Fourth Week of Easter: Finding Home

April 21, 2024

FINDING HOME  4th Sunday after Easter

Today we are looking at the experience of homelessness and of finding or being given a home. The Psalm celebrates how people can find a home with God in a space that is specially dedicated to worship and prayer.  There are many people who find comfort in simply sitting in a blessed space, to pray, meditate, or just catch their breath when life is too busy.  A friend of the congregation recently shared with me that when she needs a refuge from the troubles in her life, she likes to go and just sit in a church She has found a refuge and a home in these sacred buildings.

The passage from Luke, which is another version of the story we heard from John’s Gospel last week, has the disciples gathered together, and yet experiencing isolation from the larger community due to fear of the danger they might be in.   The final Gospel reading is a beloved passage about finding a home with Jesus.  It’s often read at the celebration of someone’s life – as an assurance that that person is at home with God, even if we will not see them with our own eyes again.  Jesus also says that if we love him and love one another, God will come and build a home with us – and it seems particularly poignant to me that the way Scripture often describes that is literally “God will pitch a tent among us”.  That’s such a striking image in these days when so many rely on fragile nylon tents as a temporary home – tents that are regularly taken away from them by those tasked with keeping public order.


We have an epidemic of isolation, and an epidemic of homelessness in our society.  Sometimes they are separate, and sometimes they come together. One can live in the grandest of mansions, but with no family or friends or community support, isolation can be devastating. One can also live without a home, but find community with others who are in similar situations, or with those who have offered welcome into spaces that belong to everyone.  Isolation breaks down when we share a meal around a common table or campfire, as Jesus did with his disciples; when we stop and speak with our neighbour in the park or on the street corner; when we welcome whoever comes through these doors and treat them as though they belong – because they- We –  do! This is the house of God, and so it is the home of everyone who comes.


The theme of this service is seeking and finding home. So I thought for the rest of the sermon I would share some stories from the website of Our Place.  Our Place developed from two ministries to unhoused people in Victoria: The Upper Room, which began as an “out of the rain” program, and The Open Door, an outreach ministry of the United Church of Canada. “Our Place Society has grown from a unique inner-city community centre to multiple locations serving Greater Victoria’s most vulnerable, including people struggling with homelessness, mental health challenges, substance use issues, the working poor, LGBTQ+, and impoverished elderly.”


Here is Benoit’s story. Growing up in Montreal, Benoit had a very typical Canadian childhood until he became a teenager. That was when a predatory member of his extended family turned Benoit’s world into one of shame, anger and despair.  “I left home for the first time at 14, then at 15, and then I didn’t go back after running away at 16,” he says.


His family didn’t understand the dramatic change in their son because, like far too many young boys and girls, Benoit was too ashamed to talk about the abuse with them. Instead, Benoit went to the street where he quickly found his niche with other runaways. The gang life provided friendship, protection and danger. Benoit began pedaling drugs and committing petty theft. His fists became his currency.


Before long, Benoit was arrested. With his family at a loss on how to control his anger, he ended up staying in a juvenile halfway house. As time passed, his life on the street continued, as did his criminal activity. Soon he landed in adult jail, serving two years less a day. While in jail, he was told that next time he was caught, his sentence would be severe.


In 1994, Benoit walked out of jail and decided that he needed a new start. Life with a street gang was putting his life in danger, and he wanted more for himself. The Commonwealth Games were being hosted in Victoria that year. The promise of work, and a location on the other side of Canada from his old life, was appealing.


But the fresh start quickly crumbled as Benoit fell into old habits and addiction. “I had no education, and didn’t speak the language properly,” he says, his French Quebecois accent still noticeable.


But then in 2004, Benoit received another wake-up call.  “My friend’s suicide was such a shock that I made a decision: I was either going to take my own life or I was going to change it.” Thankfully, Benoit chose the latter.

