A Profound Community

By Leslie Morgenson, Good Work News, March 2002

I was sitting with Jim, left houseless after the fire destroyed his residence at the Station Hotel. Only a week had passed and the shock was still evident on his lined face. He wiped his eyes during our conversation. A man sat down with us and Jim introduced him as his “adopted street son.” A woman walked by and reminded Jim of a silver household item he’d given her some time ago. “It’s something that was from your apartment. Maybe the only thing that remains now. I’ll give it to you as a housewarming gift when you get your new place.” He was surrounded by friends. In many spheres, a crisis will bring a phone call, a card, or a hesitant knock on the door. But here at St. John’s Kitchen it’s the person-to-person contact that defines this place and situations like Jim’s.

In his book, The Careless Society, John McKnight writes that in the year 1900, 10% of the work force produced service, probably teachers, doctors, and the clergy. Ninety percent of the work force was the highly valued trades people who produced goods. And the myriad personal needs were handled within the community. A caring community did the jobs that today we pay others to do. In the year 2000, 90% of the workforce produced services. (Recently I read a brochure offering Monthly Happiness Circles. I try to imagine how my grandparents would respond to this modern and artificial absurdity. How sad to think that natural communities are a thing of the past.)

It’s such a simple notion—community, yet it was difficult for me to put my finger on what specific ingredients make St. John’s more of a community than any other arena in which I have found myself; qualities that make it much more than a food redistribution centre. At times I am unaccustomed to the high emotion characteristic of this large community (about 200 people), as they mingle with their joys, their woes, supporting each other in the manner of old : freely given.

A service economy depends upon human problems. It needs deficiencies in order to grow, to continue its service, and in doing so replaces a caring community. McKnight often uses the example of “bereavement counselors” as an example of how we have professionalized mourning and replaced a caring community with a service industry; replaced what may have come naturally with something to be paid for.

The service industry has an interesting relationship with the people of St. John’s Kitchen. The St. John’s community of people are for the most part trades people who have lost their jobs as the service economy increased. They were the steel workers, the farmers, the mechanics. The new service industry which had replaced their work was there to offer a variety of services, medical, psychiatric, legal, welfare, housing, to name a few. The result was a labelled population. After all the service industry is nothing without the “needy.” And I believe this crucial point is already a well known fact at St. John’s, where a vibrant, thriving community exists.

I have often heard Gretchen, who works in the kitchen, speak about the “magic” of St. John’s. It is curious that in this place that has no affiliation to any religious organization, God often emerges in conversation. I’m reminded of a clergyman who told me that it is the people who live on the edge who pray; when life is going great they don’t. And today, without hesitation, Gretchen, tells me she believes God is at every table in this room, and God works through everything that happens here. It is indeed a place where things always find a way of working out. Like early one morning when the coffee machine was in need of repair, Gord happened to be there that morning, and with his skills, diagnosed the problem, went to a repair shop for a part and fixed the machine. When the crowd arrived, their morning coffee was ready. Or the time at Christmas when Gretchen was wondering who would make the trifle—trifle for 400, that is. Suddenly two women walked in wanting to volunteer, and asked for a big project. Yes, they knew how to cook. The trifle was theirs.

“It started many years ago,” Gretchen tells me. “And it has evolved so slowly you can’t see it. It would be like watching the hands of a clock. The patrons have taken ownership of this place,” she says. “It is their community. This is their refuge.” It’s also a place where an attempt is made to treat everyone justly, where unconditional respect to all is the intent and has nothing to do with getting something back. If it did, it wouldn’t work. When they realize there are no strings attached, people gradually begin to trust and let their guard down. “This place is the live action Living Bible. It’s a place of compassion and anger, just like the Bible. You get it all.”

There are many aspects that make St. John’s a special place, says Bob. Like consistency; they do what they say they’ll do. “They open at 9:00 am and serve food at 11:30 am. You can talk or be a wallflower.” Then he hits the nail right on the head, identifying what makes St. John’s special. “No matter how bad you are, you’re not going to be banned. No value judgements are placed on a person’s status or abilities.” I have discovered that the people I speak with frequent St. John’s for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with the list of stereotypes and misconceptions people often place on them. Bob’s motivation is his abhorrence of waste. “We are eating food that’s going to be pitched.” He tells me. “By eating it we are doing honour to people who made that food.” But it also, he says, gives people an opportunity to do work, to give themselves meaning, to participate in the operation of the kitchen.

I catch Brian on a bad day when I ask him about the St. John’s community. “It’s not always a rose garden.” But this illustrates an essential ingredient in community according to John McKnight. That being the recognition of its fallibility. McKnight contrasts this with institutions which strive for an ideal, for perfection. People have been so indoctrinated regarding the search for the ideal, so institutionalized, I hesitate to comment on what would surely be misunderstood as the “underside” of St. John’s; the fights, the tempers, the many frustrations. Within St. John’s I have witnessed how fallibility is constantly accepted. Such as the time I watched two men come toward each other with anger in the long strides. Looking directly at each other, they spoke in harsh tones back and forth for about one minute. Then they shook hands. I wished my 8-year-old son had been present as they illustrated what I have long attempted to teach him about arguing: deal with it immediately, look the person in the eye, don’t name call or humiliate, and don’t bring up the past.

McKnight says that our society today is comprised not of community but of individuals and institutions, where the ablest dominate. It seems a paradox that we the most social of creatures who gather together in cities and tribes, with family and friends need a road map for community. McKnight identifies the factors necessary for communities: they are interdependent; diversity and consensual contribution is the primary value; their democratic ideal allows for fallibility and thus the unique intelligence of the group; and they work toward creative solutions.

The prevailing view is that people who have been shut out of jobs and homes need our help to re-enter the community. The irony is that they are already there. They are ahead of us in their development of community. When people lose everything, they have nowhere to turn but to each other. And then community begins. They have been the recipients of how the system doesn’t work. They have left the matrix. As the first to go, they have become the pioneers of a new era, where community and caring are not purchasable commodities.

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