Building Together Our Community of Care

July 5, 2017

Each part of creation reveals unique aspects of God the Creator,
who is both in creation and beyond it.
All parts of creation, animate and inanimate, are related.
All creation is good.
— from A Song of Faith – A Statement of Faith of the United Church of Canada

It’s a message we hear a lot: we are all connected; we’re all in this together. Yet, these days, it’s actually of critical importance for us to really sit with the implications of this message and consider our own role in such grand connections. What does it mean to truly care for ourselves and must we really care for others in the same way, be they human, animal, plant, or the land? What are the consequences if we don’t? I think the consequences are becoming clearer every day:

  • Growing inequality – think of those experiencing homelessness in the face of this housing crisis while housing speculators flip multi-million dollar homes in our city daily.
  • Growing intensity within marginalised groups – think of the increasingly intense opioid crisis and of the expected 400 or more people who are predicted to lose their lives due to the failures of our medical system in caring for those struggling with addiction.
  • Growing prevalence of extractivism or the exploitation of natural resources for profit – think of the Kinder Morgan pipeline twinning project and the Site C dam project and the ways these have been pitched as good for the markets and good for job creation even though for-profit enterprise leaves many behind and the jobs that are created do not necessarily provide sustainable, living-wage income. Now think of this in light of the environmental and ecological costs and the cost to those whose lives will necessarily be disrupted as a result.

Each of these involves each of us, whether we like to admit it or not – we all have a role to play in preserving our communities and natural resources for future generations but also in taking good care of those of us who are here now. Instead of growing inequality, we were instead growing community equity, growing the conditions for thriving community groups, and growing the prevalence of land stewardship and nurtured healthy spirits and bodies?

The United Church of Canada has publicly expressed its views on extraction industry policies and practices in alignment with global and indigenous understandings of the sacredness of the land: “We are called to move away from concepts of dominion and ownership of the Earth. We strive to resist that which destroys the health of creation and its communities.” The Church understands that protection of the environment is inseparable from the protection of communities and acknowledges that too often it is indigenous communities, and people who are already socially or economically marginalised, who are disproportionately affected by extraction industry practices. The Church is a strong advocate against extractivism – the exploitation of natural resources for profit – and against the criminalization of those who would resist such practices.

Clean air, clean water, affordable homes, access to good healthcare, and feeling a sense of belonging within our community are things that all of us need and deserve, but too often we make decisions or hold firm in personal beliefs that exclude certain groups from accessing them. It can also be easy to forget that hardship can strike any of us at any moment.

Can you recall a time of unexpected difficulty in your life?

About fourteen years ago, Hendrik Beune found himself unable to continue the work he was doing. Being self-employed as an oyster and clam farmer in Theodosia Inlet, BC was a life he loved. Hendrik was educated as a marine biologist and wanted to work outdoors in nature. His wife had been a sailing instructor and also loved the water and being outdoors. They settled in Theodosia Inlet and farmed oysters and clams. Two daughters were born and the family enjoyed an idyllic life in those years, the envy of many a visiting tourist. Lifting many tonnes of shellfish for many years, however, eventually tore some discs in Hendrik’s back and he had to re-invent himself somehow. The Downtown Eastside seemed like just the right place. It was wild like the wind, yet everything found its place like creatures in a rough, exposed shoreline. He had a transferable skill set that just needed some re-tuning from Marine biologist to Urban Ecologist and Permaculture Designer…

This change of career and life path took some years to refine and unfortunately there were no ready-made jobs at that intersection. Hendrik was homeless for about a year and stayed on the pews at First United off and on. He remembers the inviting staff at First that were sensitive to his needs and treated him with dignity. He recalls the spacious sleeping arrangements that were (and remain) some of the only places to sleep in the city during the day without being harassed. Hendrik would have loved to have homeschooled his children when they were little. After chatting with Hendrik, hearing him speak out on social issues, and reading some of his work, I am convinced he would have been a wonderful teacher. In many ways, he offers teachings to all of us, if our ears are open to hear.

