This is a short reflection paper I wrote for a course entitled “Breaking the Chains: Resisting Structural and Personal Evil” taught by Bob Ekblad in Fall of 2005. Our assignment was to visit and observe a poor district and a business district of Vancouver for two hours each and to write a reflection paper on what forms of evil we observed during these immersions.
The first of my two immersions was in the poorer and more “visibly oppressed” part of the city. I had organized a prayer walk during Reading Week for members of my CTC community group which was designed to take us from the “dregs” of downtown Vancouver, through the city, along Jericho beach and finally up to the university campus. Because these two events were overlapping, I found that each was colored and informed by the other.
Our prayer walk was to be distinct in that we agreed not to speak the entire day except for read liturgies at three points along the way. Instead, we wanted to listen, to observe and to seek God as we traveled through the various neighborhoods of the city. In preparation for this, I left home that morning with a firm resolve to calm myself and look for God in the encounters and images I would meet throughout the day.
The first image that lodged in my mind was the sour smell of alcohol on the breath of one of my fellow passengers on the bus. I looked around and saw a bus full of decent looking people on their way to work – no one whom I would expect to be drinking at 7:00 in the morning. Even before I had arrived in the inner city, here I was confronted by the reality of some one’s despair or pain or boredom. But this was distracting me. I tried to center myself again.
Upon arriving downtown, I got off the bus and started walking to our group’s rendezvous point. As I came within about a block, a toothless woman who looked older than she no doubt was approached me and asked for a dollar. I had put two US dollars in my pocket that morning anticipating one or more opportunities to give and so I reached into my wallet to pull out one of my two bills. As I did so, the woman peered over my knuckles and said, “Wait man, you have another dollar! Can you give me another dollar?” I tried to gently refuse thinking I could give to some one else later but she began to plead. At first it was simply annoying but soon she turned desperate and teared up. Far too easily the words rolled out of her yellow-gummed mouth, “I’ll give you a blow job for a dollar.” 7:15 Saturday morning on the day of my prayer walk and here I’d already been propositioned by an anonymous junkie desperate for change. I was stunned. I tried to refuse in a way that would somehow protect her dignity: “No thanks, I’m a married man.” Did she have any dignity left to protect? Would she have offered to degrade herself with a complete stranger if she hadn’t done it enough times by now that dignity no longer mattered? I walked away numb. I’d come to the city to watch, listen and pray. How could a morning like this be at all conducive to prayer?
As our group silently wove our way through the streets, we passed young people in their teens and early twenties rubbing the tiredness out of their faces. Had they been up all night? When would they sleep, or where? One group was standing around an immobile figure who looked to have passed out from the way she was splayed out on the ground. She could have been dead too I suppose, but these people – her friends? – seemed to not be the least bit concerned. Should they have been? It seemed like an especially cold and bleak stretch of sidewalk. I admit I was glad that I was obligated not to speak; I was here to pray after all. In the intervening blocks before Burrard Bridge, my senses felt assaulted by everything I saw, heard and smelled: graffiti, an advertisement for anti-depressants, sex-shop windows full of leather cat-suits, junkies, the smells of wet concrete, stale urine and BC bud. I didn’t have a voice to distract me from the offense of it all. How can people live with such an incessant assault?
Passing over the bridge was tortuous. The city lay behind me now but not far enough behind. Ahead I could see totem park and our first stop for an hour of journaling and prayer. Traffic whizzed by without a pause. The noise and the action and all the images of the city were deafening. Finally we made it to the quiet of the park. With the city now a distant backdrop to the park’s serenity, we pulled out our liturgies and began to read the first station. “Lord forgive us for the things we have done and the things we have not done …” Had I seen or heard anything?