Updated: Aug 23, 2021
Note: Pekiwewin was a Prayer Camp created in the summer of 2020 in Edmonton. It was a response to many injustices including colonialism, racism and the closure of the largest shelter set up for those experiencing homelessness during the pandemic. This was my experience at the Prayer Camp.
I drive or bike by the prayer camp often on my way to my work at The Mustard Seed. Some of my friends live there. At an Indigenous Lives Rally one of the organizers of the prayer camp said that it would be best not to visit so as to protect the camp from transmission and, perhaps, treachery. When I did finally visit and told the volunteers I was writing this article, one of the leaders came to escort me around the perimeter. This leader was firm but kind. He said he just wanted to make sure the community was protected. I biked to the camp and the first person I saw was a King’s grad who was coming to volunteer to cook the meal that evening. It was good to see him. The next people I saw were two members of the community. One was an indigenous person looking for a shopping cart. This person was in the process of moving homes after a conflict with their neighbour. The other person was a man I had seen around the inner-city. He gladly wanted to give me a tour of his home. This is where the leader of the camp also joined us as our escort. Through my experience at Pekiwewin, I discovered three things the prayer camp has that Canada and the church need when it comes to addressing the issue of homelessness.
The first is community. My community guide said that he feels safe and connected to others at Pekiwewin. He showed me where his tent was. His friend had given it to him and now they were neighbours in the camp. As we walked we saw that the Indigenous person I had previously met had found a cart and was enlisting others to help with the move. The leader of the camp told me that Pekiwewin is a true community. There is harmony and joy; but also conflict and general craziness. This is typical for those experiencing homeless.
According to the Building a Better Life research study in Edmonton, community and connection (social capital) is so important when it comes to one’s well-being. This is especially true for those who move from homelessness to a sedentary house. People who are housed are often placed into an insolating room where bringing friends over is highly discouraged. It can be lonely. Programs like Welcome Home recruit volunteers to visit and support individuals who are recently housed, but it is not enough. We can learn from the real community of Pekiwewin.
Instead of separating ourselves from each other through fences, neighbourhoods and car garages, we should get into each other’s business. We should carry each other’s burdens. We should care. During a Forge Canada conference, Paul Sparks mentioned that a key to community is forgiveness. Then he asked a question: are you rooted enough in a community that forgiveness is a constant issue? Are you vulnerable enough and spend enough time with others that they get on your nerves or rub you the wrong way? Conflict and the need for forgiveness is a marker of true community. Pekiwewin is such a community.
Secondly, we can learn to care. Pekiwewinis a place where people care for each other. In addition to community members looking at each other, Pekiwewin garnered resources and support from the wider community. Volunteers came and went in regularly. Meals, clothes and other needed items were given out. My community guide gave me a comb from a toiletry bag just given to him; he invited me into his home. It seems that the rise of isolation in Canada caused us to care less for each other. According to Michael Shapcott, Canada was top in the world for low poverty rates and homelessness up to the 1990s. Starting in the 1970s the poverty rate was cut in half and 600,000 units of affordable housing were created. Then things changed. Values changed and policies changed. The National Housing Program and the National Income Assistance Program were both cut. When a Premier was asked how people previously benefiting from these programs would be able to pay rent, he said they should negotiate with their landlord and start buying dented cans at the grocery store. This kind of sentiment reveals that peoples’ hearts became cold towards their neighbours.
Whether it was values or policies which first instigated the change, the results were devastating.
In 2008 the OCED (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) did a report on inequality. The report concludes this about Canada: “After 20 years of continuous decline, both inequality and poverty rates have increased rapidly in the past 10 years now reaching levels above the OCED average.” According to a Shapcott lecture in 2015, in the past 25 years the population of Canada has gone up 30% while housing investments have decreased by 46%. In 2017, Canada began a National Housing Strategy, but the damage was already done. Today Canada’s housing affordability is way below the OCED average. Homelessness in Edmonton is increasing tremendously. In Edmonton 50,000 renters spend more than they can afford on rent making them vulnerable to poverty and homelessness.
These changes also represented an internal bias of Canada – let’s leave it to the markets. Early on in something called the Dominion Housing Act, the government believed that large companies are best suited to deal with housing concerns. As a result, 95% of Canadian housing is through private business. Only 5% of Canadians live in non-market housing which is the smallest amount of social housing in any Western country other than the United States. However, according to the OCED, Canada spends less than the OCED average on public social spending and even lower than the United States. Ouch.
It seems to me that, through all this, we have lost the capacity to care. We either leave it to governments or the markets to solve the issue. Though they have significant roles to play, these entities cannot care in the full sense of the word – only humans can. Amid policy amendments and the undulating market, we must strive to care in both our attitudes and actions. Caring means being willing to have (and own) less and it means being willing to have our rights infringed for the sake of others. It means sacrifice. Is this not the call of the gospel of Jesus?
The final thing is we can learn from Pekiwewin is courage. The leader I met from the camp told me that the word ‘pekiwewin’ comes from an assortment of Cree words. One of the meanings could be ‘brave one’. Those in the camp are brave. According to the leader, the camp is planning to swap out each tent for more hardy canvas in order to endure winter until their demands are met. Though I may not agree will all the demands of Pekiwewin, I admire their bravery. True community and honest caring requires great courage. Pekiwewin perhaps gives an imagination of what Canada (and humanity) could become. Personally, it helps me reimagine the Kingdom of God here and now. Instead of seeing God’s reign in the tall skyscrapers, I see it inside a little tent. My community guide ended the tour at his tent. There we prayed. We quoted our favourite bible verses. Mine was Psalm 23. His was John 1.
After a renewed imagination, it takes courage to take the first steps toward that vision. If anything, may Pekiwewin urge us to pray during this difficult season. May it help us pray the dangerous words ‘Your Kingdom Come Your Will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven’. May our hearts be open to what God may be saying through Pekiwewin and may the Spirit give us courage to walk in his Kingdom.