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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.

When a house was a home and not real estate

In communities, Realtionship on April 5, 2013 at 5:11 am
The house on Pine Street, Portland, Maine

The house on Pine Street, Portland, Maine

Published in the Vancouver Observer news site | November 14, 2011

Circulation: 100,000 monthly readers

Even empty, even in the disrepair left by its last tenants, the soul of the house on Pine Street in Portland, Maine remains intact, palpable, and still welcoming.

In August, I walked through it for the last few times, showing it to friends and fellow artists who might be interested in buying it, talking to people from consignment shops about the five remaining pieces of furniture, and one last time to smudge it and bless it and thank it for being home to me for more than 15 years.

Before me, the house belonged to a colleague in the sculpture department at the Maine College of Art, and I had visited the back part, where the painter David Cedrone lived and had his studio.

It’s a house I had passed several times a day on my way to and from downtown, and it always caught my eye, not because it was showy, but because it was singular, somehow. Unlike any other house on the street. Simple, square, stout, and plain—wood frame with asbestos siding the colour of, well, let’s say “tan”—with the oldest tree on the block out front. And in the spring, clustered around one of John V’s sculptures, an abundance of blue flag iris.

I was not looking to buy a house in 1994, but when I passed it one day, and John was outside, he said he was selling. I asked if I could see the inside in case I knew of anyone who was looking to buy.

He walked me through his part, the middle room, which he used as a studio, the front room, where one of his sons was living, the kitchen, the large bathroom and the open space behind the kitchen.  Upstairs were two bedrooms he rented to art students and a bathroom; then there was David’s section in back—two rooms, a bath and kitchen area.

It was a lot bigger than it looked from outside, and I had the uncanny feeling that I already lived there.

“Uh oh,” I said. “I might have to buy this house, and I don’t even know how to buy a house—even if I had the money.”

Indeed, I wasn’t sure I entirely approved of home ownership. Some old Marxist impulse in me.

“Go to the bank,” he said, “and see if you can get a mortgage.”

A mortgage, I thought. Much too grown-up for someone like me. And yet with one thing and another, I qualified for a low-income first-time home-buyer mortgage, and somehow it all worked.

The night of the closing, after everything was moved, I went to a Christmas party and admitted to people how frightened I was to go back to the big empty house. It was odd. Here it was mine and I was scared of it. I kept having dreams of people who lived there I hadn’t known about. I dreamt of rooms I hadn’t seen. Whatever spirits there were in the house were friendly enough, even welcoming. Even so, it took time to live into the place—boxes everywhere, only two chairs.

Friends from a meditation group came to bless the house. Then I held a potluck supper. In addition to food, I asked people to bring a plate to eat off of and/or a chair. House warming gifts.

I fashioned a large table out of a hollow door on milk crates, threw a cloth over it, placed a vase of flowers in the middle, and waited. And people arrived, bringing just enough chairs, just enough plates. From thrift shops, potters’ studios. Each one different, unmatched, singular. Together a collection of unmatched objects, each its own shape and colour, conforming to nothing but the spirit of the house itself: improvisation and Yankee ingenuity.

Which pretty much characterized my life in those years. The next summer, I had my first writer’s fellowship at the Wurlitzer Foundation in New Mexico, which began eight years of migration back and forth. I began studying massage and Polarity Therapy. I returned to painting.

The house provided room for writing workshops, Liberal Arts faculty meetings, potluck suppers, community organizing, and healing sessions in the treatment room upstairs. Summers, I would rent the house to a writer who wrote three of her children’s books there. A friend of mine’s father came to stay with me for a week or 10 days, so I could work with him on a book he was writing about sailing solo across the Atlantic to celebrate his 70th birthday. I hosted my men’s group once or twice a month, switching off with another member who had a photography studio. I could meet with my students from the documentary centre down the street when we needed more space and quiet.

That first winter, while I was shoveling snow between storms, an elder man stopped and told me that’s he’d been born in the house, pointed to the front bedroom upstairs.

“In July,” he said. “It was so hot, my dad and his friends kept pouring water on the roof to try to cool the birth room down.”