For many years now, Hendrik has been volunteering on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. He currently sits on the board of many local organisations and has spent the last 20 volunteering around the Downtown Eastside (DTES). Neighbourhood House, Village Vancouver, the Cottonwood Community Garden, Pivot Legal Society, and the Vancouver Foundation’s Neighbourhood Small Grant Program are just some of the organisations for which Hendrik either sits on the board or is otherwise involved. He believes more DTES residents should be sitting on local boards around town, helping make important decisions that affect us all. At a recent City of Vancouver-facilitated meeting, Hendrik offered a re-definition of prosperity, as informed by his First Nations neighbours, based on what can be shared with others instead of a definition based on possession. Describing himself, Hendrik explains: “I’m outside the box most of the time, I hardly ever jump back in.”
But what would happen if this sort of thinking wasn’t ‘outside the box’?

Hendrik has some well-developed theories on forging better connections between people, industry, and the earth and also a plan for how to shift from theory to action. He explains how life goes through cycles and how we’ve arrived at a point where it’s time for big change. He believes we need to listen more carefully to local native stories and is inspired by the leadership of master Squamish Nation carver chiaxten (or “keeper of the law,” also known as Wes Nahanee) who does a lot of work with youth, taking them out on canoe missions, even during intense weather events.
Hendrik’s work is focused on extraction industries and their impacts on local communities and ecosystems. He notes the current dynamics of such industries that push their projects through, come hell or high water (sometimes literally). Ultimately, however, these companies are trespassing and “what they destroy belongs to us all.” He points out that there are many values that are not assessed by the extraction industry (nor local governments, for that matter) but that if these values were assessed, we might find ourselves, collectively, choosing to make different decisions about how we use our natural environmental resources.

Underlying Henrik’s work is an approach that is committed to collaboration and valuing multiple beliefs and perspectives through the lens of justice. What I hear in this is a commitment to amplifying stories that aren’t so often heard – making the unfamiliar more familiar, finding common ground, getting comfortable with jumping outside that box.
Hendrik also has steady work through Megaphone Magazine, a local social enterprise that offers low-barrier employment for vendors selling their publications throughout the city. Vendors purchase copies of the magazine for $0.75 and resell them for $2. Recently, Hendrik wrote a piece that was published in the April 2017 edition of Megaphone, describing his social justice-oriented environmentalist work in the community. In the piece, “Pipelines and poetics of place,” Hendrik makes a case for revaluing the ‘intangible’ natural assets that surround us such as landscapes and watersheds. He opens by explaining how “most of us who speak up for social justice and stand up to protect the environment are getting a little tired of having to fight the same battles over and over. But there is a better way than protesting or signing petitions to change policy” (12). Hendrik believes that “if reasonable people get together to entrench intangible values in law, we’ll have a much easier time talking about assessing their value” (13). He explains, for example, that in Ecuador, a watershed has rights.

Hendrik’s goal is to bring together different people with different views to share their stories in familiar and unfamiliar ways, getting to know and respect each other along the way. He was a participant in the “Pipelines and Poetics of Place” conference held at UBC and in the DTES earlier this year. A documentary film about the conference is currently being created from edited segments and will be shown at the Carnegie Theatre during the 2017 Heart of the City Festival. A lively dialogue with DTES residents is anticipated after the screening since Hendrik knows that engaging local community members in respectful and inclusive dialogue is essential to expressing the “poetics of place.” The focus of these projects – the conference, the film, and the ongoing community conversations – is to develop a new rubric for assessing the value of “intangible” social-cultural-environmental assets such as a fishery, a landscape, or beautiful view (Hendrik points out any realtor can tell you the value of that!).

As we’ve gotten to know Hendrik, it is clear to us that this man is acting with passion and intention to infuse his community with radical acts of care, nurturing, and respect. Hendrik is well on his way toward making his impact on the world and we find ourselves thinking about the role a place like First United plays in supporting the forward progression of folks like him. Reflecting on our own life experiences, we know that our most challenging times have always come with lessons learned and opportunities for significant growth and personal expansion if we’re open to listening and have the right kinds of support around us. We truly believe that those who have faced the largest obstacles can go on to accomplish amazing things because they’ve had to stare down their fears and move forward bravely. Our hearts are full knowing we are strengthening support systems that are available to support vulnerable community members through the practice of simply meeting people where they are at. Won’t you join us in creating an even stronger community of care?

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