Opiate for the opiated

“I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” Luke 19:40

For a number of reasons I took the kids to the local Anglo-Catholic church this past Palm Sunday morning. The service began with a processional around the neighbourhood and we were accompanied by a local brass band called The Carnival Band. I thought it a bit ironic that a Carnival band was playing during a Lenten service, but Palm Sunday is a strange service anyway. The sun was out and the cherry blossoms are still in bloom so it was a fun morning. The band played hymns, Dixieland jazz, and Cuban music as we followed the priests and deacons in full vestimentum. We handed out palm crosses to people in the park and those lined up for the soup kitchen. Most people gladly accepted the crosses and a few joined the processional. Though we are still in the solemn period of Lent, the weather and music made for a carnivalesque morning, which seems apt when you think of the original triumphal entry into Jerusalem by a homeless Jew on the back of a donkey the week before his execution.

A few weeks ago I was reading at a coffee shop/yupster convenience store in Strathcona when I overheard an obvious regular flirting with an attractive barista. I wasn’t paying much attention until the subject of religion came up. I couldn’t hear how the topic arose, but the man, sensing an opening to either size the woman up or show off his opinions asked, “Are you religious?”

“No,” she replied with a chuckle. “My cousin is, but I don’t get it. Have you ever been to church?”

“Once or twice… I thought it was weird.”

She seemed to agree, but needed to get back to work so he went back to his seat. Just a few minutes later, he slid over to the counter as if he just thought of what he wanted to say earlier.

“It’s a social construct,” he said almost triumphantly, “Religion is.”

“I know. Exactly.”

The conversation was indicative of Vancouver these days, both in its dismissiveness of religion and in the relative silliness regarding it. Strathcona in particular is a neighbourhood lacking a single English speaking church. If you want to attend church there you need to be able to understand Cantonese, Korean, or Ukranian. Vancouver’s oldest synagogue is there, but it has been a block of condominiums for 25 years.

Though Strathcona is extreme, it is not terribly unusual for the city (it is the setting for Douglas Coupland’s book Life After God). Our old neighbourhood in densely populated Grandview has three English speaking Christian churches (one of which we still attend), one Hungarian and one Estonian congregation, a Buddhist temple, and a Baha’i church. I attended Mass at the Anglican church one day and there were more priests than congregants there.

Without a doubt, the most unusual neighbourhood, religion-wise, is the Downtown Eastside. Not only are there three mainline churches at its core, every block has either another church or a church-sponsored organization, some of which are not labelled. Everyday the Franciscan Convent across the park from us hands out food to a huge line of people. The Salvation Army has several buildings down here as does the Union Gospel Mission. A friend of mine pastors a church in a park every Sunday and another hosts a drop-in centre with regular worship services. Some of the housing co-ops are run by Christian groups. I’m pretty sure a Lutheran church meets in another church building. There is even a non-profit grocery co-op that started as a church youth group project. If one were to take away all of the seedy hotels and convenience stores down here, there’d be little other than religious organizations.

It’s no surprise why this is (Matthew 25:35-40), but that the Church is at the forefront of alleviating suffering and injustice in the slums is a somewhat ignored phenomenon in the city. I spoke to a woman at the children’s drop-in this morning who had worked for the major alternative newspaper where she tried in vain to start a religion section. Last weekend I was in a bookstore and looked at the religion shelf. Under “Western” were literally 5 books. One was anti-Papist, one was by Phillip Pullman, one was by Sam Harris, and the other two had been misplaced.

Call me crazy, but I actually prefer this atmosphere to the suburban South where I grew up. It actually means something to parade through the streets handing out crosses here.


About azlewis

I'm an academic living in the poorest neighbourhood in Canada. I also teach at a local seminary.
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2 Responses to Opiate for the opiated

  1. Bonfire Maiden says:

    No English speaking church in Strathcona??! God’s House of Many Faces. You’ll hafta check us out. Also the Vineyard is in Strath.

    • azlewis says:

      I was under the impression that it met in a park in Chinatown and at Mission Possible in Japantown. That’s not Strathcona in my understanding. If it’s north of Hastings or west of Jackson it’s not Strathcona to me. I didn’t know about the Vineyard since they meet in the Community Centre. I stand corrected. But still, it doesn’t have much in the way of English churches compared to DTES.

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