During my first nor’easter, the house began to rock and creak like an old ship. I called a friend who live down east who assured me that its movement was good news.

“It’s made of wood, right?

“Yes,” I said.

“Then it’s supposed to do that. If it were a brick house and it was swaying, you’d be in trouble.”

“Besides,” she continued. “That house has seen more nor’easters than you’ll see in your life.”

She had a point. The house had survived the Civil War, the Great Fire of 1865, and any number of hurricanes. What was one more snowstorm?

After posting notices at the art school and the hospitals nearby, after telling every artist I knew that the house was available with a shed out back that would make a perfect studio, after upwards of 50 showings, a developer has bought the house to reconfigure and resell.

For the first time in its 188-year history, the house has been bought by someone who will not live in it. This dwelling housed students, artists and writers for the last 30 years or so, was once a boarding house, and may have for a time been a whorehouse (small and intimate to be sure. This house with a soul that called me to it, in the end, has become someone’s investment property, just another piece of real estate.

Not my first choice. Not my choice at all, but the way things turned out.

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.”

The Problem with Obedience

In communities, Dialogue, Family, Realtionship, World Work on October 25, 2010 at 4:47 am

Guest Post by Kathleen Mangiafico, Relationship Specialist at Farmington Valley YMCA

Are you a person who doesn’t like to read ALL the directions to a game, and you just want to learn as you go?  I am.  Sometimes I just feel like it’s too much to absorb at once.  There’s too many rules to follow.  I’d rather just stick with the attitude of curiosity, see how the game plays out, than feel frustrated with the idea of understanding it all.  Interestingly, this isn’t how many of us approach other aspects of our lives.  We NEED to know the exact way to go about living and if we start to get frustrated….well, that’s when the real trouble starts.

Obedience.  We love it!  Obedient people are easy to get along with, helpful, and generally pleasant to be around.  Obedience is an emotional gift that some people are born with by nature.  Historically however, the parent/child relationship model we’ve been working from is to nurture obedience too.  …And there is a problem that comes with being JUST obedient….it’s called the tank of resentment!  So how does obedience affect our view on life?  How does it affect our personality?  What kind of affect does obedience have on our relationships?

We are currently in what I call the “cultural and generational collision”.  When I was a kid (I’m almost 42), and certainly when you go further back in time, children did as they were told.  They followed the rules!  Children were “seen and not heard” and the old adage was “spare the rod, spoil the child”.  Obedience was consciously taught in the home, schools, and through organized religion.  Many generations later, we are coming to learn the downside of this misinterpreted philosophy and are experiencing the repercussions of this type of living.  Yet, we still have not defined how to approach life and all of our relationships from a more balanced approached.

Balance.  There are other terms we keep throwing around like organic, healthy, holistic, etc..  But what we really want to move towards is balanced living.  Balanced living cannot be judged based on a particular food you eat, whether you are being rational at the moment, or if we are completely “whole” within our relationships all the time.  Although we cognitively understand this concept, we are all conditioned to live based on obedience.  And guess what?  The human race is collectively sick of being obedient!  This is evident just by watching pop culture TV, listening to the radio, or watching the dreadful news.  The new norms and values to life are blurry at best.  Childhood and adult emotional disorders, mental illness, divorce, addictions of all kinds (food, drugs, alcohol), avoidance behavior (work a-holics, exercise a-holics, shop a-holics…), and disconnected relationships are the fabric of our lives.

Balanced living is a continuum.  Balance is a moment in time when everything seems to be falling exactly in line with what we deem to be perfect (a.k.a.)…  A peak moment!  For every other moment, we are either left or right of center!  To live a balanced life, you have to be aware of what’s really important to you and who it involves, yet still find an appreciation and value for all else that you would prefer to be different.

So how does obedience affect our view on life?

How does it affect our personality?

What kind of affect does obedience have on our relationships?

