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For Sale

The Crystal Cathedral

The Crystal Cathedral is for sale.  Seriously.  According to the L.A. Times

The Garden Grove church, which said it owed more than $50 million to creditors and vendors when it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in October, will file a reorganization plan with a Santa Ana court as soon as Friday.  The plan includes the sale of the 40-acre campus to a real estate investment group, alleviating financial pressure from a $36-million mortgage, Charles said.  The church has a guaranteed option of leasing the campus for 15 years. After four years, the church could buy back the core buildings, which include the 10,000-pane Crystal Cathedral, the 13-story Tower of Hope, the welcome center and the cemetery.

I am not too heart broken by the news.  Wendy and I took a tour of it a decade ago and it had already become a parody of itself then.  The highlight was a women’s washroom that cost a million dollars to build.  I know things like this are contextual but c’mon, a million dollars for a women’s washroom.  Yeah.

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Fringe Expressions

Fringe Expressions

Andrew Jones has launched a major new project called Fringe Expressions.  As he calls it.

We are going to partner with leading mission organizations and denominations by helping them start 50 new church/mission structures around the world that will act as role models for church planting in the toughest parts of the world.

As well as being highly effective fresh expressions of church and mission, these new communities will bring a lasting, holistic impact through these 3 strategies:

1. Through social enterprise and mico-business they will move their ministries towards long-term sustainability.

2. Through social justice ventures they will touch the needy in their cities in measurable ways – ie, a spiritual, social, financial and environmental impact.

3. Through social media streaming they will contagiously share their story to leverage their experience and compel others to follow their examples.

Sneaky . .  huh?

These 50 new communities will be fresh expressions of church but, also, because they will intentionally position themselves to impact those on the fringe, we will call them "fringe expressions".
By fringe, I mean the cultural fringe (alternative, non-churched, victimized) the economic fringe (poor, needy, vulnerable) the geographic fringe (church-unfriendly areas and countries) and the spiritual fringe [NOT your father’s old-time religion] where traditional church efforts make little progress.

Or in other words, they will go where no fresh expressions or missional communities or emerging churches have gone before.

If it’s something you want to support (and believe me, you do), check out the full post out for more information.

Saint Boniface Cathedral

Saint Boniface Cathedral in St. Boniface / Winnipeg ManitobaSaint Boniface Cathedral in St. Boniface / Winnipeg ManitobaSaint Boniface Cathedral in St. Boniface / Winnipeg ManitobaSaint Boniface Cathedral in St. Boniface / Winnipeg ManitobaSaint Boniface Cathedral in St. Boniface / Winnipeg Manitoba

While exploring Winnipeg, a co-worker told us about the basillica in St. Boniface.  Since I was driving and am a sucker for a great looking church (or ruins of a church), we headed right over there.  We jumped out to take some photos.  By the time I had snapped 12 photos, my hands were so cold I could not operate my camera any longer, my ears had frozen, and I was having trouble enunciating.  Welcome to Winnipeg.

iPhone app allows users to go to confession

iPhone app allows users to go to confession The best part is that it costs $1.99 at the app store.

Described as "the perfect aid for every penitent", it offers users tips and guidelines to help them with the sacrament.

Now senior church officials in both the UK and US have given it their seal of approval, in what is thought to be a first.

The app takes users through the sacrament – in which Catholics admit their wrongdoings – and allows them to keep track of their sins.

It also allows them to examine their conscience based on personalised factors such as age, sex and marital status – but it is not intended to replace traditional confession entirely.

This isn’t their first digital effort

Two years later created a Facebook application that lets users send virtual postcards featuring the pontiff.

Before you mock it, when I went to Bishop James Mahoney High School in Saskatoon, we had a similar checklist to speed up the confession process (as a Methodist, I just judged others silently) so it’s not like this is a new idea.  Of course we still had a priest to administer the sacrament.

Where have all the denominations gone?

In the Wall Street Journal

Are we witnessing the death of America’s Christian denominations? Studies conducted by secular and Christian organizations indicate that we are. Fewer and fewer American Christians, especially Protestants, strongly identify with a particular religious communion—Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, etc. According to the Baylor Survey on Religion, nondenominational churches now represent the second largest group of Protestant churches in America, and they are also the fastest growing.

More and more Christians choose a church not on the basis of its denomination, but on the basis of more practical matters. Is the nursery easy to find? Do I like the music? Are there support groups for those grappling with addiction?

It’s not all bad news for denominations

Where hymnody once came from the spontaneity of slave spirituals or camp meetings, worship songs are increasingly now focus-grouped by executives in Nashville. The evangelical "Veggie Tales" cartoons—animated Bible stories featuring talking cucumbers and tomatoes—probably shape more children in their view of scripture than any denominational catechism does these days. A church that requires immersion baptism before taking communion, as most Baptist traditions do, will likely get indignant complaints from evangelical visitors who feel like they’ve been denied service at a restaurant.

But there are some signs of a growing church-focused evangelicalism. Many young evangelicals may be poised to reconsider denominational doctrine, if for no other reason than they are showing signs of fatigue with typical evangelical consumerism.

For example, artists such as Keith and Kristen Getty and Sojourn Music are reaching a new generation with music written for and performed by local congregations. Yes, prosperity preacher Joyce Meyer sells her book "Eat the Cookie, Buy the Shoes," which encourages Christians to "lighten up" by eating cookies and buying shoes (seriously). But, at the same time, Alabama preacher David Platt is igniting thousands of young people with his book "Radical," which calls Christians to rescue their faith by lowering their standard of living and giving their time and money to Church-based charities.

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The Grind of Poverty

"Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings." Nelson Mandela

This is the third in a series on poverty, homelessness, and a concentration of services in Saskatoon’s inner city.  You can find part 1 and part 2 in the archives. 

Poverty in Saskatoon

Poverty looks different in different cities.  In North American where food costs are more or less similar, you have five factors that influence where you are in relation to the the poverty line that I am going to look at.

  1. Income
  2. Housing costs
  3. Transportation costs
  4. Utility costs (especially heating costs)
  5. Cost of living, particularly food costs.

