in the metropolitan area, the Vancouver Foundation discovered a “high level of loneliness.” The survey, entitled Connections and Engagement, sought to measure people’s feelings of connection to their friends and family and their engagement in their neighborhoods and metro Vancouver. There’s nothing very surprising about the report’s findings, but what stuck me is the questions it raised about the broader implications of personal happiness and community.

The report found that “Vancouver can be a hard place to make friends; our neighborhood connections are cordial but weak; [and] many people in metro Vancouver are retreating from community life.”

What’s more: “Over a third of us have no close friends outside our own ethnic group. And we generally believe that people prefer to be with others of the same ethnicity.”

And: “Most people believe Vancouver is becoming a resort town for the wealthy.”

All of which raise important questions for our political future. The less connected we feel to our neighbors, the less involved we are in the life of our community. I shudder to think how many Vancouverites I’ve talked to over the last five years who no longer think their vote matters.

I wonder how much this is particular to Vancouver and how much this is a national trend. To be sure, Montreal and Toronto have a different feel. More tension, yes. But with that tension comes a sense of fuller participation. Try getting into a cab in Montreal and remaining disengaged. Impossible.

What we love to praise about Vancouver is its natural beauty, its “quality of life.”

Clearly more laid back and seemingly more focused on personal happiness than cities back East, Vancouver has a weird sense of detachment. And I’m not talking about the spiritual kind. Events beyond the mountains seem very far away indeed. And one is lulled again and again by the mountains and the sea into a drowsy apathy.

I once described Vancouver to a friend as dream-like.

“Nonsense,” he said. “It’s narcotic.”

Whether or not it’s drug induced, the detachment of Vancouverites is unsatisfying. I hear a good bit of complaining about lack of community. The problem is, what can community mean in a world where more and more of us telecommute and are members of virtual teams? What does community mean in a city where no one has a dining room? And where most of overheard conversation in restaurants is about electronic devices, and each table is lit by smart phones?

Again, this drifting apart is not unique to Vancouver, but it’s where I see it happening and where it concerns me.

And I suspect it is just the latest narcissitic iteration of the Me Generation.

A character in Denys Arcand’s The Decline of the American Empire quotes a philosopher who maintains that a society devoted to personal happiness has played itself out. And that’s what I find myself wondering: whether or not as a culture we’re defunct. If, in fact, we are not much interested in connecting to one another or being active in our community and are instead busily pursuing an individual happiness in whatever form it is packaged and sold to us, then the end is surely near. Or one would hope.

But I’m not convinced. And neither is the Vancouver Foundation.

As a step toward involving “the general public in conversations about solutions,” the Vancouver Foundation is hosting a program called “Alone Together: Connecting in the Urban Environment” in conjunction with SFU September 18-23.

For more information, visit: http://www.sfu.ca/publicsquare/community-summit/summit-events.html

Take our poll, “What makes you happy?”

Get to know a busker: violist Thomas Beckman

In Vancouver on April 6, 2013 at 1:15 am

Vancouver busker violist Thomas Beckman. Photo by Jose Antonio Madriz

Vancouver busker violist Thomas Beckman. Photo by Jose Antonio Madriz

Published in the Vancouver Observer news site | June 16, 2012

Circulation: 100,000 monthly readers

At first, violist Thomas Beckman was intimidated by busking. Classically trained by a fierce Russian musician at the University of Cape Town, Beckman says he was shy and socially awkward when he was younger. Learning the violin helped him to break free from this. It took him a while to get used to playing outside on the street. And yet he also realized that he could practice, make some money, and meet people all at the same time.

“It struck me as a practical activity,” he says.

He got his start in Vancouver’s busking scene as part of the Sons of Granville, playing what he describes as “rock, folk, funk, with a bit of gypsy high-paced energy and some slow ballad-like songs.”

When I first encountered Beckman, he was playing solo in front of the Broadway/City Hall Skytrain station, and I was struck first by the fact he was playing a viola, and then by the originality of his music—full of a mournful longing that struck me as uncharacteristic of Vancouver. That’s what led me to ask him for an interview.

When I reached Beckman by phone last week, he told me about his new CD called Conception Bay, which was inspired by a road trip he took in South Africa in 2003.