Approaching life from just the attitude of obedience will cause you to be marginalized….ignored!  As a kid, you will be loved and valued by your parents and teachers, but you will be tormented by your peers.  As an adult, your voice will not be heard in your relationships and you will start to lose value in yourself.  You will continue to only listen and follow directions and you won’t be able to make decisions!  Human nature dictates that we need to know what someone stands for.  So, if you don’t speak up and use your voice when needed, someone else will use theirs for you!

If you are obedient by nature, here’s some pointing towards growing into the whole YOU when in relationship:

If you are a kid or growing young adult:

  • Stand up for yourself on the playground!  Make sure your voice is part of the decision making for how the game is going to be played.  Stand up for yourself in the hallways of middle school. Accept that some people won’t like it and it’s not the end of the world!  Choose to leave the relationship (when possible) if your voice is not respected or valued.  Stand in the fire when needed and hold your own.  Don’t run.  Over time, you will earn the respect of your peers for letting them know who you are.  Accept whatever consequences come from authority.  Leave room for forgiveness to repair relationships.
  • In your relationship with Mom, Dad, teacher or another caretaker, don’t let obedience hold back your voice.  Sometimes the adults in your life are too controlling.  Try to understand that they are unaware of how they are treating you.  It’s not intentional.  It’s just learned attitudes and behaviors.  In the moment of disagreement, accept their rank and privilege and do what is necessary.  When the situation is calm, go to them to express how you feel using “I statements”. ex.) “I feel ____when ____happens.”  Accept that you won’t always feel satisfied, but at the very least, you will have expressed yourself and not stored your feelings in a tank of resentment.  Overtime, some of the adults will start to hear your voice and will respect it.

If you are an adult:

  • Assert yourself in your close relationships!  i.e. your marriage, co-workers, bosses, extended family, and friends.  Stop avoiding conflict by choosing avoidance behaviors such as:  closet eating, closet drinking, doing drugs, working, exercising, cleaning or shopping too much. Stand in the lions roar!!  Don’t let his/her roar scare you.  Face the lion and hold your ground. Take space if needed and let the lion know.  When the atmosphere is calm, express yourself in a calm, deliberate manner by using “I statements”.  Accept that the lion won’t always like it immediately.  They need time to understand your roar.
  • If you are an adult who grew up in a time of obedience, then ask yourself, “How do I show up  in my role as parent, teacher or caretaker?”  Are you controlling and a bully? …Or do you tend to be a catastrophic push over, only to end up yelling and screaming?  Get clear on your expectations of your kids.  Have a family/class/group meeting to express them.  Allow the kids to express their desires too.  Get aligned on the expectations.  See where you can flex to meet the children’s wants, especially as they get older.  Hold boundaries when needed and be consistent.  Stop the negative verbal dialog.  Be aware of giving genuine praise and acknowledgment.

Obedience is a necessary attitude of life, but is extremely detrimental when used to please someone.  When using the attitude of obedience, think in terms of being obedient to The Relationship…not being obedient to the individual(s).  Result?  With much practice, three generations from now we will have redefined healthy, connected, sustainable individuals and relationships.  They will be co-arising, not co-dependent!

Questions/Thoughts To Ask Yourself When the Attitude of Obedience Shows Up

  • How will what I am about to Say or Do impact my relationship?
  • What Is Trying To Happen for the sake of the relationship?
  • What do I Need to Accept from the other person, that I would prefer to be different, for the sake of the relationship?
  • What Needs To Happen next for the sake of the relationship?

Kathleen Mangiafico, ORSCC is a Relationship Specialist.  Her expertise lies in working with diverse individuals, and other relational systems (youth groups, couples/families, businesses) and can be reached at kbmangiafico@sbcglobal.net

Eldership Circles (reprinted from the Vancouver Observer)

In communities, Realtionship, World Work on January 2, 2010 at 9:00 pm

As supportive as her women’s group has been over the years, Vicki McLeod felt a need to extend her personal work into her professional life—and beyond. She also noticed that many of her colleagues and clients “were doing everything their MBAs taught them and the consultants told them, and it still wasn’t happening—things weren’t changing. Something else was needed.”

So McLeod, a local communications consultant and coach, started an Eldership Circle.