After a short stint in detox — “I used drugs out of boredom rather than need.” — Benoit began to hang out at the Open Door, one of the founding organizations of Our Place. “One day, while I was hanging around, one of the janitors didn’t show up and Bob Frank (Our Place’s Facilities Manager) asked if I wanted to do some work. I took him up on it.” That one day of work turned into a couple more days, until eventually he was offered steady employment.


Benoit enjoyed the janitorial work. “People saw that I was changing,” he says. “And they would come up to me for advice. When I say I know what struggle is, they see it in my eyes.” Bob noticed the way Benoit interacted with the other family members,  and put forth the suggestion that he should be trained as an outreach worker. Outreach Manager Jordan Cooper agreed to take Benoit under his wing.


“Then there was a lot of learning,” says Benoit with a smile. With a newfound purpose and direction, Benoit continued to blossom. His empathy, built-in-street-learned-BS detector, and compassion quickly allowed him to find his groove, and today, he is now a Lead Outreach Worker. Benoit’s eyes grow misty as he says, “I became the person that at 16, I never thought I could become.”  “It’s a blessing to be able to help the person I used to be.”


Some of you may know Benoit; others will know Maree, a long-time volunteer with Our Place. Here is a part of her story:


Born in Melbourne, Australia, as the eldest of five siblings, Maree first noticed something wasn’t quite right after going through puberty.
“I suffered from depression, but not all the time. At school, I would burst into tears,” she says. “I had a reason to cry, but it was very embarrassing in front of the other students.”
A diagnosis of bipolar disorder, combined with learning difficulties, meant that Maree struggled to get high marks at school. She ended up leaving at 16 to work in the accounting department at Victorian Railways where her father worked.
After two years, Maree felt a calling and became a nursing assistant at the Spastic Children’s Society (a common but now outdated term for children suffering with cerebral palsy).
Despite that calling, Maree continued to struggle. Her bipolar flared and she found the work environment difficult.
“I got along with the patients and the residents beautifully,” she says. “But the staff said I was too slow. And that made me cry.”
Sadly, Maree was fired from her position, but her passion for helping others remained unabated.
She returned to hospital work in the instrument sterilization department, and then decided to enrol in a program to become a qualified nurse.
Maree married a Canadian during that time and emigrated to Victoria in 1996 …In Victoria, Maree became a Community Health Worker. Despite sticking it out for 10 years, Maree describes her time in the field as “a disaster.”
“I worked all around the community, “she says, “but ended up nursing two challenging psychiatric cases, and I ended up not too well myself.”
Maree took a seven-month leave and went to work for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind.
“And that was a beautiful job,” she says. “They loved me there.”
With a comfortable home in a local mobile home park, Maree decided to semi-retire in 2008 at the age of 56.
Living on her own, however, hoarding started to become an issue until the owner of the park sold the property to developers and Maree’s home, where she had lived for 19 years, was demolished.
“That was sad to see my house go,” she says. “I took it pretty well, I think. I had help from a lady friend who goes to my church and she helped me to move.”
After moving into an RV park where she currently lives in a 5th-Wheel trailer, Maree saw a computer class being offered by Camosun College and decided to take it.
Enjoying the class, Maree learned one of the professors was also teaching classes at Our Place, and needed an assistant. That was nearly 10 years ago, and while the instructor has since left, Maree has stayed on.
“I discovered that I enjoyed the job,” she says with a bright smile. “Our Place was happy with me, so they just let me keep on doing it.”
Maree has since made the computer lab her own by keeping everything clean and reminding people that food and drink aren’t allowed — especially near the keyboards. She also appreciates the colourful stained-glass windows created by Reverend Al Tysick, which remind her of her faith in God.
“Our computers are wonderful now,” she says. “Even the keyboards.”
With 12 workstations for people to enjoy, Maree gets to greet her regulars four days per week and catch up on their lives. For the last two years, she has also been part of the Peers Helping Peers program.
The most common activities she notices the computers being used for are job searches, rental unit searches, Google questions, and playing games.
“I’m happy in there,” she says of the computer lab. “It reminds me of the nursing profession, serving people, and it brings me great joy.”