“I was studying in Cape Town, living with my parents, and two German geologists invited me along for a getaway. We drove to Namibia, a fascinating place geographically. We drove for hours and hours on the long open road with nothing, no towns. When we’d see a gas station, we’d fill up completely. You never know where the next one is.

“I realized there is so much beyond the little bubble of the city, so much that lies outside of everything we think we know—so much beauty right there waiting for us. We can always go back to the memory of that place, untouched by humans, and connect with earth and sky and appreciate how gorgeous that is. I was trying to capture the feeling of being free and unhindered, not repressed. I embrace improvisation on many levels, not just musically.”

For Beckman, the trip was a turning point, though he continued to study classical music at the University of Cape Town and at UBC when he moved back to Vancouver, where he was born.

Producing this CD proved to be yet another turning point.

“I learned I can be ten times more fiery in the studio and let it rip,” he says. “I could go nuts with my own creative technique. It was a breakthrough.

“I was always desperately searching for a way to do what my teachers wanted me to do with my bow technique. When I started to busk, I said to hell with it; I’m going to play in my own way. I have no tension in arm when I play. I used to. And no danger of tendentious, an occupational hazard for a musician. It’s not the body; it’s the mind.”

As much as it has been something he has sought to transcend, Beckman’s classical training also comes in handy. Busking takes discipline, and according to Beckman, discipline involves “a higher knowing, above the level where that affects you. You ride the waves of bad weather or people or the odd belligerent policeman and fatigue. It’s not about the money, it’s about the passion and enjoyment, and you get better when you play for hours. It’s almost like a meditation. The outside world can’t touch me when I’m on the inside—enraptured by the music that I’m playing. People feel that and respond to that. It takes fortitude and discipline to get into that state of mind and sustain it for hours sometimes—until I make my quota.”

Beckman explains that his quota is a dollar amount, what he needs to pay his bills and meet expenses. He has also been building community around his work and has collected just under 800 subscribers from the conversations he’s had with people on the street over the last few years.

Beckman started off studying violin as a kid and continued through his first three years of university. But when he heard a recording of Alfred Schnittke’s Viola Concerto, played by Yuri Bashmet, he knew he had to switch to the viola.

“I’d never in my life heard a viola sound like that,” he says, “like a human being, organic, fat, rich and emotional.”

Besides, Beckman says he’d always been too big to play a violin. The size of the viola suited him better.

The busking scene in Vancouver has taken some hits recently. Randy Ponzio’s death had an enormous impact.

“It’s really tragic,” says Beckman. “He was a leader, encouraging, supporting an inspiring person, the most successful of all of us.”

Another well-known hip-hop musician has shifted away from busking because he objects to having to buy a license.

Beckman doesn’t object to the license, but he does object to restrictions on amplification for acoustic instruments. Part of the problem seems to be a lack of communication between buskers and city authorities.

“We were never told we were racking up all these complaints [about noise] or why,” says Beckman. “We had no idea was actually going on.”

Beckman and other buskers called a meeting with the street supervisor and the outside activities people. The problem is twofold. They don’t really understand much about performing music, and they can’t afford to monitor a growing busking scene. The attitude seems to be if we can’t monitor, we might as well close it down.

“We are willing to cooperate to accommodate the complaints,” says Beckman, “but you can’t ban amplification. It would devastate the music scene. Life on the streets, cultural vibrancy is good for business. “Lots of local businesses want street musicians. It makes people happy, creates a sense of buzz and a sense of excitement. Happy people are more inclined to spend money.”

Beckman would like to see the city invest a bit of extra money for a busking program, a committee that includes people who know something about music, and more discernment when it comes to who gets a busking license.

“It’s a privilege to busk,” says Beckman. Not everyone should get a permit.

Though Beckman felt the February meeting with city officials was positive, he’d like to see more regular communication with the committee, so that when people complain, the musicians can know what the complaints are and what neighborhoods they’re in, so they might rotate according to levels of volume and times of the day. Given the difficulty of lining up schedules, Beckman suggest something like a forum on Facebook that keeps lines of communication open.

Are you a busker? Do you live or work near where street musicians play? What are your opinions?