Saskatoon has relatively stable heating costs due to SaskEnergy hedging natural gas purchases (see this article for explanation and political controversy) and the medium, we all use natural gas which can be a lot cheaper than home heating fuel.  Take a look at this article from 2008 on what happens when oil prices spike and what that can do to home heating bills and the family that live there.

Saskatoon does have high rent.  A one bedroom apartment on the east side of the city will run you $1000/month.  While there are cheaper apartments, most of those are located in the city’s core neighbourhoods.  As housing prices have doubled and tripled, rents have done the same.  A quick survey of friends who are renting often described at least a $100/month rental increase last January 1st with a notice of another one coming this January 1st.  $200/month increase over one year is very difficult for any family no matter where you are in the economic spectrum.

While Saskatoon Transit does a good job (unless we have had snow or you want to get to the airport), Saskatoon is a city based on freeways and driving.  While some American cities like Boston have been shaped by their subways, Saskatoon has been shaped by our cars which means that city attractions and commercial districts are shaped by parking, not ease of access for public access.  The Ministry of Social Services has made it easier for it’s clients to get around by making available bus passes for $20/month.  A regular adult bus pass is $71.00 and a single trip ticket is $2.75 which seems high but when compared to rates in New York, Boston, or Toronto, it’s about the same.

So Saskatoon has reasonably priced transportation, SaskEnergy does a decent job of hedging natural gas prices to keep our natural gas rates stable rather than fluctuating and food prices are what they are.  While we may not like the idea of Wal-Mart dominating the world, their entrance into Saskatoon does keep food prices lower (and makes it even harder for downtown grocery stores to compete).  One factor with food prices that gets overlooked is accessibility to reasonably priced food.  While Wal-Mart may have the best price on a block of cheese in town, if it costs you a lot to get there, it doesn’t help.  I’ll talk some more about this in a moment.

Life Below the Poverty Line

All cities have residents below the poverty line (or as we call it here, the Low Income Cut Off or LICO).  A 2009 CUISR research paper described the LICO as this

While family income trends tell us about how many people in Saskatchewan are doing in absolute terms, it is important to examine the ability of the income to provide a reasonable quality of life. Statistics Canada’s Low Income Cut-Offs (LICOs) are widely used to measure poverty in Canada (Statistics Canada, 2006b; Canadian Council on Social Development, n.d.). Statistics Canada (2006c) defines the LICO as the income level at which a family spends 20% more of their income on food, shelter, and clothing than the average family of a comparable size. In 2005, the after-tax LICO was $22,069 per year for a family of three living in a community of 100,000 to 499,999 people and $27,532 per year for a family of four (Statistics Canada, 2006c). In the same year, the poverty line for families in rural areas was $17,071 for a three-person family and $21,296 for a four-person family (Statistics Canada, 2006c). At incomes at or below LICO levels, Saskatchewan residents are using substantially more of their available income to acquire the basics of life compared to their fellow citizens.

CUISR went out and created a snapshot of what low income families in Saskatchewan look like.

what low income families in Saskatchewan look like Saskatchewan’s Aboriginal citizens and families are consistently overrepresented in low income indicators. Although Aboriginal people have made significant gains in the last 20 years compared to other provincial groups, Statistics Canada’s 2006 Census data indicate that 37% of Saskatchewan’s Aboriginal population was living at or below the LICO (Statistics Canada, 2008a) and Canadian Council on Social Development, n.d.). While this represented a large improvement of 16 percentage points relative to the 1996 Census, Aboriginal peoples continue to experience a much higher poverty level when compared to all persons in Saskatchewan.

When looking at the income levels for people on Social Services CUISR found this

When examining Saskatchewan’s social assistance incomes, an overall decrease in the last decade is evident. Between 1996 and 2005, social assistance incomes eroded in real terms among all recipient groups, by more than 7%; the welfare incomes of people with disabilities on social assistance experienced the greatest drop (by 15.5%).

image It should be noted that Saskatchewan raised its social assistance rates in 2008; currently, a single employable person in Saskatoon or Regina would qualify for a benefit of about $8,000 (See Appendix II).

At the end of the day the average Canadian single mother who is below the poverty line is below it by about $7500.  When people talk about people living below the poverty line, they are not missing it by a dollar or two.

In my last post, I showed income breakdowns for Saskatoon’s core neighbourhoods.  To recap there are 1726 households trying to love on under $15,000 a year and another 1567 households trying to get by under $30,000 a year?  Of those families, a staggering 780 of them are trying to get by on under $10,000 per year. How do they live?

Many of the household’s living under $15,000 a year are either on Social Services, struggling by on part time employment or on Social Services (either SAP or TEA).  If you are living on Social Services, your income is going to be a lot less than $15,000/year.  Check out the current Social Services rate card and do the math on how little money that is.

As the Social Services Rate Card shows, you see that there is around $459 for rent (more on that later) and $255 to cover food, toiletries, clothes, bills, and others.  That isn’t a lot of money but it wasn’t until I had it broken down for me by a budget management worker that I realized how little it was.

 

Months ago I had some staff break down the Social Services rate card.  With the new women’s shelter coming online soon, I wanted them to come up with a move out formula that would actually work.  Since many of the men and women we deal with are defined as “unemployable” by Social Services, we needed to help them find a way to live within that financial framework.  We couldn’t find a way of making it in the slightest without using services provided by the Saskatoon Food Bank, the Friendship Inn, and the Salvation Army.  As I reviewed our notes the other day, I saw that we didn’t take into consideration tobacco consumption which makes a really tough financial situation even worse.  Here is what we learned…

Impact of Housing Costs

If you are single you have $255 a month after your rent (or most of it) is paid.  If you have health concerns like diabetes or a disease like HIV, you get more to cover proper nutrition.  That doesn’t sound that bad.  I have had three different budget management workers/trustees from different agencies have told me that one can live on that amount as long as the person doesn’t make a single mistake.  That amount includes a discounted bus pass and free Leisure Card and your rent is paid… that is if you can somewhere to rent for your allocated amount.  Now now problems start.