“I realized that if I was going to hold a space for change, I needed a place where I could do my inner work and be fully supported to take it out into the world. So I decided to put out a call.”

The group’s purpose is to create a space where women can help each other in “overcoming personal barriers and prejudices, [creating] conscious awareness of rank and privilege, and resolving inner conflict—all necessary to … heal our communities.” The circle is meant to go beyond personal growth and always points to service. It’s a place where personal development and social consciousness meet.

“To want to change the world is scary. One is subject to doubt and maybe even ridicule. So the Eldership Circle helps people to explore their own edges, get clarity about goals and purpose and hold space for the collective mind to emerge. There’s magic in a circle.”

And who answered the call?

Women who were “willing to stand in wisdom and fierceness to facilitate change,” says McLeod. Women in search of role models and mentorship. “Kick-ass, loving women,” as one member of the circle puts it, intent on charting new territory.

“Spiritual warriors,” says another.

“It’s hard work,” says McLeod, “particularly in dealing with system conflicts. And yet conflict is very often at the core of deep change and can offer incredible wisdom.”

What the women in the Eldership Circle seek and find in each other is, in the words of a third member, “Authenticity, friendship. Laughter. Joy. Connection. A group that will hold me to my highest self when the road gets rocky and bring me back to [my purpose] if I get lost in the mud.”

“Eldership is really about looking at transformational change through the lens of how it can impact the greater whole,” says McLeod.

“Elders ask: what does this mean for the world? If I’m suddenly afraid to speak in front of the group—that is a process for me. It may be present in the group, and it may be present in the World. We are all afraid to speak. How, then, might my crossing that edge make it possible for the World to cross that edge too?”

What is the difference between leaders and elders?

The way McLeod sees it, “leadership is often about having followers. Leaders set a direction.” Elders, on the other hand, “have faith that a direction will emerge.”

It sounds a bit like walking in the dark.

“It’s a lot like that,” says Vicki, laughing.

What, then, would be the most useful relationship between leaders and elders?

“Ideally” says McLeod, “leaders would access the wisdom of elders and eventually become elders themselves.”

This means that elders must be present and in conversation with leaders, which is not always the case today. In fact, some maintain that elders have disappeared over the last few decades into retirement communities and assisted living facilities. We do not have much access to elders. McLeod says that eldership was not really obvious in her world. Both her grandmothers died before she was 20.

“The notion of eldership circles is ancient—the bringing together of the collective wisdom of a group or tribe in service of the greater whole has been around, I would venture, as long as humanity. Certainly, aboriginal cultures consider eldership as a key component of social and community functioning.”

McLeod doesn’t want the circle to be seen as an exclusive enclave for professional women. She wants Eldership Circles to be open to anyone who feels called.

“I would love to see more circles grow, more individuals stepping into Eldership and offering their wisdom to the world. I would especially love to see men’s circles get started—or mixed circles. One of the principles of eldership is embracing diversity.

“I started my circle where I am—a middle-aged, middle-class white woman. So my circle is largely composed of the same.

“My intention for Eldership Circles is very clear. There are no fees for them, and anyone is free to create a circle and use the resources on my website to get started. While this is part of my life’s work, it is not the way I make my living. It is a contribution I want to make to the world, and then I hope that the circles will grow and become self-sustaining and self-spawning.

“It really has nothing to do with me.”

For more information about Vicki McLeod and the Eldership Circles, visit her website:

http://www.vickimcleod.com/world-work/eldership

“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.

Ghost Roles in Organizations

In business, communities, organizations, Realtionship on October 6, 2009 at 12:18 am

We’ve talked about Outer and Inner Roles and a bit about the energy and skill with which roles can be occupied. In Relationship Systems work, we also talk about Ghost Roles, by which we mean people who are no longer physically present or events, which nonetheless have an impact on what’s going on in the system at present.

Not long ago I worked with an organization that hired me, to help them clarify the roles of its Executive Director and board members. In the two days that we worked together, names of people no longer on the board kept coming up. Each time that happened, I would suggest we add it to the Parking Lot, or the list of things we felt were important but were beyond the scope of our stated agenda.

