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Down but not out at First United

Helping marginalized people in the country's poorest neighbourhood is messy at the best of times

By David Wilson

Two of my favourite places in Vancouver are the Stanley Park seawall and the First United mission in the heart of the Downtown Eastside.

They couldn’t be more different. The seawall is an 8.8-kilometre paved trail that traces the perimeter of Stanley Park, the remarkable urban wilderness ranked among the top city parks in the world. The views of the city, ocean and mountains are breathtaking, the salty air invigorates and the peacefulness restores the soul. It’s Vancouver at its best.

Twenty minutes on the number 19 bus brings you to Main and Hastings streets and a much different side of the city. Grungy hotels, taverns, dingy alleyways: this is a neighbourhood reputed to be the poorest postal code in Canada, with the homelessness, addiction, violence and disease that go along with the distinction.

The First United Church mission has been part of the Downtown Eastside for more than 125 years. Intrigued by its shrine-like status in The United Church of Canada and beyond, I visited First United for the first time nine years ago. I spent a week observing daily life at the mission and came away deeply moved by the generosity of spirit that prevails amid the hundreds of real-life dramas that play out every day under its roof and on the street outside. I am not the first person to have visited First United and left convinced this was the United Church at its best.

My most recent visit was two years ago. I listened to executive minister Rev. Ric Matthews passionately describe a vision of an “inclusive intentional community at the margins of society, informed by the Christian Gospel,” and plans for a $30-million redevelopment project that would better integrate First United into the life of the Downtown Eastside. It was clear that Matthews and other senior leaders at First United wanted to push the envelope around what it means for churches to practise a gospel of radical hospitality.

Reaching out to the most marginalized people in the poorest neighbourhood in the country is messy at the best of times. As Pieta Woolley reports in “First United’s time of trial," things at First United have become very messy in the past 12 months. Matthews and two senior administrators no longer work there, the mission has come under attack by community groups and in the local media, and public agencies are set to pull the plug on a big piece of First United’s funding.

Different voices put different spins on why First United has ended up in this mess. There’s probably some truth in every version. But not the whole truth. The whole truth is less sensational but more significant. First United got into trouble because its heart was in the right place. It offered shelter to more people than it was supposed to because there are so many people on the street these days with nowhere else to go. It invited trouble by giving sanctuary to difficult people whom no one else would take. It stretched itself too thin trying to be an authentic Christian presence in the midst of growing poverty and despair.

Mistakes were most certainly made, and lines crossed that shouldn’t have been. But I find the most alarming part of Woolley’s story the news that donations to First United have declined since the troubles spilled into public view. What does that say? That First United is being punished for falling onto hard times? I hope not. The mission continues to offer, as it always has, an astonishing range of essential services for the very needy — it continues to be the United Church at its best. If anything, First United needs more support now than it did a year ago. If you’ve stopped supporting First United, ask yourself whom you are really hurting. If you continue to donate to the mission, consider increasing your support, even by a little bit. Show that your heart is in the right place too.

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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