When I started hitchhiking in the 1970s, I
had no idea that it’d become a way of life for me.
In grade ten our English teacher Ms.
Laframboise handed out copies of Kerouac’s “On the Road”. The flowing energy of
those words – like the hum of rubber on asphalt – became the background noise
of my teenage soul. Kerouac’s search for “it” spoke to my own restless yearning
for something more than what the mall offered.
I saved my pay from after-school work at
Simpson’s Shell and as soon as summer dawned, me, and my own fatherless version
of Dean Moriarty, hit the road to follow the sun.
Sometimes you get lucky and you end up
spending a long time with your new travelling companion. John stopped for me
and Dean just outside of Edmonton and we spent almost a week with him exploring
Sometimes you’d get where you were going
with a series of short hops. People will pick you up, give you a snapshot of
their lives, and drop you at the next turn. It’s always good hitchhiking
etiquette to have a story or two to tell to entertain your host. But mostly I
found that people just want you to listen to their tales. As any bartender or
cabdriver will tell you – having an anonymous ear to listen-in to what they
can’t tell their friends or families – is part of the deal when you put out
And sometimes you end up walking. In New
Zealand I was told more than once that if you want a ride, don’t just stand
there by the roadside. “You need to look like you’re working at getting where
you’re going.” Putting in an effort will earn you the respect it takes for a
driver to hit the brakes and open their door to a stranger.
I’ve spent many an hour walking and waiting
for that next ride. I once spent a night outside Regina trying to sleep in a
cemetery, waiting for the sun to shine on the open road again. It seemed like a
good place to rest in peace – but a ghost rustling the bushes next to where I
lay through the night proved it otherwise.
My next ride took me all the way to
Winnipeg with a rodeo vagabond whose van was his home. He had sad Country &
Western stories to tell about lost loves and dreams down the drain. He was
probably about the age I am now and I respected his tenacity and his taste for
the road’s adventure.
I’ve always got to where I was going. And
I’ve always treated each new day as a new adventure – even now when I’m rooted
into our Peterborough home. While the gospels have got a lot to say about “the
table” and hospitality, the Jesus guy was always on the move inviting folks to
have faith and see where they could get to.
hit a stretch, once again, in our adventure with the Bedford House Community
Ministry where we’re walking and waiting for what’s to come.
In our fourth year now, we’ve got a pretty
amazing story to tell our growing circle of friends. A story told best by the
folks in the small group that’s gathered around a vision. Fifteen people
meeting weekly to share food, laughs, and stories. Five courageous souls
struggling to live in poverty in Peterborough. And ten seniors – elders I call
them – who are learning how to walk alongside those five.
The vision for Peterborough’s homegrown
Bridging Teams project is pretty simple. People learning to be neighbours in a
culture that values the bottom-line over bottom-up solutions. “Love your
neighbour after you’re finished loving god and loving your self.” Isn’t that
the greatest commandment?
Or, do we take a risk, hit the brakes and
open our doors to a stranger. Invite them into a safe space to share stories
along the way?
In 2017 we lucked out with a series of
short rides. Ten different grants came in to help us create our first Bridging
Team. Now at the end of this run, our faith in people’s willingness to risk and
share has our faith-fuel-gage at FULL.
But we’re out of funds. The Board has had
to lay Lynn and I off and we’re “walking” again. In 2016 we walked for 2 ½
months without a ride. Seems like we’re hitting that road again.
As per our plan – we’re leaving behind the
comfort of that first team’s “table” – and are journeying out to create the
next Bridging Team. We’re without the funds to get us there but our destination
is clear – to test the model we used for the first. Did we just luck out with
an amazing group of fifteen? Or, is our faith in the natural “calling” for
everyday folks to be neighbours something organic? Does it just need nurturing?
Putting out your thumb takes humility.
Begging doesn’t come easy. But when you’ve got a destination in mind and
nothing else besides faith in your next best friend, it’s an adventure worth
If you’d like to give us a lift, here’s a
link to our Go Fund Me page…
If you’d like to get a charitable receipt, (a
little gas money in return?) our partner in this project will be happy to send
one along. Please send your cheque with “Bridging Team” in the memo line to: Greenwood United, 737
Donwood Drive, Peterborough, ON, K9L 1G6
When I was first employed in the Poverty
Business, an industry that employs tens of thousands of Canadians, I was told
that it was my goal to work myself out of a job.
