Saturday, September 6, 2008

Civilization's high-water mark

Last week we spent a few days in Toronto. I got a chance to wander the downtown streets – even visit some of my old haunts. I was impressed by the changes to the city since we left seven years ago.

Some century ahead, a thousand years from now, historians will look at our culture and discover the peak of our civilization. Where will they find that high-water mark that tells them how far we rose as a people?

Will it be the great buildings of commerce?
The Babel towers of Bay and King?
The way a priceless downtown corner like Yonge and Dundas is now opened up as a public square?

Will it be the halls of government?
City, Metro, and Provincial legislatures and courts and the services they spin like a web through the megacity?

Will it be the great buildings of culture?
The new Opera House?
The bizarre crystalline growth on the Royal Ontario Museum?

How about the great halls of Learning?
Students whizzing through and grabbing a degree.
Scholars investing their lives in studies that take us deeper back and further on.

While all of these are marvels of our success as Canadians, they are nothing more than the ancient Greeks, Chinese and Mayans achieved. No, the high-water mark of our culture’s maturity as human beings can be found at the Bloorview Kid’s Rehab centre.

David had an audiology appointment there last Thursday. The place has been totally revamped. It doesn’t feel like an institution. It feels like you’re walking into a corporate retreat centre. Floor to ceiling glass walls welcome you into a spacious entranceway. Electronic art opposite the reception desk draws curious young minds in. There’s a huge wooden globe on the floor divided into segments like an orange. “Take the world apart and re-imagine it” it tells me.

We wait in the big cushy chairs for our turn. There’s the biggest aquarium I’ve ever seen filled with exotic fish. There’s computer consoles with kids pushing buttons from their wheelchairs. There’s big three dimensional puzzles in the center of the room that the four year in me can’t help but go and start manipulating.

We’re given overnight accommodations to ease our stay. It’s half the price of any other room in the city. We share the floor with other families who are friendly and helpful showing us where things are in the shared kitchen. The staff makes us feel like V.I.P. special guests. They seem to know that we’re as needy as the most eccentric, particular, demanding, millionaire.

The crowd of worries that we live in – the constant effort to do more, to find time in each day to do all the little things that David needs. The isolating feeling that you can’t explain why we need a day and a half just to get through a day. The ache for your child’s future that pulls at your self respect, pulls at your family’s other needs, pulls at your resources – always threatening to pull them into pieces. But here there’s no rush. Time is on your side. There’s lots of space. There’s the help you need.

You get to see human beings in all their greatest variety. Kids with no legs, no face, no voice, no brains. There’s no way, you think, that these kids could have a good, full life. Bloorview’s motto is “turning disabilities into possibilities”. Here you get the sense that you’ve tapped into a rich vein of resources. You get the feeling that there’s people here dedicated to discovering how your child might overcome the mountain in their way. There’s a team behind your child that’s going to go as slowly and patiently as it takes - and celebrate every step of the way.

It’s another world. It’s an oasis that prepares to send you back out into the jungle. Bloorview is surrounded by the expansive Macmillan estate; acres of gardens, fields and woods right in the heart of the city. I know that through these woods flows the Don River. And I know that just a few miles down river, almost at its mouth at Lake Ontario, sits the concrete jungle of Regent Park.

If Bloorview Kid’s Rehab is the high water mark of our civilization, Regent Park is us at low tide. It was built in the fifties as an effort to replace a downtown ghetto. It only replaced the makeshift wooden walls that kept families trapped in poverty with higher, stronger brick and mortar walls.

Before I read a page of Theology I read Paulo Friere’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”. Before I’d stepped into the marble hallways of Emmanuel College, I worked a summer at Regent Park United Church. Among the poorest of Canada’s people sits a church built of the same red brick as the whole block between Gerrard and Dundas and River and Parliament.

That summer turned into a fifteen year journey in Toronto’s downtown east end. I’d found my passion. How could the church invest society’s wealth in creating communities that gave every soul a chance to contribute? As I studied theology, I found that that’s what the Biblical story is all about. There’s an awful lot of other theological crap that gets mixed in with it. But if you distill it. It’s where GOD was leading Abraham. It’s where Moses was leading the slaves. It’s the Jubilee code. It’s the prophet’s call. It’s what Jesus came to set in motion with power and an always present helper. It’s the weed in the machinery of empire that cannot be killed.

Corporate wealth has made Bloorview possible. Those same corporations live by unwritten codes that say workers must stay hungry and fearful of poverty’s pit if profits are to stay fat. Never so blatantly put. Clothed in charity to good causes like disabled children. The world that Bloorview pulls into segments to find the possibilities in the cracks, is the same world that corporate power chains tightly together - ratcheting it ever tighter - squeezing the juice out of it. They disable social policy and sacrifice government safety nets with myths of free market gods that must be appeased.

Think I’m exaggerating? Wake up.

Still – the weeds keep growing in the cracks. I took Alana down to visit Regent Park United Church. She snapped my picture in front of it. There’s a garden where there used to be garbage. There was the same drug deal going down in the back doorway that was going down twenty five years ago. We went to visit because this year it’ll all be torn down.

Higher towers will be built there. Rich and poor will live in those towers together. Open green spaces will be created. This neighbourhood will have what every neighbourhood needs. Able and disabled will live together; people from all parts of the world, Toronto’s incredible diversity. GOD’s incredible creativity.

What’s the same about all these folks is that they fear and hate and hurt one another no matter how much money they do or don’t have. What’s also the same about them is that there lives in every one of them a spiritual muscle that pumps the Maker’s vision of hope through their systems. A new United Church will be built there in their midst to keep them exercising that muscle.

When these new towers fall to the next change, will we still be living with the high and low extremes of haves and have nots? Or, will we have found the way to live out the truth that this world really does have more than enough time, money, and resources to share? Will our creativity have matured to the place where our greatest accomplishments are not proven in what we get, but in how, and with who, we get there?


corrie said...

it is amazing to see how this city develops, mind boggling, yet with baby steps (lots of them) the pieces of sharing slowly but positively fall together for the good of the other human being, our neighbor. Do many recognize it or only some? How do others see this and take it in, is there hope in this jungle of science, technology and crazyness? I think so, things are changing for the good and sadly also for worse situations, baby steps must keep on happening. Thank you for your article Allen!

brenda said...

This is a great analysis, Allan. If I were you, I'd give it a try in the "living" section or even the Religion page of the Star or the Globe.

Your perceptions are accurate and penetrating...and oh so understandable, unlike a lot of other analyses.