Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of May 26, 2008
Homeless advocate sees Jesus in street people
By DEBORAH GYAPONG
"They (street people) are filled with self-reproach and often with rage,"
"People will know what is their value, without my saying anything," she said.
But Graves did not always believe in God. Her faith journey began when she was 24, severely depressed, unmarried and unemployed, waiting at a pay phone to hear the results of a pregnancy test. Her doctor told her she was pregnant, but not to worry, he could get her an abortion.
She dropped the receiver and walked to a nearby beach. The whole ocean seemed to be teeming with life. The air seemed full of life.
A God she did not believe in spoke to her, clearly and distinctly. "Do not be afraid. I have a place and a purpose for this child."
"It was so undeniably God who spoke to me," she said. "There was nothing in me that wanted to refuse that voice."
She found a job, had the baby and loved the child beyond what she thought she was capable of.
Her work brought her to the Downtown Eastside and there she came in contact with the down-and-out people she found so difficult to love.
"Jesus got in my face," she said. He used the Scripture passages in a red-letter Bible, where the sayings of Christ were printed in bright red.
The passages in Matthew 25 about Jesus being naked, hungry, sick and imprisoned jumped out at her. She realized that it was not good enough to be kind and to do her job.
"I have to do my faith and integrate my beliefs without saying a word."
"It was only enough to love the way he loved the people on the street," she said. "He loved them even more than I loved my little daughter."
"I knew I could not do that," she said. It has been a lifelong work to learn to love the way God does.
Her work among street people began in 1974. She has begun to be able to see Christ in the people she works with, but the experience surprised her.
She had wrestled with whether she was a good enough person to see Jesus - "I believe in God's goodness. I cannot deserve to see Jesus."
She wasn't sure what she was expecting, but she was sure it would be "an extremely pleasant experience."
Instead, the first time it happened, she found it overwhelming. She experienced herself as she really is. She could no longer see the sins of the person in front of her because she was so overcome by her own.
The people she serves come from across Canada and from all walks of life. They are priests and pastors driven mad by Church politics; lawyers and architects who became cocaine addicted; people who experience 20 or more foster homes in their childhood; ex-cons who spent 20 years in prison for murder.
Sometimes it is hard to awaken people on the street. Sometimes she has arrived too late and the person is dead.
What usually starts a conversation is her asking, "Would you like a cigarette?"
All are sleep-deprived, cold, hungry, deprived of safety, malnourished.
Their teeth are often missing, and those that remain are rotten and painful.
Many suffer from chronic pain from hard physical labour or unhealed childhood beatings.
When the conversation starts, they talk about being consumed by fear, loss and grief. They have lost their families, their sense of self, their jobs, their homes, their communities.
"They are filled with self-reproach and often with rage," she said.
Graves blamed gentrification for the rise in homelessness. As urban land values rise, the poor get driven out of their homes.
A non-partisan, nondenominational event, the National Prayer Breakfast included Scripture readings by representatives of the four political parties in Parliament and music by Christian recording artist Steve Bell.
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