The idea was that if I was effective in my
work, I would eliminate the need.
Eliminating Poverty however, I soon
realized, would mean those tens of thousands of poverty workers would be
unemployed. I had to wonder “Is it really in their best interests to solve the
To treat the root causes of poverty,
instead of its symptoms, would unplug the great social-service machine that is
fueled by people’s neediness. Addressing what causes that neediness is not in
the interest of the wheels of government, or those at the levers of a labour
market that benefit from keeping “the wolf at the door” of a workforce.
The Poverty Industry Machine continues to
run – employing me – and so many others. Taxpayer’s dollars – not unlike the
ten billion our government poured into GM to keep Canadians working – continue
to feed this dinosaur-industry of another era.
What if those
taxpayers became personally involved in creating an alternative to the poverty
What if poverty’s
“clients” became leaders instead in the growing of an organic model of shared
What if people
from all walks of life came together as neighbours to imagine how a local
economy could fully employ every person in meeting needs currently unmet?
It is Citizens that could take this
scenario from some academic dream theory into reality. It is ordinary people
whose interests would be served.
If you ask “Who
wants poverty?” you also need to ask “Who benefits from poverty?”
But if you ask “Who wants prosperity for
everyone?” then we might also ask “In who’s interests would this make sense?”
In an upper room of a downtown Peterborough
church there’s a small social experiment growing solutions – one relationship
at a time.
Seeded by church and foundation dollars,
started by church workers – based on an educational construct developed by
academics – ordinary people are creating something that has the potential – if
not to replace the poverty machine – to transform our relationship with it.
Peterborough’s Bridging Poverty Teams bring
together under-resourced people living in poverty with volunteer mentors who
have resources to share. On one level you might say it’s a system of resource
re-distribution. But beneath that surface, there’s something much more radical
Lynn and I were invited to join the Team
for their pre-holyday seasonal lunch and celebration. It’d been six months since we’d finished our
work with the Team as the paid staff animators of the Team.
About 18 months earlier we’d invited this
group of strangers into the experiment. What might happen if people from
different walks of life came together weekly to share a meal, tell stories,
have fun, study poverty and chip away at the work of stabilizing the lives of
the under-resourced people in the team?
Key to the experiment was that the
participants who were living in poverty were considered the lead
problem-solvers. With staff support, they planned the sessions. They chose the
curriculum. They evaluated the groups’ progress. And they determined the pace.
Staff offered both streams of participants
training. Under-resourced folks in poverty were given tools of social analysis
and critical awareness. Mentors were given lessons in asking questions instead
of offering advice (Can you teach old dogs new tricks?) The Mentor training we
called “From Mentor to Ally Training”.
Early in our research we attended a session
at the Nogojiwanong Friendship Centre. A young indigenous leader told us that
no one can claim to be an Ally. “It’s a title that has to be given to you by
those you seek to work with.” she explained. “No one can call themselves an
Elder – the community names its elders.”
So we invite Mentors to join a journey of
discovery – to learn from those who solve poverty’s problems every day of their
lives. And to learn how ask good questions (before offering the good advice
that’s worked for them – starting from a place of privilege).
Once the two training
streams finish and the two groups come together, we spend a lot of time
building trust and learning. Over food, stories, and fun we get to see into
each others’ lives. It’s a slow process and patience is required. Mentors ask
“when do we get to start “helping?” (The
need for patience is why seniors tend be our mentors).
Gradually through the trust-building we all
begin to see how “change” is a product of relationship. And we see how all of
us need help with the “change” we envision for ourselves and for our
Over the nine months the group gradually
begins taking on the various roles and responsibilities to keep the team going.
Circles of Support are created to work with each under-resourced participants
goals. Teams are created to look after the essentials of Hospitality, Learning,
and Evaluating. Then the paid staff pull out.
And the team keeps meeting.