You can technically live anywhere in town (and therefore leave the inner city behind) but you have some problems.  First of all there is the Rental Supplement which you have to qualify for and in today’s rental market you need the Rental Supplement.  To qualify for the Rental Supplement, your location in the city (in part) determines whether or not you get it and how much you get.   The reality is that if you are living in Riversdale, Pleasant Hill, and areas closer to St. Paul’s or another hospital, increases your chances to get the supplement.  Now if you don’t qualify, you need have pay the difference from your personal allowance.  This is going to increase your need on services like the Saskatoon Food Bank, The Salvation Army Community Services, Friendship Inn, and other agencies which actually encourages you to live in walking distance to them.  Of course even if you do find a place that rents to you, the Ministry of Social Services letter of guarantee is only for the amount of money that you are allowed for housing, which means that you have to come up with the rest in cash to cover your damage deposit.  The current system actually encourages a concentration of services and poverty.

Even if you can afford to move into a different part of town, the landlords may not want you there.  A client I helped find an apartment for was charged a $50 “viewing fee” to see an apartment.  I haven’t met anyone yet who didn’t see that as an attempt to keep people receiving Social Service benefits from seeing the building.  Over a period of three or four months, this client, myself, and another social worker was stood up numerous times by landlords on viewings, largely because the client was on Social Services.  I was there when the client was told to his face that they “probably won’t rent to someone on welfare”.  We had some staff from AIDS Saskatoon in a while ago talking to our staff and we also learned that some landlords are doing a kind of credit check on clients to decide if the client can “afford” the apartment.  I was shocked but it’s a story we have heard lots since then.  Are any of us surprised that their formula disqualifies low income/Social Services clients?  Of course not all landlords are like that.  I have met some wonderful ones who are all over the city.   In fact the client who I was talking about was helped by a landlord who went out of their way to get this client and family into their apartment because they saw it as the right thing to do.  Yet on the other hand we are kidding ourselves if we don’t think that there are some Donald Sterlingesqe landlords out there who are making it very tough on people because of race or class in the city.  (if you got the Donald Sterling reference without clicking on the link, I am impressed).

Of course moving in only part of the journey.  I was also shocked to find out there are no more move in grants.  No money for beds, mop, broom, cleaning supplies, SHOWER CURTAIN, pots and pans.  I have access to the donations given to the Salvation Army Community Services (we have a dock for a reason) and all of that was free but even after all of that was said and done, Wendy and I dropped $100 of our own money for essentials and believe me, there was nothing on that list that all of us would not consider an essential. 

To be fair there is another alternative to move in grants, if you are on Social Services, you can apply for a twice a year advance of $240 and that would help them set up an apartment but that money comes off their check $40 a month over six months (which takes down the $255/month to $215/month).  If for some reason you don’t qualify for the Rental Supplement, you have to pay the difference in rent out of your personal living allowance.  Your $255 can quickly become $100.  One budget management worker I talked to told me that she practically begs her clients not to take this $240 “windfall” because of the financial problems it can cause later on for them.

Eating Right on Social Services

So you have $255 (or $215 or $100) each month (now there are extra resources if you have selected medical issues) which is anywhere from $53 to $65 (or $25) per week for groceries, hygiene products, and clothes.   That causes it’s own problems because where do you get that stuff in Riversdale/Pleasant Hill?  There are no low priced grocery stores in easy walking distance (although there is now one downtown and a small Asian food store on 20h) which makes it difficult to get ahead because you don’t have the resources to buy anything in bulk or take advantage of savings at Costco, Real Canadian Wholesale Club or even Co-op’s big case lot sale?   Again you have a lack of financial margin and you have a lack of accessibility to do purchases like this.  While Saskatoon has a whole has more vehicles than residents, according to 2006 census data the core neighborhoods have 0.4 cars per person. When I worked at 33rd Street Safeway, once a month we saw a steady stream of cabs pulling up as people on Social Services bought groceries.  You have two problems with that happening.  A small grocery amount is made a lot smaller by having to take a cab to Safeway (or Supertore/Walmart/Extra Foods/Sobeys) for groceries and you have that money leaving the area (and area that is in need of that money).  An even worse decision is those who do their grocery stopping at a convenience store.  A couple of times when I worked the 4-12 shift at the Salvation Army, I would run low on change which makes it hard for the front desk to make change for clients who come in and buy breakfast (best $3 breakfast in the city).  Once I stopped by a convenience store on the day checks were handed out.  I honestly thought a riot had gone through the store.  It wasn’t, it was people purchasing groceries.  I can’t think of a quicker way to make an already small check, even smaller.  Thankfully this has changed somewhat since Giant Tiger came to town but you still have no fresh fruit and vegetables.  While I probably could have lived on Giant Tiger’s selection when I was single (Kraft Dinner, Ichiban noodles, Pizza Pops… repeat), it is lacking a lot of stuff that families need and there isn’t the money left over to even purchase a Good Food Box from CHEP.

The other part of the equation that food is a commodity and therefore subject to price fluctuations and is really sensitive to other commodity prices, such as oil.  All of this is explained in detail in Why Your World Is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller by Jeff Rubin and The Long Emergency by James Kunstler who point out the impact that higher oil prices have on farm input costs.  As oil goes up, so does fuel for machineries, cost of fertilizers, and more crops get moved from being a food crop and become a fuel crop for ethanol (unlike Brazil which had the foresight not to use a food crop for ethanol, we decided to use corn and maize here, largely in deference to the importance that Iowa places in Presidential primaries).  The basic math is higher energy prices equals higher food prices.

Three years ago when gas prices spiked to abnormally high prices we saw the impact on our clientele at work.  We went from about 60,000 served meals a year to close to 100,000 meals served a year.  Not only were people hit hard by rising energy prices, they were hit hard by the increase in food prices.  All around the city you saw charts in restaurants explaining why their prices were going up and why they had to charge more to bring in some more revenue to pay for it.  The same thing happened here but the people who used our services didn’t have the option of increasing revenue.  We just did an in house survey of why people come to the Salvation Army meal program and the dominant answer given was, “no food at home” and this is a program designed for people who are not receiving benefits from the Ministry of Social Services (and therefore hopefully have more resources).  I wish we had done one a couple of years ago.  I assume the numbers would have been much, much, higher.

