I was, as is my frequent habit, shopping recently in the Salvation Army Thrift Store, and dressed in my typical scruffy old man style, as I was going later to do some volunteer construction work, for another charity. (I looked a little worse than usual because of some surgery beside my eye for skin cancer- be careful of the sun!) Someone looked at me and was moved with mercy, and invited me to the lunch next door. I did point out that I was not actually poor, and was told that everyone is welcome.
That was exactly my experience. The food was excellent and plentiful, with groceries to take home for those who chose to do so, and even bags supplied.
I then had an idea, which I discussed with some of your staff to ask if it might make a useful story for our community. Using the guide that was published by the Cranbrook Food Bank, I visited almost every soup kitchen in Cranbrook. Until it snowed, I rode around on my bicycle, to feel the experience a little more deeply. Where I could do so without drawing attention to myself, I made small donations. Although many churches and charities participate, the outstanding hosts are the Street Angels, the Salvation Army and the Ekklesia Millennium Society, which offers three meals a day, seven days a week, and a shuttle service as well.
Although I have worked on behalf of poor people in the past (years ago I was a prison chaplain) and I have volunteered for over forty years, I have never lined up with them. Since I waited like everyone else, rather than waiting on them, I was better positioned to see how the poor are treated in our community, and at least of late, it was very well indeed. All of the staff and volunteers were polite and friendly. (Among the most outgoing was the cook at Street Angels, who wore a beautiful black tee shirt saying “Beer is proof that God Loves Us and wants us the be happy”. They do not offer beer, in case anyone missed that.) The servings were so generous that I gained a few pounds that week. What is more, I sat with the poor and gave them lots of time to tell their stories, which was an experience in itself.
My family used to live in Richmond, where I worked directly with poor people. The programs there were overwhelmed and grossly inadequate to the need.
When we later moved to Pender Island, right next to Saltspring, the cost of living was so high that there was no room for the poor. (Although there was some forested land, it was all owned by some rich person or another. Everything else was parkland, which had only a few paid camping spots. No one was ever allowed to hide in the woods. (Officially, and reasonably, for fear of fires, but also, and I said so in meetings, it is easier for Islanders to be progressive in their politics when they don’t know any actual poor people.)
I did not meet anyone on my Cranbrook tour who was genuinely homeless, except by choice. The Salvation Army invites anyone who can follow a few rules, and the Millennium Society has some rooms available in private homes. That particularly impressed me.
I did meet some men who prefer to live in the bush, and a few couples. One had been personally invited to the shelter, which necessarily has women and men separate, and they chose to live in the forest so they could stay together. I told them that was very romantic. (Camping in the winter sounds like true love to me.)
I also met people who would count as working poor, barely making their rent payments. They came to save a few dollars, and some for the fellowship.
Towards the end of the trip, I asked to speak to some managers to be certain that I had understood the message correctly, and it appears that I had — everyone is welcome, and you don’t have to be poor, or even hungry. The Salvation Army has community suppers that are meant to be exactly that.
On the Coast, people tended to think of the homeless as rather helpless, hopeless and a bit of a nuisance. I felt that nowhere here in Cranbrook. I was welcome everywhere, and I never saw anyone turned away anywhere.
I do not know why Cranbrook is doing such a fine job in the field, though I assume that some smart person could figure it out some day. Perhaps among the reasons would be the size of our town. Cities are just too big, and poor people become invisible. Some small towns, besides being too expensive, are possibly too small to gather enough volunteers to make these programs possible. On the other hand, in my previous life experience, people looked to the government to solve all of our problems, or other people’s, whereas in Cranbrook it appears that enough of the right sort of people have looked to each other.
No one asked me to tell Townsman readers, and no one reminded me that all or nearly all of these programs are run by charities. I would ask your readers, if you have some extra cash, consider a donation to one of them. If you are a little short, or a little lonely or even a little curious to see for yourself, come to a lunch or a dinner some day.
Lastly, I wish to take this opportunity to thank all of those involved, and presumably some for many years, in making Cranbrook such a welcoming place.
Peace be with you,