Tuesday, May 19, 2009

it's better to be poor

Last week I traveled back in time. The new stuff that’s happening in my life – the green growth – the Dondi project - and a weekend fishing trip – resulted in juice being drawn up from deep roots.

Raising money for Dondi brings me into contact with people involved in other good causes. A pair of tickets to a gala evening at Metropolitan United Church gets dropped in my lap. The hook for me isn’t the performers – although they are class acts from the best that Toronto has to offer. It isn’t the fact that the evening is honouring a clergyman my dad knows who worked the downtown in the sixties as the “Padre of the Pubs” and started a 24-hour Helpline organization that now extends across the country. It isn’t the chance to hear from Norman Jewison about growing up at Que Beach United Church – who knew? – although that was very cool. No, the hook for me is the fact that the whole deal was raising money for the little church/drop-in centre in Regent Park where I cut my teeth as a churchworker.

It’s the most spectacular evening in a United Church that I’ve ever attended. It borders on a professional show. The crowd is very classy – all dressed in urban evening wear. I recognize dignitaries of the church’s social justice scene. It seems the height of what the UCC can call it’s own – maybe even feels like it’s reaching beyond it’s grasp a bit – and pulling it off ... I calculate that the evening will bring in at least 50 grand to help house 72 previously homeless members of Trono’s streets.

It takes me back to remember the Scarbro boy with a university degree and a cabbie’s license looking for some church work that might suit him. He’d traveled in places they called the third world. He’d toiled in Canadian factories and construction sites and at whatever might pay for more education and more travel.

Jesus had put the finger on him. He’d no idea what the plan was. He returned to his home town and his home church and he wondered how the heck he might fit back into a church he’d left behind a decade ago? He was ripe for the picking. A wily old reverend running a poverty business in Regent Park hired him for minimum wage - knowing a fresh convert when he saw one – knowing that he probably would have worked for food.

These memories were stirring up old emotions. My head was still spinning from the weekend fishing trip. Since moving to Fenelon Falls I’d reconnected with high school friends who cottaged just a few miles away. A tradition at the Ayres cottage was that the boys would open up the cottage the weekend before Victoria day – and all their buddies would come and fish the first night of Pickerel season.

Their buddies now are mostly the same guys they grew up with on Scarborough Crescent where Joe and Edna Ayres raised their 12 children. I met them in high school - leaving behind my United church family I discovered a new family. I found a party in full swing. To get to know one Ayres meant you got to know them all. This extensive and expanding community had many of the attributes of my old family – generosity, curiosity, laughter, celebrations, judgments reserved just for those who judged, and compassion - except for those who lacked it. The main difference was the soundtrack and the alcohol.

Sunday morning, Tom Ayre’s wife Jill – who’s mother attends the church I serve – where I performed Tom and Jill’s wedding as a theology student working his way up from the church in Regent Park through the hoops of the company – told me that Edna Ayres had died that morning.

That took me back to the old neighbourhood. We celebrated a mass for Mary Edna Coburn Ayres at the St. Therese Roman Catholic Church where she was a devoted member all the years her family lived on Scarborough Crescent. Her home will always be for me the heart of Scarborough.

Her husband Joe took the TTC every day into the city to a poultry processing plant from where he brought home “the bacon” – and chickens and eggs to feed his twelve children.

Coming from my own nuclear family of five, I was impressed at how there was room at their table – a table already full of children – and their many friends. When Tom invited me to visit their summer place in Bobcaygeon, I was further amazed at how there might be room for me in a trailer where there was always a crowd and always – miraculously – room for one more.

To be with the Ayres is to be in the midst of stories and laughter. Names spill out with beers poured down - those who are funny and those who are famous – heroes, thieves, scoundrels, and friends and friends of friends. The circles are many and wide.

The two eldest boys – Frank and Bob set the extremes the rest live within. Frank is a long serving RCMP officer. Bobby ran with a biker club in his early days. He never did any serious time as far as I know but he represents that edge of the neighbourhood – Scarbro’s oldest ghetto hidden between Kingston Road and the Bluffs where kids were raised by working moms and absent dads.

This pocket of poverty – not much different than Regent Park - is set in the midst of what once was a solid working class neighbourhood. Back when being a single income, hard working, company man was enough to make you middle class - with moms at home in a brick bungalow surrounded by the tamed – and untamed - park lands of the Scarbro Bluffs.

Today, lawyers, real estate agents, and executives are buying up the little brick homes on large lots and throwing up megahouses. Gangs of toughs accost their children on the way to school - preying on the newest cell phones, ipods, and pockets of cash – teaching them valuable life lessons about priorities and making choices. Will you walk with expensive gear and learn to avoid trouble – let fear dictate where you walk? Or, will you travel light and easy and go wherever you please – not afraid of hungry residents looking for their share of the loot?

Seeing those guys in church honouring the mother of all the best parties I’d ever attended felt like another great wide arc had come around for me. The funeral reception was at the Hunt Club - a Member’s only golf club well beyond the grasp of Joe and Edna in their day. A place where the kids that played and partied with their children now hold memberships. I felt as much an interloper there as I did at Metropolitan. It felt very much removed from the roots these events had stirred up within me.

What are those roots? They’re the roots of my identity. The roots that I draw strength and life from – that make the green edges keep growing.

There’s a passage in one of Robertson Davies’ novels (if I was getting paid for this piece I might even look it up) that talks about the effect of religion on wealth and of wealth on religion. He describes the arc: Religion provides the poor with an inspiration to improve their lot in life. It gives dignity to the worker and offers hope that honesty and justice will prevail and provide. By gathering people to look out for their common interests, religion provides a social and political foundation for success.

So people work hard to please God and provide a better future for their families. When they succeed, their families flourish. The work ethic their children inherit allows them to achieve even more - and please their parents. Whatever religion the kids inherit is also mostly about pleasing their parents. The base - the rights and privileges - the church helped their parents secure is now a given. Perhaps they acknowledge the historical significance of the social and political change the institution achieved, but this analysis holds little inspiration for the lives they lead today.

The gospel’s good news to the poor of the earth now becomes a burden instead of an inspiration. They owe – it’s all about payback. It’s hard to hear the good news when it’s really for people in distant places, or for the ones close by but still left behind. Living for work and prosperity replaces working to live and share in common. Time is short and the demands are great and your circles narrow to those you work with – spend so much of your time with already. (I’m talking about my own life here.) It’s the way that seems broad and better and the path that seems so right – right?

What I find really refreshing about the time I spend partying with the Ayres family and friends is the simplicity of their religion. By religion, I don’t mean the institutions they serve. I mean what matters most to their hearts. It goes like this. They love to party. They love to party because they love to laugh. They love to laugh because it breaks down all pretense. They love to break down all pretense because it levels the ground for truth. Once every icon has fallen and sacred cow been slaughtered then all that stands is the bare truth.

What is the truth? If I told you then you wouldn’t need to search it out for yourself would you? If I knew it and lived it so well then I wouldn’t need to go and get a taste of it at the annual fishing weekend would I?

I do know that the soil that my life and my ministry grew out of is rooted on the working class side of my middle class life. While there is a natural tendency for the middle to want to grow up into the world where life is better and easier, I know that more isn’t better. More is just more complicated. More makes me more vulnerable. More makes me more afraid. More makes me more distracted and consumed by the effort to get to the place where there is enough.

Where there is enough. Where there is always enough for everyone - always room at the table, always equal treatment (unless you’re too full of it to take a joke), is where hard work and faithful, generous, humble – humorous spirits like Joe and Edna Ayres live.

(for a poet's perspective on this take a look at my favourite poem on the Youtube link below under "Check this out")

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