The Lack of Discretionary Income

So even if you have money for food and rent, there are still other expenses… like laundry is another big issue.  You get $10 if you are single for laundry and soap and $20 if you are a family.  The problem is that a lot of apartments charge $3 for a load and in case you haven’t noticed, there are not a lot of laundromats in town.  When we were looking at countless duplexes and fourplexes while trying to find a place for the Mumford House, many houses had a bed room filled five or six feet high full of clothes.  That same summer I joined a co-worker to check out a house that had been set on fire (she didn’t want to get punched in the face by the landlord so she brought me along to get punched in the face – luckily for my face, he was pretty cool and not prone to violence).  Again in the basement there was clothes piled high enough that neither one us could walk upright down there.  Later it finally clicked in that it was cheaper to come to the Salvation Army or the Food Bank every couple of weeks and just get different clothes rather than doing laundry.  Anything to save some money.

My point is that, you can make it as long as you don’t make a mistake which in the end, is the Government of Saskatchewan’s goal.  Coming up with Social Services rates is tricky business.  If you set the amount too low, people just can’t live but if you have too high of an amount, it discourages people from working and you can really upset voters.  In the end you get stuck with the number that we have now.  Just barely enough for someone to live and definitely not comfortably. 

This takes a toll not only on individuals but also on a community if in high enough concentration.

As for the family, I understand a bit of that.  My mom raised a family of four of us on $1350 a month plus what we got for Family Allowance.  $700 of that was mortgage and the rest was just paying for life.  From 1988-89, we kind of totally disengaged from society because we had no money at all. We didn’t go out, we didn’t take weekend trips, we didn’t do anything. There was just no money.  We were involved in the church but even things like youth group took money and so I didn’t attend those weeks.  Our summer vacation consisted of a trip to a used bookstore on Primrose Drive.  They sold a two cubic foot box of books for $1.  There was a bunch of Harlequin Books but there was other cool stuff as well… university textbooks, Instant Replay by Jerry Kramer, The Game by Ken Dryden and The Winds of War by Herman Wouk.  We went three times and our expenditures outside of bills that summer was a total of $3.  That was it.  That was all of the extra money we had.  I find myself looking back it with some nostalgia but it was a horrible summer and a part of a grind that went on and on and on.

NeuragenIt isn’t just one single thing that poverty does, it just grinds you down day by day by day.  My  mother was diabetic and living under that kind of financial stress does not lend itself to eating well.  She started a downward spiral that took her leg and later contributed to her inability to fight the cancer.  Diabetes is called a “disease of poverty” and as a Type II diabetic I understand that now more than I ever did then.  On top of the food that is diabetic friendly (which isn’t cheap), I now spend $100/month to control the nerve pain.  Neuragen and Alpha Lipolic acid aren’t covered by the Saskatchewan Drug Plan (while highly addictive Oxycontin which does nothing for the pain was covered).  Poor quality food, inadequate diabetic care, and enormous stress. I didn’t realize it at the time but in a lot of ways, those years changed all of us for the worse.  We withdrew from our community, our friends, and an edge developed that has probably stuck with me for far too long.  There wasn’t one thing that did it, we just got ground down and that was only a couple of years of it.

We have seen the impact on poverty on an entire region.  One of the most enjoyable things I had the opportunity to do while as the pastor of Lakeland Church in Spiritwood was listening to some of the older members of the church tell their stories of the Great Depression.  Those stories all started light hearted and funny and then turned serious and sombre as the years took their tool and the stories got darker.  Don’t take my word for it, read Pierre Berton’s book, The Great Depression and read the stories yourself.  If you are looking for a current version of it, read this eye opening series called The New Poor in the New York Times.

Frequent contributor to The Star Phoenix, Doug Cuthand wrote this back in 2008 about intergenerational poverty.

Intergenerational poverty leads to despair and this is the root of much of the gang violence and social dysfunction in today’s aboriginal communities.

I would argue that Cuthand is too specific and intergenerational poverty is the cause of social dysfunction in any community but his point is right on.  He goes on to link poverty to the rise of gangs in aboriginal neighbourhoods but he could be speaking of any community.

Gang activity is commonplace among disadvantaged minority groups including Afro-American, Hispanic and aboriginal groups. They are drawn together by a sense of race, protection and shared experience. When the economic and social doors are closed or hard to open, people tend to turn to illegal activity as a quick fix. Couple this with drug and alcohol addiction and you have the recipe for young people to group together in gangs.

Gang life is hard with few real rewards. Recruiters let the uninitiated think that in a gang they will get the iPod, the fancy car and other status symbols. Gang activities include violence, robbery, prostitution and drug dealing. In the end the reality is nothing compared to the dream presented by the gang recruiters.

When gang members reach their late 20s they have no education or work experience, they have rap sheets as long as their arms and they most likely have a drug problem. They are burned out and unemployable.

And those are the lucky ones. Some will be killed and still others will do life for murder or other long stretches for their crimes. The dream of the 15-year-old for power and wealth is gone and it never existed.

All of this starts to explain a bit of what happened to 20th Street and the city core neighbourhoods in general.  I used to enjoy 20th Street.  It was home of to Joe’s Cycle and Walter’s Cycle.  Along with the Mayfair Sporting Goods, they took most of my discretionary income.  It was home to some great restaurants.  For many years The Golden Dragon was the finest restaurant in town (visited by Bill Cosby, Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, John Diefenbaker, Wayne and Shuster, Pierre Trudeau, Gordie Howe and many others).  Many hockey/softball/rugby/football seasons finished up in a banquet room at the Wah Qua restaurant.  20th Street used to have it’s own particular vibe in the same way Broadway does now but things changed.

One of the things that have bothered me as I read The Life and Death of the American City by urban theorist Jane Jacobs is that she speaks of a strong neighbourhood bond is needed to maintain safety and prosperity in a community.  I kept wondered what happened to it in parts of Saskatoon.  The answer is found in bits and pieces in a variety of books I read this summer (at the end of this series I’ll post a reading list if you want to read more) but the short answer is that poverty grinds away those ties that keep a community together, especially when poverty is concentrated. (which I think is at the core of what Pat Lorje is saying and something I’ll spend some time exploring when I post the next post in this series Monday night).