Staff continued to meet weekly in a
parallel Internship program with three of the under-resourced Leaders. These
three had chosen to become trained as Bridging Team facilitators. As part of
their training they took on the leadership of the first group (supported by a
Steering Cmte. of Mentors who conduct monthly evaluation and planning
So, when Lynn and I, as the staff who had
started the experiment, were invited back to join the Team for their
pre-holyday seasonal lunch and celebration – I couldn’t help but give them an
evaluation task before the celebrations began…
The group was asked to each
write down a sentence to complete this statement: “We are a group of people who….”
“Who believe People in poverty are
“Who Believe By building resources there
is a way out of poverty.”
“Would love to help people get out of
poverty and stabilize their lives”
“Who have grown together, removed
“class” barriers, love and support each other!”
“We are a group of leaders, learning,
sharing and spreading our wings, soaring to new heights.”
“We are a group of people who love
community building, love meeting others who have different yet same in most
“Who believe social capital needs to be
built and expanded”
“Have learned from and taught each other
about our differences and our similarities – basically the same but unique.”
“We’re a group of people who became
family and friends”
“Support one another in mutuality,
mutual caring, sharing, learning, laughing, loving, and eating with each
“We are a group of teachers and
“A group that goes beyond a room and a
meeting place. We are friends!”
“We are family.”
“Who believe people have unlimited
talent that sometimes just needs to be set free.”
“Friends who meet often to eat each
other’s delicious food and share our resources with one another.”
more than three decades working in the poverty business – I’ve experienced
something new. For the first time – I
felt like I’d worked myself out of a job.
Five individuals living in poverty in Peterborough (who’ve named themselves “the Awesome People”) journey with mentors towards a more stable life.
What is the goal of this project?
Bridging Teams address the 11 Essential Resources required to overcome Poverty’s Tyranny of day-to-day crises. By creating a social network of middle-class mentors, the Awesome people have expanded their resources and supports to deal with poverty’s complex challenges.
What strategies does the project use?
Using the “Bridges Out of Poverty”* framework, two separate learning streams orient under-resourced Leaders and middle class Mentors.
Then, the five Awesome People and ten Mentors come together to meet weekly for three hours in a Bridging Team to cross cultural barriers, build community, and fight poverty.
Once the team has built trust and bonded, support circles for each of the Awesome people are formed. Two mentors were assigned to walk with each of the Awesome participants.
The Team was facilitated by staff for the first nine months of weekly meetings.
Describe the most positive aspects of the project and anything that you would do differently if you did it again.
By far the most positive aspect of the work was the success in creating a safe, non-judgmental, space for mutual learning among people from different socio-economic cultures (or classes). Our focus on Team-building included three key elements:
Food: every session included a meal first provided by staff, then shifting to a pot-luck sharing.
Fun: The use of trust-building, adventure-based, activities created a common ground and bonded the team.
Storytelling: Midway evaluations scored storytelling from each participant as a highlight. Every person answered five interview questions. The group passed a talking stick reflecting on what they valued in each person’s story.
Each of the fifteen participants has created 18 new relationships including staff (15 x 18 = 270 new relationships). This new social network has the potential of affecting the lives of every participant in significant ways. For the Awesome People, they now have positive relationships with retired teachers, lawyers, therapists, journalists, social workers, parenting experts, and clergy. In addition, they will benefit in all kinds of ways from a new access into the social networks of these new intentional friendships.
Here is a sample of what the Awesome participants had to say:
“…allowed me to find a career direction after many years of uncertainty. Now I can move toward a new goal”
“…wonderful sense of belonging”
“…feeling very good about myself and my life”
“…helped me see the strength in myself…more self-confidence with speaking in pubic, self-esteem, leadership roles, and having fun”
Mentors were challenged to learn (through training and extensive practice) how to become allies beyond their habitual desires to help/fix/advise:
“…greater awareness of real-life challenges of people in poverty”
“…the possibility of a world where everyone is heard, everyone is part of what we’re creating, and no one is left out”
“…one of the best processes I’ve ever encountered for building solidarity across economic class”
“I am less judgmental, and I am in awe of how resourceful these awesome people are.”
“…helped me build deep connections and trust relationships across class lines”
“Bedford House is uniquely suited as a catalyst to engage, train, and equip diverse groups of people.”
What has made this project a success?
Community support for this slow, costly process has been outstanding. The Awesome participant’s dedication and energy drives us forward to believe “Whatever the problem – Community is the answer.”