And I have one more story for you.  This is Forest’s story (not our Forrest, I should add!)  Forest is transgender and uses the pronouns He/Him.


After moving to Vancouver from Victoria with a girlfriend at the age of 18, Forest dipped his* toe into the heroin scene as a rite of passage to becoming a writer. The authors he admired (Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, etc.) all seemed to have experimented with drugs and wrote positively about those experiences. “I thought I would be strong enough to experience that, and come back.”  Unfortunately, heroin had other ideas.

Before Forest knew it, life became all about finding his next opioid fix, and writing was lost in the fog.


On the streets, Forest became invisible to “regular people”; dismissed as just another junkie. His self-esteem was destroyed, and he was ashamed of the dark depths he had to go down to afford his next score.  But one day, as people around him were dying from tainted drugs, Forest visited a Supervised Injection Site.


“It was quite powerful. I was really struck by the way the staff treated me, like a person. It was very odd because I had been panhandling and involved in sex work and feeling really low about myself. I felt out of society, not a part of society. But they asked my name, smiled, and just treated me normally.


“It was such a little thing, but it was profound. From that experience, I was like ‘One day, I want to do this. One day, I want to be an outreach worker.”

Shaking off his addiction, however, was still years in the future.


Forest lived in British Columbia all of his life, spending most of his early youth in Kelowna and Fernie.  “I came from a good background,” he says. “I came from a happy, healthy home.”


Forest left home at 15, however, after coming out as bisexual in high school, and quickly discovering how small minded and bigoted so many of his classmates were.  Forest moved to Victoria where his sister lived, and couch surfed while finishing up the last two years of high school.


Victoria, he found, was accepting of who he was, and Forest loved those final years of schooling.  He was excited when he first went out into the world to explore Vancouver. But that’s when heroin dragged him down.


After his experience at the Supervised Injection Site, Forest returned to Victoria at the age of 20, but couldn’t quit the streets. His addiction followed him every step of the way until, two years later, he became pregnant.


“At first, it was really easy to stop (using heroin),” he says. “Maybe it was the pregnancy hormones, but it was like I can do this s*** to myself, because at that point I didn’t care enough about myself, but an innocent baby? I could never do that to them.”


While living at Sandy Merriman House, Forest would walk over to Our Place every day for a banana to help with morning sickness. During those visits, he connected with Benoit, an Our Place team lead.


Forest’s life began to settle. The father of his child decided to get clean, too, and they moved in together.  Forest then turned his eye to a career in Mental Health and Addiction that he had been inspired to pursue.


He signed up for Camosun College, and completed the course while pregnant with his second child. Now the parent of three (ages 8, 4 and 2), Forest has been working at Our Place for three years.


“It is so impactful to work here,” Forest says. “And I love it. I was 27 with no resume, which was embarrassing for me because who was going to hire me? But I was honest about my recovery and my past, and they took a chance on me. It just gives me a sense of purpose and belonging.”


Three stories, in some way, very different but with some common threads.


After last week’s sermon someone mentioned to me how important it is for people who are coming out of the depths of struggles with mental illness or addiction to have someone give them a chance – something I was going to say last week if I’d actually had my sermon notes!  But for me that’s very much the experience of being FOUND – being trusted and affirmed and loved and respected.  I think the Christian community is called with Jesus to take a chance on those who have fallen through the cracks or who have been injured or mistreated – that they can live out that renewed life we’ve been talking about since Easter Sunday.  It may be that their family of birth may not have the resources to help – so our churches and our communities need to step up and be a place where people get another chance, where people are welcomed and treated like the siblings they are!  Our Community Dinner is one place that happens. How else can we offer the space for homecoming and renewal to those making a fresh start?  Something to pray with in the coming days.


Sermons are primarily meant to be preached, not read, so the content of any sermon may not be exactly as written. If you wish to share these sermons with others in print or on the internet please contact Rev. Heidi for permission.