A decade ago there wasn’t the need for the concentration of poverty in Saskatoon.  In 1997, a great apartment I had in a fun part of City Park went for $250 a month.  I was making a little over minimum wage working at Burron Lumber.  The combination of low rent, great location, and a simple lifestyle (bills were food, phone, and $268 car payment) meant that despite making minimum wage, I had money to spend.  I watched every Rider game at Seafood Sam’s with a pacing, anxious, chain smoking Sam himself living and dying with every Saskatchewan Roughriders win and loss, and we used to walk down to a downtown coffee shop named Nervous Harold’s many nights for a iced coffee and a late supper.  By choice I didn’t have a television but I had money to spend to enjoy life around Saskatoon.  I don’t have any vices but I think I could have even afforded to smoke a bit.  Today that very small one room apartment is going for almost $800/month, which is more than my mortgage.  To find an affordable apartment on minimum wage, I can’t live in City Park unless I want to pick up a second job which grinds one down in a different way.  Over the years both Wendy and I have worked two jobs when we have needed to.  What seems sustainable at first slowly grinds you down in different ways and you have that same kind of withdrawal from your community, often from fatigue and exhaustion.  Again back to Doug Cuthand’s comments.

When the economic and social doors are closed or hard to open, people tend to turn to illegal activity as a quick fix.

This was best articulated to me when I was at a Correctional Services of Canada seminar on women’s corrections.  One of the things that was mentioned throughout the day was what many women in poverty will have to do to survive.  It ranges from robbery, prostitution, drug dealing… the illegal activities that we all see in Saskatoon but never really get to what is really causing them.  When caught in poverty, you have to turn somewhere.  I have heard the police talk about prostitutes starting working the street and losing their virginity to johns at 13.  The girls often recruit each other as they see it as a good source of easy money without ever having the chance to realize the cost they are about to pay.  Again, its the pursuit of the iPods, cars, or as I wrote about a couple of years ago, even food.  There is what Cuthand said, an easy turn to the riches that gangs offer up (read the first chapter of Freakonomics to see that most gangs pay very poorly at the bottom of the pyramid).  Or there is a turn to substance abuse… beer, hard liquor, crack, meth, modelling glue, solvents, paint, Lysol, Listerine, methadone, hand sanitizer, you name it, I have seen it abused.  It starts out as an escape and turns into a prison and later a personal version of hell.

This kind of aligns itself with a conversation  I had a with a local politician who said to me that they were surprised at the level of racial anger they have heard lately.  Being married to someone of mixed Guyanese descent (Amerindian, Bihari, British, and Black according to her DNA tests), racism has always both interested and concerns me.  Racism (which is going both ways) seems to be coming out the micro economic future that people are looking at.  It’s their personal economy that doesn’t work.  Income doesn’t cover rent or food which creates a lack of hope.  Soon the the despair sets in, especially when you realize that hard work won’t deliver you out of this and it gives to anger and a need to blame someone else.  You see this in American political and race rhetoric.  How many times did Lou Dobbs say,   “These Mexican illegal’s are taking good American jobs” which ignores the fact that American’s don’t want them and the jobs aren’t very good in the first place.  Is it a coincidence that Roma’s in France are being persecuted during a time of difficult economic times?

During the times that my family was at our poorest and things looked extremely bleak, I never had any doubt that eventually life would turn around and things were going to be better one day if I worked hard.  To use Doug Cuthand’s language, the door was pretty easy to open.  My first apartment was in a prime downtown neighbourhood for $250 and affordable with a minimum wage job.   Your options are limited today if you do not have what many would define as a high paying job or are a one wage earning household.

I have spent hours this week trying to articulate the change in the residents of the shelter over the last four years.  It clicked in today that the difference was that there has been a loss of hope.  The wages haven’t changed but everything else has gotten more expensive and less accessible.  While I have only lived in Saskatoon since 1984, I have been here long enough to see some bad times before the good times hit.  While a large majority of Saskatoon has benefitted from the economic prosperity that has come to Saskatoon.  Not all have.  Of course the question that all cities have is, “what’s the best way to address this?”  I’ll start looking at solutions on Tuesday.

Related: The United States Council of Catholic Bishops put together this video to demonstrate what life is like below the poverty line.

Losing My Religion

A lot of you have asked why I have stopped posting about items of faith and Christianity here and the reason is pretty complex.  First of all after reading around 5 books a week for 15 years or so, I no longer have the time or the desire to read that much.  Much of that reading was theological or about church life and what has been said on the topic for me has been said.  I still get probably 100 books a year to review and most of them are just rehashing what has been said and said and said again.  On the occasional time when I can force myself to enter into Scott’s Parable, I see the same book, just written by different authors.  I know I am taking some shots at some friends here but it seems like a lot more reflection and a lot less publishing may help everyone.

It goes for me as well, if I don’t have anything to say, I am not going to log in and write anything.  To paraphrase a good friend of mine who used to joke, “If you want a better sermon, get Max Lucado to write better books”, so in other words, if you want a better blog, write better stuff for me to link to.

The more serious reason is that I struggle with the distance between neighborhood/community and the church.  I have read and heard pastors say that they need to vision cast (what a geeky and churchy phrase) or sell their church on the idea that they need to be a part of their community.  This is a phrase I have heard for years but I never realized how strange it was that the church had stopped being part of the community.  Now of course with more and more churches wanting more real estate, they are literally moving outside of their cities and towns so they can create more programs that compete with and pull people away from the communities they are apart of.  The fact that we have to “vision cast”, sell, manipulate, or coerce our congregations to be part of the community, in fact, we had to come up with new church growth terminology to describe what should be our natural reaction as human beings… (I’m missional, your missional, we are all missional) that is our responsibility to make our local communities a better place for everyone to live in. 