The weeping place is where I go when I lose my way.
In deepest sorrow shared there comes a knowing – that there is a greater deeper wider timeless power that holds all suffering within its breadth and depth and is not diminished.
The suffering mixes like compost – what is lost – into the rich procreative soil of what is,
the rain of doubt washes away ego’s vain attempts to claim control or credit,
the winds bring seeds of hope from unexpected places,
and the joy of the sun’s warmth urges tickles of laughter out into the open.
To recall the everflowing spinal fluid of creation’s gifting,
to gather the opposites of left and right hemispheres to meet in those sweet spots of possibilities emerging
is to do the work of pushing through disbelief, disorder, discouragements I carry from past failures (that were really only good tries – waiting for a friend’s help to try again).
I can be my own best friend. When honesty demands a good look in the mirror. When the list of inadequacies, mistakes and miscues grows as long as the longest night. I am the one who can say to the dark “Yes – but.”
The “Yes” is the invitation for those ugly thoughts to come and dance. And as they come and dance around the sacred fire I’ve built for this ceremony – they lose the fearful shadowed power I give them when I push them away into dark corners. In the firelight of the dance I ask them “what gift do you bring to offer?”
So the “but” becomes the private joke I make – learning to laugh at this trickster’s attempt to turn my most awful shames into impassable boulders on the path – when they really are painful pebbles in my shoes.
In this dance of serious hilarious humility I grow large – so much larger than those pebbled boulders. Standing on the shoulders of ancestor’s work I see what really matters. Stretching my arms wide enough to embrace both past and future i bring it all into the here of today’s to dos. Spinning with the earth’s turning the divine imagination infuses what I offer with the knowing that this same green growing tall energy in me is within the canopy of a jungle forest ecosystem where I am rooted and never – no never – alone.
You know you are on the way – on the path that you were invited to walk when born – when these days of doubt arrive.
Distracted, disordered, discombobulated – I go to the weeping place. In good company I sit with those who endure the worst. Listening I discover what it takes to stand tall once more in the company of great-grandparents gone – who wait for us on the way.
My morning prayers rise like smoke. Yesterday’s living a burnt offering. I am grateful for change.
While many of us have heads swirling with the change this seasonal shift brings. From summer’s ease to September busyness. From having time to watch things grow – drawing in the summer’s heat – to not enough time to get ready – as the long slow exhale towards winter begins. Today, with the equinox shift, instead of being overwhelmed by so much change, I am appreciating the power of change.
Our guest at last wednesday’s “Subversive Faith” interview, Ann Naylor, started me down this path. Some of the things she said have stayed with me. Listening to someone’s story of faith can stir the embers of our own stories.
Ann told us about her grounding in a family where church was integral to their living. And I was struck by her description of her large blended-family of kids gathering every Sunday evening for a family council. It was a time for personal check-ins and a time to discuss and decide issues facing them all. What struck me was how this intentional process echoed through Ann’s life of justice and peace-making.
This same kind of circle process is key to the learning at the Centre for Christian Studies where Ann has taught for the past seventeen years. This co-learning process has shaped our thinking about what Bedford House might offer.
Ann’s stories were not just about going round and round but also full of progress made against the odds. How the sting of hate towards bi-racial families was an awakening to her childhood sensibilities of what was right and wrong and worth fighting for. How a church so ready to fight for justice in the world couldn’t deal with its own male-female power imbalances. How peace-making meant staying in relation with opponents and making the conversations not only political but also personally compassionate.
Ann held senior offices at the national united church during the 1980s when sexual orientation was the change at hand. At the same time she walked in solidarity with Latin American liberation leaders and stood between Quebec police rifles and first nations protestors at Oka.
When one of us asked how she keeps hopeful in the face of enduring opposition to change she quoted Pete Seeger, “Music surrounds hatred and makes it surrender.”
Ann teaches with music. It both feeds her spirit and is a way of sharing the messages of peace in a way that reaches all generations. Many of her best lessons, she shared, come from the children she teaches weekly in Sunday school.
When asked about her own endurance in the struggles, Ann spoke of how “the people of God” have always faced incredible odds and so often suffered violence. She is inspired by those who have lost everything to hatred and yet still work from the mysterious place of love. When the people of god have all else stripped away what endures is the vision for peace that love inspires and the ancient-core-heart-courage to go on.
