You know how things come round? I’m having coffee with a new teacher who’s office just happens to be in the South Riverdale Toronto neighbourhood where I worked through the nineties. In comes Jungle from across the street with a woman I don’t know.
I tell Jungle I owe him some more home made wine cause I’m still enjoying his painting – it’s on my living room wall. (we’d made a barter – wine for art and I felt that as long as I was enjoying the art, Jungle should be enjoying wine also). He told me not to worry. I said that was good cause I wasn’t making wine anymore – how bout some jam?
Turns out Jungle and his friend are working across the street at the newly renovated Edwin Hotel. The Hotel had a longstanding reputation as a tough bar in a tough neighbourhood. It’d been bought by the local mega-service community organization for affordable housing. Instead of being sold off to trendy developers for “lofts”, the agency was now housing single men and women – most likely some former Hotel denizens.
Instead of displacing those folk - out to some Scarbro housing ghetto where no one knows who they are or who their friends are – until they choose a life on the familiar downtown streets as safer than four walls in a Scarbro jungle. Instead - staff like Jungle replace the deskclerk, bouncers and waiters who once kept the order at the Edwin.
I asked Jungle whether they still had the metal detectors to pass through at the front doors? The huge “Nite Club” sign was still there (as a historical landmark we learned). He laughed and asked how would I know about those metal detectors?
John Chang and Matthew and I decided one night that it was time to experience the Edwin. We’d just come from a first time experience of full blown charismatic Christian worship up at what was being called “The Toronto Airport Blessing”. We’d heard all about the healings, blessings, life and spirit renewal that was drawing people from across the globe to this ecstatic outpouring of Christ’s love.
John and Matt were old friends. They’d crossed paths in the neighbourhood years ago at an evangelical church plant in the Ralph Thornton Community Centre’s second floor utility room. Not only were they passionate about their love of Jesus, these two guys shared a love of certain herbal remedies best inhaled. As you might imagine these two were not your ordinary in-the-box evangelicals.
Matthew is a very talented Biblical teacher. He has a pattern – decades long - of entering a Christian community and being quickly drawn in to their leadership. His knowledge, wisdom, and skill at conveying Biblical truths would soon make him an honoured elder and teacher in the congregation’s circle. As a teacher of truth however, he had to answer questions with truth. As his students asked more and more of him, his wider, out of the evangelical box interests would surface.
For some congregations just the fact that he was a student of Yoga – practicing the ancient arts of meditation and a raised awareness of the body’s chakra energies – would be enough to have him booted out on his ear just as quickly as he’d been embraced and drawn in. A more tolerant congregation would wait until they asked about what he did Tuesday nights. In addition to being a Biblical scholar, Matt was also a teacher of the Urantia Book. While this inspired text honoured Jesus as the Christ, it put his teachings and mission within a cosmology of inter-terrestrial time and space travelers. Matt hadn’t found a congregation yet who could get their heads around such an expanded vision of GOD’s revealed purpose – but he kept looking.
I’ve never met anyone more in love with Jesus than John Chang. When he praised the LORD in worship he would bend back like a willow - arms outstretched pouring forth his pain and joy to the heavens. I know it was a mutual love affair. John’s batteries would get charged as he received with those open arms all that the LORD had to pour into him. When he got drunk he would speak in tongues, me translating his love songs into rants of prophetic rage as we staggered towards home.
John came from a successful Korean business family. His parents had little time for religion as they worked night and day to give their children all the privileges of their adopted country. John’s catholic grandmother schooled and nurtured this sensitive childs’ open soul. On sojourn in Taize France, John had met Jesus and been implanted with a global vision of Christ’s love that overflowed all church boundaries and spilled into every crevice of the earth – even – yes – the Edwin Hotel.
So, on our way back from the syrupy love-in high of the Airport Church, I asked John “do you think Christ is any less present in the Edwin Hotel than at the Airport Church?”.
“Let’s find out” he said.
So the three of us crossed into an entirely other world through the Edwin’s broken glass doors and metal detectors. It was a Thursday night and the place was packed. A live rock band wailed raw energy straight through our ears and down into muscle and bone. After checking out the ecstatic gyrations of the dance floor, we found seats in the middle of a crowded table with a view of the stage.
We’d just settled, been served drinks, and were cautiously jostling elbows with our table mates when the small goateed man on my right took offense at something the large Native guy across the table was saying. I couldn’t hear what the comment was but the response was hard to miss. The small man leapt catlike across the table and smashed his rum and coke into the face of the much much larger man across from us.
The whole table exploded. Chairs knocked hilter kilter as we instantly unanimously responded to the kinetic shockwave of violence. I was quickly six steps back from the action protecting my candyass from harm. Others had pulled the table out from between the two champions obviously ready and eager for tonight’s sideshow entertainment.
And in the split-second before the two could clash, John Chang stepped into the fray. He went nose to nose with the larger Native man and with arms wide open shouted into his face “the peace of Christ, the peace of Christ, the peace of Christ” over and over again as if he was chanting back at Taize but with a lot more volume and energy to his prayer.
Expecting bloodshed, we all were witness to a miracle. For some reason, the Native man, with blood now trickling from the fresh wound on his face, dropped his arms. It was as if a light shone in that dark place in that moment. Just for a moment. The bouncers were there in the next second and John and the two champions were whisked out and away - back through the metal detectors.
The Native guy must have been ushered out the back door because by the time I made it to the street John was talking excitedly with the small guy who’d retaliated without first setting down his mixed drink. The conversation, I remember no words, was heightened by the effects of adrenaline on all of our systems. We’d just introduced ourselves all around when the cops showed up to move us along off the sidewalk.
The party retired back to Matthew’s place above the Pet Shop a few blocks along Queen. There, using Matt’s herbal remedies to counter the testosterone still running in their veins, we became better acquainted. The small goateed man – Pelod - was to become a good friend, eventually a roommate with Matt and a part of the circle of spirit and good works that i had the honour of knowing in South Riverdale.
An Iranian born Zoroastrian, Pelod added much to our wisdom-seeking in the years to come. He burnt our Good News in the most ancient fires of an unnamed god. His slow death from brain cancer was marked with care and attention by the people of no church. He was held within the invisible bonds of Christ’s love, hope, compassion, and humour that John wove among us with courage and joy.
Now I ask you dear reader “was Christ as fully present at the Edwin Hotel that night as at the Airport Church?”. “Was the spark tindered by John’s prayer that night today burning bright in the new Edwin?”
I wonder as I wander on in ever-expanding circles.
(Doug, this one’s for you – your read it to the end didn’t you?)