Years ago I listened to a series of podcasts by Todd Hunter and Dallas Willard in which Hunter talked about one of the metrics his church used was how far people were travelling to get to his church without realizing the impact it had on local communities.  While that may represent one extreme of the equation, it was quite similar to what we experience as a family in finding a church in Saskatoon.   There is a pull to be a part of the church community, which church leaders tend of think of as a true or at least superior community which puts us in tension with my commitments to other things that are going on in my geographic community.  While I agree there is a need for involvement in the church, our local communities the need is often just as pressing.  So I have kids clubs that interfere with Mark taking karate, small groups that only work for people who work 8-5 (and definitely not for those who like Wendy and I who are work from 7:00 a.m. when I go to work to 10:45 p.m. when Wendy walks in the door from work).   I have prostitutes on my street, a brothel on my block, guys grinding drugs across from the local elementary school, the Terror Squad working out a local restaurant and bar and I keep hearing that my number one priority needs to be a small group in a church.

I follow some pastors and church leaders on Twitter and I realized it’s a giant irrelevant echo chamber where the tweets and retweets reinforce what they believe.  I haven’t lost my faith in Christianity, I am just in doubt that the church is an accurate representation of what it represents anymore.  I was in a room of pastors earlier this year and they were still talking about media in worship, ancient future song writing, and all sorts of peripheral things about church life with great interest and not one of them mentioned life in their community.  A friend of mine sent me a sermon the other day on YouTube to check out as it would cure what ailed my soul.  The stage looked like it was stolen from David Letterman and I am pretty sure it was meant to be a copy and after watching the sermon, I realized that he was speaking in the same style that Vince does while pitching Slap Chops.  Sadly not only did I used to speak like that in public but so do so many other pastors I know.  I realized while watching this that the church had become a parody of itself.  The Emperor has no clothes.

I realized that I no longer see most churches any differently than Kiwanas or another service club but this one has higher fixed costs.  Are all churches like this?  I don’t think so.  One of the great experiences I have had in life was spending a bit of time with Dave Blondel and the Third Space.   Both Wendy and I have said that we would be quite comfortable attending a church lead by my friends, Scott Williams, Randall Friesen, Pernell Goodyear, Kim Reid or Darryl Dash but those kinds of churches and those kinds of pastors aren’t that easy to find.  The problem for me is when I see the kind of church that is engaged in creative ways in it’s community, it’s awfully hard to go back.  When I was down in Maple Creek, I did some pastoral work with people.  We literally put on some orange Salvation Army vests, went from flood ravaged house to flood ravaged house and chatted with flood victims.  Everyone in that community knew the Salvation Army Corps officers, Captain Ed and Charlotte.  Every last person.  When he was in Saskatoon, he was everywhere in the community as well.  If he can do it, so can other churches and their leaders.  If Wendy, myself, my staff, and a bunch of volunteers can work amongst Saskatoon’s poorest, so can everyone.  What we do isn’t brain surgery (umm, except for my staff, you are all brilliant… underpaid but brilliant) but a compassionate response to the community around us.   Instead I find churches that are isolated and focused on themselves.  Too many times over the last couple of years to hear a sermon on parenting, the need for leadership, church growth or again, church growth.  Did I mention I hear a lot of sermons on the need for church growth.  Sadly I am not alone.  A good friend of mine recently left his long time church and said, “I’ve learned all I need to learn from the pulpit on the need for church growth”.  It’s like the church has lot’s it’s reason for existence and is just looking at how to keep paying the bills.  Yet sadly in a lot of communities, the need for the church and it’s redemptive message has never been greater.

The other thing is that while I hate the overuse of the concept of “a dark night of the soul”, it has been an extremely lonely time spiritually for me.  God was extremely distant and I don’t really have a lot of people to talk to about this stuff.  The praxis of my spiritual life was solid but there was no connection.  After exhausting my traditional options, I sought out a Roman Catholic spiritual advisor who I spent a lot of time talking with.  He was the one who said, “It’s not a dark night of the soul, it’s a wounded soul that I was dealing with.”  A co-worker once said to me, “We aren’t normal.  We are so desensitized by what we see sometimes, we aren’t bothered by what should bother us.”  I thought about it a lot and realized that my job had changed me deeply and for the worse and I wasn’t equipped for what that has done to me.  As an INTJ, I am already an underdeveloped feeler which at times makes it hard to fully understand what I am feeling.  Looking at life from a rather cold and analytical mind has it’s advantages but it always makes it hard to look at life when the problem isn’t a rational one and as any of the staff that I work with will say, rational behavior can often be in short supply with what we see some days.  Toss in that the amount of violence and death we have seen this summer, it has taken a toll.  It seems like every murder and suspicious death in the city has been connected to someone I know and it’s hard.  The first thing I am doing in the morning is dealing with another one.  Jaded or not, it has had an impact and those add up a little bit.

As my spiritual advisor and I have talked, I shared that when God reveals himself to me, often I feel He was disappointed in me.  I have long that was my biases, insecurities, and self worth issues coming out.  I have come to seriously wonder if maybe God was quite disappointed in me and the reason for the silence, or just lack of disappointment is that maybe He isn’t anymore.

My evangelical friends don’t really get what I see.  It actually upsets many of them when I tell them what I am seeing.  I was talking to one friend about the fact that there are 600 known prostitutes in the city (of course they move from city to city to city) and he was totally freaked out.  Our conversation ended with, “I am glad our church isn’t on the west side, I couldn’t deal with this".  Yet I talk with some of them all of the time.  They are working tonight two blocks down from where I am writing this.  Addicted to drugs, sexual abuse survivors, acquired brain injuries.   They aren’t abstract numbers but real girls with real stories and real families but the church ignores it.  They also ignore the fact that many of their congregants are the ones that are paying these girls to get them off.  While my faith seems as strong as always, I am no longer interested in a religion that is disconnected from the community it is a part of. 

