The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Monday, December 25, 2006

Warning: Contains Both Politics and Religion

by Tricia Dower

‘O come, all ye faithful.’ I grew up in a family that practically lived at church: Bible class and Bible camp, Sunday school and youth meetings, choir practice, prayer breakfasts, sunrise and candlelight services, pot lucks, fund drives, hosanna on the highest, world without end, amen. I once considered a career as a church music director. Faith is still front and center in my sister’s life.

I fell away, so to speak, after becoming disillusioned by inconsistencies in the behaviour of ‘the church’ and the gospel it preaches. What had moved me about Christianity was the example of Jesus’s life. (The life, that is, as reported in the New Testament — however judiciously edited that testament has been over the ages by translators, monks and religious power brokers.) I never needed the virgin birth, the walking on water, the miracle of the fishes and loaves. It didn’t matter to me if Jesus was the son of God or if he rose from the dead. The message to love one another and take care of society’s outcasts was enough. If I were less selfish and materialistic I might have followed that message more rigorously.

Which brings me to someone who does: Reverend Allen Tysick, a high profile guy among Victoria’s socially conscious. I knew nothing about him until a fundraiser held in a church two weeks ago. Colin had already decided to attend and a friend urged me to go, too. “Reverend Al is like Jesus,” she said. “You have to meet him.”

Reverend Al has dedicated the past thirty years to serving the most scorned and powerless in our society: the homeless. He refers to them as family, accepts them without judgement and treats them with respect. He reportedly works fourteen-hour days, sometimes seven days a week, at a drop-in centre called Our Place, where the homeless can go after the shelters turn them out for the day. There they can warm up, have a coffee, get clothing and toiletries, use the computers and take advantage of advocacy, referral and outreach programs. A different location provides lunches and dinners. Reverend Al started his Victoria inner city ministry in 1987 out of a van. Our Place now serves over 600 people a day.

The fifty-eight-year-old Al is tall and imposing with greying, shoulder-length hair. He was the last to speak after a parade of folks who praised him so much I began to feel uneasy, concerned a cult had formed around him. (The real shame about Jesus, in my opinion, is that a religion developed in his name, that some consider the man more important than his message.)

Reverend Al told us his story — one he’s told many times, I’m sure. The passion in his powerful voice reached out and held me. One of five children, he grew up in a low-income Ottawa neighbourhood, raised by his mother on welfare. His father had returned from the Second World War addicted to alcohol. Al was ashamed of his father; angry that he didn’t “pull himself together” and support the family. Not until he began working with the down-and-out did he acquire compassion for his father. I felt my trust in him growing when he told us what his mother said the day he was ordained by the United Church: “Remember where you came from.” It seems as though he has. Like Jesus, he speaks to our conscience, reminding us through his actions that we have a responsibility to love and care for one another.

While I admire this man, it bothers me that we relegate taking care of the poor to faith-based initiatives. The governments we elect seem to focus on creating and maintaining wealth for the already advantaged. Funding to help those who can’t help themselves is inadequate, if it exists at all. The announcement that the Conservative government will provide $270 million over the next two years for what it calls its Homelessness Partnering Strategy is good news. (The cash commitment is the same as the previous Liberal government's National Homelessness Initiative, which expires at the end of this fiscal year.) However, it’s not enough. It’s projected that Greater Victoria would receive $1.2 million a year under the program. That's enough to fund about 35 temporary shelter beds or to create and operate a supportive place for eight people. There are an estimated 750 homeless people in Victoria. I’m sure the shortfall is the same in city after city across the country.

Without a deeper commitment from us as a citizenry, people like Reverend Al Tysick will be left alone to do our work for us.

Merry Christmas, eh?

Top: My hometown, Rahway, New Jersey, in days gone by, as depicted on a Christmas card by artist Lloyd Garrison.

Inset: The Reverend Al Tysick, left, greeting people at Our Place; photo by Darren Stone from this article in the Victoria Times Colonist.


Blogger Antonios Maltezos said...

Merry Christmas, Tricia. I'm happy to know you.

Mon Dec 25, 08:45:00 am GMT-5  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Thanks for reading, Tony. Hope you're having a wonderful day.

Mon Dec 25, 06:09:00 pm GMT-5  
Anonymous Larry said...


You have, with your customary clear eye and razored insight, cut to the heart of Christmas... both what is most true, as well as what is most broken.

You've kick-started my New Year with a sharp dose of hope.

Thank you.

Mon Dec 25, 06:26:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Larry, thanks for stopping by. I'm glad you took away something positive from my message. Merry Christmas, my friend!

Tue Dec 26, 12:58:00 am GMT-5  
Anonymous Lillian Dobbs said...

Once again, Sis, you have reached back into our past to bring forth a relevant and poignant need in our present. Thank God for the Reverend Als of the world. Merry Christmas.

Tue Dec 26, 03:12:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Lili! So happy you commented. Thanks. Need goes back so far, doesn't it?

Tue Dec 26, 03:34:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Patricia said...

we have to maintain this hope, this..spirit all year, thanks Tricia, this is wonderful, people like Reverend Al and amazing, the true heros. Thank you Tricia

Wed Dec 27, 11:28:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Thanks for reading, Patricia. Yes, we need to be "charitable" every day of the year.

Thu Dec 28, 04:05:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Andrew Tibbetts said...


Fri Dec 29, 04:13:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Andrew Tibbetts said...


Fri Dec 29, 04:15:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger J.A. McDougall said...

A wonderful post for to contemplate this week, to help shape our New Year resolutions. Merry Christmas Tricia!

Sun Dec 31, 02:18:00 pm GMT-5  
Anonymous redpen said...

Excellent post.

One question though: How can $1.2 million do so little? The math just doesn't work for me at all.

An illustration: let's say I give 18 previously homeless people $50,000 per year as a salary and pay 3 qualified life councillors $100,000 a year to give them good advice, haven't I just operated a "supportive place" for 10 more than the 8 people you mention?

If two people can live comfortably on $50,000 of post tax income, it seems like $1.2 million should be able to support way more than 35 temporary shelter beds.

Fri Jan 12, 02:33:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

I don't know how the math works, Redpen. I was citing what I had been told. Thanks for raising the question. I will do some research on the specifics.

Tue Jan 23, 12:22:00 pm GMT-5  

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