The people of god. Not necessarily church people. Not necessarily Christians. The people who god calls together into the hope that is humanity’s divine destiny.
Ann’s stories rekindled that calling in me. I could feel it like a shared heartbeat in the room as our small group listened. People can change. Thank god. People can change the way systems work. Thank god. People can attune themselves to the ways of the earth – at peace with both living and dying, seeding and harvesting, plenty and want. In right relations with all life there arises a harmony that surrounds hatred and makes it surrender. Thank god.
As we race home, the kilometres clicking. stock markets dipping, politicians promising brighter futures in radio sound bites, Lynn reads from the Truth and Reconciliation’s (TRC) 388 page report “Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future”. As an official document – it’s surprisingly digestible. As a record of Canada’s history – it’s deeply troubling.
I wonder how much of our trip will have a lasting effect on me? As we drive south the hills are surrounded by mists rising off the lakes. It has an other-worldly effect – making me feel like the world we’re leaving is unreal, distant, a dream that disappears like smoke once daylight arrives.
Passing through hour after hour of northern forests it might be easy to think there’s a limitless supply of timber. It could be easy to forget the living nightmare the people of Grassy Narrows have shared with us. Return to my routines. Return to my same old ways of getting by, consuming energy and natural resources without a thought to the true costs of my living.
I remember Larry Morrissette’s definition of Development. “You flush the toilet – and somebody else gets the shit.”
We have short memories when it comes to such things. The 1996 Royal Commission covered much of the same territory as the TRC report. It made many of the same recommendations. Most of which were conveniently disregarded by those in power and forgotten by the general public.
This TRC document however, is soaked in the tears of the Residential School survivors. The TRC heard over 6,000 stories. Many heartbreaking accounts are captured in the pages. In addition to the hard cold truths of how we made “our home on native lands”, it documents the human costs. The truth is that the “true north” is not strong nor free.
A chapter details the TRC process. The Commission had to deal with deliberate resistance from our federal government departments. If it wasn’t for the Supreme Court’s rulings, the government would have successfully withheld vital information about it’s attempts at cultural genocide. It seems that the courts are the only place First Nations can hope to receive justice. Our governments continue to spend millions trying to defend and preserve their own institutional self-interests.
On the other hand, our CPT visit to the Kenora district court revealed how our lower courts are awash with the side-effects of colonialization. In the two hours we spent there all seven cases were aboriginal people. Five of the seven were young women. Three of these were girls whose foster parents had called in the police after failing to control them.
For a culture that is essentially matriarchal, the current “missing and murdered” women disgrace tells a story of just how pervasive have been the effects of our governments attempted genocide. By tearing apart families, we have hacked away at the trunk of the tree that connects deep roots with the branches of future generations.
It seems that only our Supreme Courts are willing to address the root causes of indigenous people’s claims. The TRC has told the truth. Now we will see whether Canadians will begin the work of reconciliation.
What can I do to change things in Grassy?
It’s the same answer I came home with after visiting the Dominican Republic in 1976, Fiji in 1979, Peru in 1982. The poverty of those places is a direct result of the colonialization, corporatization, and “progress-driven” consumer society whose benefits I thoughtlessly enjoy daily.
“Be the Change you want to see in the world.” said Mahatma Ghandi and this truth still rings out. I hear it at Fleming College where I tell community organizing stories to students.
While walking in solidarity as allies with the people who live where the shit ends up – the changes needs to happen here – in the white man’s world.
“A learning journey can be a provocation that invites you to examine your beliefs and assumptions and how change happens and what becomes possible when we fully engage our communities.
Sometimes a learning journey that immerses us in a different context or way of looking that can be overwhelming or disorienting. It can create moments when we’re no longer sure about something.
When certainty collapses, it’s often replaced by curiosity.”
Margaret Wheatley from “Walk Out Walk On”
“Aren’t you Curious?” is a by-line we use to invite people into learning circles at Bedford House (the new community development learning centre we’re working hard to get off the ground this fall)
At Peterborough Dialogues we engage in forging relationships and telling a new story about the Peterborough we want to live into.