I know there are reasons for that, Lyle Schaller will tell us that the idea of the neighborhood church died with the rise of the car and cheap fuel but at the same time when I hear that people are living in over crowded slum suites because of sky high rents, there are 600 known prostitutes in the city and the vast majority of them are being trafficked, gangs are taking an toll on our kids, and some local elementary schools have had to cut back to 30 minute lunch breaks to stop elementary school girls from working the street on lunch breaks… doesn’t this call people to do something other than giving away some free clothes and serve soup once in a while?  If young grade seven and eight girls losing their virginity to STD carrying john’s doesn’t call us to drastic action, what will?

Over fifteen years ago, columnist Paul Jackson wrote in The Star Phoenix that the church had abandoned it’s role of social services provider – taking care of widows and orphans – to the government during the 1960s and 70s.  As the economies in North America struggled to pay for their new obligations, Jackson felt the church needed to step up again.  It hasn’t happened yet.  In fact most trends show churches walking more and more away from those difficult tasks and instead continuing to move to younger and younger suburban neighborhoods and therefore away from the problems.  It may be great church growth doctrine but what about the neighborhood and that you left behind.  The east side of Saskatoon has twice as many churches per person than then west side does.  Guess which side of the city has the higher concentration of wealth and guess which side has the core neighborhoods in it.  I’ll let you figure it out.

University Website Design

AKMA has a fun graphic on how universities design their websites and how it’s not at all what we want.  The same could be said about churches and many other NGOs.

Other by Kester Brewin

Other by Kester BrewinKester Brewin released his latest book Other.  It’s only available in the U.K. right now but if you want to pay the Canadian government a lot of fees, you can get it shipped here (I paid more in taxes and fees for The Complex Christ than I did for the book but it was worth it).

I am pretty excited about this book because The Complex Christ forced me to rethink much of how I saw the world, looked at history, and read the Scriptures.  While Brewin writes theology, his writing extends my thinking beyond where it has gone before.  I rate him up with Thomas Homer-Dixon, Jared Diamond, Malcolm Gladwell, and Steven Johnson as people that have helped constantly reinvent my world view.  I can’t wait until my copy gets here (the fees alone should erase Canada’s deficit).

A Pastoral Touch

Pope Benedict

As calls increase for the the Pope to resign over his alleged role in not dealing with pedophiles as the Cardinal Archbishop of Munich and subsequently head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, I was wondering if it has any historical precedent.  To my surprise, it isn’t that hard to do and it has happened in the past according to the BBC.

Of course it is bigger than just the current Pope, as the The Times wonders how much of a roll that Pope John Paul II had in the cover-up

The most serious claims related to Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer, an Austrian friend of John Paul’s who abused an estimated 2,000 boys over decades but never faced any sanction from Rome.

Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, Groer’s successor, criticized the handling of that scandal and other abuse cases last week after holding a special service in St Stephen’s cathedral, Vienna, entitled “Admitting our guilt”.

Schönborn condemned the “sinful structures” within the church and the patterns of “silencing” victims and “looking away”.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — who became Pope Benedict — had tried to investigate the abuses as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, according to Schönborn. But his efforts had been blocked by “the Vatican”, an apparent reference to John Paul.

Asked by The Sunday Times whether John Paul’s role in the cover-up of abuse should be investigated, Schönborn said: “I have known Pope Benedict personally during 37 years of amiable acquaintance and I can say with certainty that … he made entirely clear efforts not to cover things up but to tackle and investigate them. This was not always met with approval in the Vatican.”

The Groer affair became public in 1995 when former pupils of an elite Catholic school accused him of sexual abuse.

It get’s uglier

John Paul also faced criticism last week from Poland for protecting Archbishop Juliusz Paetz, who was accused of abusing trainee priests. Letters detailing the charges were sent to John Paul’s office and to Ratzinger in 2000 but were ignored. Paetz resigned in 2002 when the allegations became public.

Stanislaw Obirek, a Polish theologian and a former Jesuit priest, said: “I believe John Paul is the key person responsible for the cover-up of abuse cases because most of it occurred during his papacy. How can someone who is to blame for this be beatified?”

In America critics pointed out that although Benedict has borne the brunt of criticism over ignoring the scandal of Father Lawrence Murphy, accused of molesting 200 deaf boys at a special school in Wisconsin, Ratzinger had acted on the authority of John Paul.

Another beneficiary of John Paul’s discreet approach was Marcial Maciel Degollado, a Mexican priest known as Father Maciel, who founded a conservative religious order. He was accused by former members of abuse in 1998. John Paul blessed Maciel in the Vatican in late 2004, at a time when Ratzinger was investigating him. A year after Ratzinger became pope, the Vatican ordered Maciel to lead “a reserved life of prayer and penance”, effectively removing him from power.

John Paul was also accused of ignoring controversy over John Magee, a former private secretary to three popes including the Polish pontiff, who named him Bishop of Cloyne in 1987. Late last month Magee was forced to resign after an independent report found that his diocese in Ireland had put children at risk.

In the Vatican the spiraling allegations have prompted a siege-like mentality. Father Federico Lombardi, Benedict’s spokesman, declined to comment on John Paul’s handling of abuse cases. “We’re busy with Easter celebrations, let’s focus on the homilies,” he said.

The Polish cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, John Paul’s private secretary for four decades, rejected as “unfair and misleading” any attempt to distinguish between the approaches of the two popes to abuse cases. “Benedict is strongly committed to clearing things up, like a father,” Dziwisz told La Repubblica, the Italian newspaper.

In Europe there are signs of the faithful turning their backs on the church in large numbers. In Austria alone more than 20,000 Catholics left the church in March.

In America there was a furious response by Jewish groups to a Good Friday sermon by Father Raniero Cantalamessa, Benedict’s personal preacher, in which he compared the wave of attacks on the church to anti-Semitism.

Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, of the American Jewish Committee, protested: “So far I haven’t seen Saint Peter burn. The Vatican is trying to turn the persecutors into victims.”

While I doubt one will see Pope Benedict resign over the allegations, I had hoped for a less combative stance from the Roman Catholic Church.  Comparing to the attacks on the church for something it obviously did to anti-Semitism is not only horribly insensitive to Jews everywhere but also to the victims of child abuse at the hands of the church.  Years ago while driving home from Spiritwood, I was listening to an episode of CBC’s Tapestry and they covered the differences in how the Toronto and Ottawa dioceses handled sex abuse allegations.  One handled it like it’s lawyer’s would want it handled with an eye towards preventing liability while the other one handled it like a pastor would with an eye towards healing. 