In a follow-up session, we decided to get to the items on the Parking Lot. Those names of people no longer associated with the organization, for instance.

More often than not, these are people: a beloved former CEO or some trouble-maker whom nobody misses at all. Sometimes the ghost is an event. An illness, for example. Or downsizing that involved a massive lay-off. Anything outside the current team or system that continues to have an impact.

So there we were in a room full of ghosts. At first we called them by the names they share with the people associated with them. Once again: roles are not people. We were looking for the qualities of those roles that were “haunting” the system. Wicked Witch was one. She kept coming up again and again. We listed her qualities, and I asked if everyone was ready to put her out of the room—so we could decide on how they wanted to work with the ghost.

“Yes!” everyone shouted.

And not a minute later, she was in the room again.

So I said, “Look. This high-back chair is the Wicked Witch. She’s in the middle of the room. What do you notice?”

“I can’t see the people on the other side of the room,” said one.

“She’s in the way,” said another. “We can’t move forward!”

“OK then. Are you ready to have her in the other room?” I asked.

“Yes! Yes!” said everyone. And I carried the chair out of the room.

And 3 minutes later, there she was again, so I carried the chair back into the middle of the room.

“No. No. No.” said everyone.

“Well what’s it going to be?”

“We can’t seem to get rid of her ….”

“It’s ‘witchy-ness’ you can’t get rid of. That’ll always come back. It happens; it’s normal. How do you want to be when that happens?”

And so we designed an alliance around that.

There were other ghosts in their system. The ghost of an aggressive young know-it-all, the ghost of a greedy landlord. And since ghosts are not people, we set about describing the qualities of each figure as we removed the ghost from the room. Then the group could better see how they wanted to behave with each other when those qualities re-emerged. Because they will come back. Not the people. The qualities: witchy-ness, or know-it-all, or greed, or disrespect.

Those are the qualities you want to become conscious of and be prepared to deal with in the future.

And it could be as simple as saying: “There she is again—the Wicked Witch. Remember what we agreed to do when ‘witchy-ness’ shows up.”

What we talk about when we talk about relationship ….

In Realtionship on July 25, 2009 at 5:19 am

We all know that “Are you in a relationship?” means “Are you—dating? Living with someone?” For most of us the word brings to mind our nearest and dearest—spouses, friends, and family. For some, the word refers exclusively to the person with whom they share a bed and a mortgage. Relationship suggests intimacy. It can be a tender subject.

Relationship simply is. It infuses every conversation, is, in fact, the ground of the conversation itself if not the subject. It’s the context, the air we breathe, the water we swim in. We are never not in relationship. Which is why it’s so easy to overlook. We often take it for granted, and only become aware of relationship in its extreme states: its highs or lows. In fact, to suggest reflecting upon relationship seems to suggest that something is wrong. Our motto tends to be “if it aint broke, don’t fix it.” And so we tread softly, avoid conflict, settle for less, all the while building resentments—until the relationship itself demands attention.

Not a bad thing, just what tends to happen. At least in my life.

My purpose here is twofold. I want to open a wide-ranging conversation about relationship, using the word in its primary and broadest definition: “the state of being related or interrelated.” Couples, families, friends, business partners, corporate teams, organizations, communities. Relationship to work, play, the body, Spirit …. Relationship in all its various forms.

I also want to stay curious about relationship itself—that thing that is bigger than the sum of its parts. That “state of affairs,” as Webster puts it, “existing between those having relations or dealings [italics mine].” I have come to think of relationship as a living being, conscious in and of itself, and capable of learning. To many of you this is not a new concept, but to me it was baffling at first. And yet I had a sense in my own bones that this was true.

As my colleagues at the Center for Right Relationship are fond of saying: relationships are naturally generative. Get two or more people together in a room and something happens—small talk, laughter, shared interests, fights, babies, book deals … you name it.

Here are a couple of questions to consider. Think of a relationship you’re in and notice what is getting generated. What would you like that relationship to generate more of and how you might help it to do that?