Posted by: Dan | March 23, 2008

If You Want to Journey with Marginalised People, Do the Necessary Prep Work!

Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called child-heirs of God.
~ Mt 5.9

God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them.

Some Jews who went around driving out evil spirits tried to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who were demon-possessed. They would say, “In the name of Jesus, whom Paul preaches, I command you to come out.” Seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, were doing this. (One day) the evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know, and I know about Paul, but who are you?” Then the man who had the evil spirit jumped on them and overpowered them all. He gave them such a beating that they ran out of the house naked and bleeding.
~ Acts 19.11-16

Friday evening I ended up attending a candlelight service at a church that some of my friends attend. This church has a reputation for trying to journey alongside of various marginalised populations, and several of the people who go there also work for a Christian drop-in in the downtown eastside. Not only that, but this church is also one of the churches that participate in the “Out of the Cold” program, and thus it operates as a shelter for homeless people on certain nights of the week during the winter.

Anyway, during the service last night a drunk street-involved man became volatile and became increasingly loud, vulgar, and violent. To my surprise, nobody seemed to know how to deal with the situation, and none of the people in attendence who actually worked in the downtown eastside did anything to de-escalate what was happening. Now I get that this church wants to be a welcoming place for those who are, in general, made to feel unwelcome, but once a fellow starts yelling, “Fuck you, you whore!” and things like that, while simultaneously becoming increasingly threatening and violent in his actions, well, something needs to be done. So, to make a long story short, I ended up having to get up and deal with the fellow. It ended up being fairly exhausting for me, but nobody got clobbered so all’s well that ends well.

However, I felt quite frustrated by how the church handled the situation. Not only was there no structure in place for addressing this sort of situation (and this sort of situation is inevitable if a community chooses to try to journey with street-involved people), but those from the church who did respond to this situation made some real basic mistakes and ended up worsening things. For example, the first young guy who went to talk to the man, approached him from behind, and put his hand on his back. So, here are a few of the basics: when dealing with a volatile situation involving people who are street-involved (1) if at all possible, never come at somebody from behind; and (2) don’t touch somebody unless you (a) absolutely have to, or (b) have a very close relationship with the person you are about to touch (and even then, think twice — when somebody is preparting themselves for a fight, the last thing you want to do is touch them).

So, if this wasn’t bad enough, some little old lady decided she wanted to take the fellow aside (after the service had ended and after we had moved outside) and reprimand him while telling him that Jesus loved him. Once again, I had to intervene to make sure the little old lady didn’t get knocked out. So, here are a few more of the basics: (3) limit the number of people involved in the situation — if somebody who is drunk and has been on the edge of violence wants to shut up and bugger off, let him shut up and bugger off. At that moment, he doesn’t need to hear about how much Jesus loves him — he needs to get some sleep and sober up; (4) The whole “aw shucks, we just want you to know that you are loved, so can you please just be a little more polite, good buddy” thing doesn’t work all the time. Sometimes you need to look like a you’ve been in a fight or two, and you know how to carry yourself in that sort of situation. It’s all about how you position your body, what you do with your hands and eyes, and what you choose to say or not say. This is an art that needs to be learned — you need to be able to show that you are willing to physically commit yourself to the situation, while not actually posing or acting in a way that escalates the situation.

Hence, my quotes at the beginning of the post. Yes, I believe we are called to journey alongside of marginalised people; yes, I believe that we are called to intervene into violent situations (which is why I’ve jumped into so many fights), and, yes, I believe that this is an integral part of our call to be “peacemakers.” However, we need to recognise that being a peacemaker is something of an art that requires us to practice certain disciplines — disciplines that require some training — otherwise we risk following the trajectory of the seven sons of Sceva.

So, let me be clear. If you are a part of a church that wants to try to journey alongside of marginalised people groups I think that that is really, really wonderful. However, as a community you will need to think carefully about how you go about doing this, you will need to develop some structures and people that are capable of responding to crisis situations, and it’s not a bad idea to consult with agencies who have been doing this sort of thing for awhile so that you can learn from what they have done well, and what they have done poorly (also, for those without experience, who don’t have good instincts, something like Non-Violent Crisis Intervention Training would be worthwhile). If you don’t do the necessary prep work, your good intentions will likely create a good many messes that can result in people getting hurt and, even more importantly, can result in you driving away or hurting those marginalised people with whom you are trying to journey.

That said, I’m not altogether shocked that all of this went down at a Good Friday service. Somehow it felt… appropriate.

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