The Roman Catholic Church needs to decide how it’s going to handle this.  With it touching the Pope, he is able to wade in and set the tone in a different way than his predecessor did.  He can set the tone for how those who have been hurt by the Church are to be treated and also how those that hurt them will forever be treated (never to be protected).

Now a friend of mine and reader of this blog (who gave me permission to post this part) who was sexually assaulted in his evangelical church does give some defense to the Catholic church.  When it was found out him and some other boys had been molested in this small town parish, he said the guy was more or less run out of town.  There was no desire for a cover up (not that he ever remembers) but he said the actions were taken because at that time (early 70s), no one knew what to do other than sending this guy on his way and the reality is that the offender probably went out and reoffended again.  At the time was that it protected the kids and deflected shame from the families.  Neither one of us are saying that that this makes it right what the Vatican did but it was a lot more of the common practice than it is now.

The Pope and the Vatican does have an opportunity in this and that is to really help those that have been hurt, lay out the consequences for priests who are pedophiles (excommunication, defrocking, and prison time), and build up structures for the protection of vulnerable people so it never happens again.  The only way to do all three is to tackle it all head on and stop the distraction of people comparing it’s critics of anti-Semitism, gossip, and shaming them in homilies by attack dog Cardinals.  It’s the issue that will define Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy, we’ll see if he is up to the challenge.

Missional Challenges

Urban LandscapeOver the last year I have noticed a trend when in a mixed group of churches (often evangelical) and NGOs.  It is the local evangelical churches inability to organize or work with outside groups.  All of them share the following characteristics.

  • The needs and convenience of the local church are more important than other partner agencies.
  • Other partner agencies or the community are expected to conform to the church’s convenience, even though it is a big inconvenience to other parties.
  • The church has a much bigger need for recognition than other agencies and groups.

The result is the same, the church is excluded in future discussions and is left on the margins while it’s reputation is hurt.  One frustrated NGO leader that I know talked about dealing with adults and children and evangelical churches was put into the children category.

Over the years several people have seen this and suggested that pastors are relationally retarded, they just can’t interact outside of a hierarchical power structure.  Bill Kinnon and I have talked about the narcissistic personality disorder and he also suggests that some pastors are sociopaths.  I have noted that many evangelical churches don’t play well with others but I am sure in some cases that is the issue.

I wonder if in many cases it is a case of never interacting outside of the confines of the church.  Growing up in the church –> Bible College –> Youth Worker –> Seminary –> Associate Pastor –> Sr. Pastor leads to fairly limited worldview as it totally focused on the life of the church.  The church has been and continues to be a persons entire life.  An entire career spent organizing within the community mean when in a situation where they need to be part of something bigger, they behave the same way they do inside the church, the needs of the church become the most important.  The issue isn’t that pastors are jerks, it is that their education and career path hurts them.  The more I think about it, the more it becomes a correctable issue.

What if we slowed down the path to the pulpit, either as denominations or as seminaries.  What if a two year stint in the Peace Corps or something like working for the Canadian Coast Guard or navy was part of the journey?  What about a two year stint in the mission field working grunge jobs and funded by the church that is sending them out to ministry.  My friend Gloria always says that church staff need to work in the real world and the more I think about it, the more I agree with it.

The purpose is to show potential church leaders a bigger world and also put them outside the church for a while.  Let them figure out some more about their personal faith, their calling, but also teach them how to work with other groups, learn what it means to be at the bottom of the totem pole. It would also teach them how hard it can be to make ends meet, be a good spouse, parent and participate on the life of the church.  It would give them an idea how how much they are asking and how much people are giving towards the life of the church and what that means.

I know some people will leave the ministry along the way, they are going to find a better spot and serve.  They may choose a career in the Navy, a career working in microfinance in Africa, or choose a career in business.  Some will even lose their faith but that happens now.  For those who are really called to pastoral ministry, it will give them a bigger worldview, a network a friends outside of the church, some more life experience, and the ability to understand how to work as part of a team, rather than just “lead” a team.

There is a reason why for years, culture valued leaders who served in the military as we felt that being part of something bigger than ourselves was a prerequisite of leadership.  Even President Obama did this during his years as a community organizer in impoverished Chicago neighborhoods.  Maybe a four year Bachelor’s of Theology needs to become a six year degree with a year breaks between year two and three and year three and four.  A Masters of Divinity may require an approved year of learning outside of the seminary applying what has been learned.  The Peace Corps, becoming a reservist, serving coffee in a Starbucks, being an intern in a shelter, or spending a year with YWAM become a required part of the curriculum.   By moving people outside the church for education, we may just make them better church leaders who have learned some important skills connecting with others, building partnerships, and living in the community.

Resonate 3.0 (beta)

Well Resonate is back online with a new look and feel and the website is now powered by WordPress.  You can check out what Resonate is up to as a community, find out information about church planting, and also a listing of some of the emerging churches across the country.  The RSS feed and Twitter account is also working.

Theology Pub in Toronto

Stubby Old Style Pilsner Beer For those of you in the Greater Toronto Area and are looking for a place to discuss theology in a casual setting, you will want to check out Toronto’s Theology Pub.

Theology Pub is a monthly gathering of Christians in Toronto. We gather for fellowship and to discuss theology with a desire to grow in our love for God and obedience to him; to sharpen and encourage each other; and to pray for the city of Toronto.

It’s hosted by our friend Darryl Dash and looks like a great night out for all of you theologians out there.

Tabled

tabled.ca

Joe Manafo has launched a wonderful resource exploring communion and worship called Tabled that you will want to spend some time exploring.

Where have I been?

I have to admit, I don’t follow Church, Inc. like I used to and I was shocked when I found out that Zondervan sold Youth Specialties and even more shocked when I found out Marko was laid off as part of the sale.  I feel for the Marko and his family as I know how much YS means to him.  The recession has changed a lot of organizations, companies, and lives around the world but it sucks when you hear it affecting people you know.