When it comes to work, Gordon T. Smith argues that to participate in God’s work equals deep joy. Act Five doesn’t exist to fill students with joy, as though they were empty vessels, but a huge part of our mission is to engage with the questions “what is my vocation?” and “how can I live faithfully in the work God provides?”. Frederick Buechner’s well known adage, “the place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet” resonates powerfully with us. During the winter months, students dive into the workplace to consider both their gifts and the needs present right here in Hamilton. Here’s a snapshot of what they’ve been up to, but first, some background.
Work has changed a lot in Hamilton in a hundred years, but sadly hunger and homelessness has not. Prosperity, whether from the early days of electrification and steel manufacturing or from our current arts revitalization and the real estate boom, doesn’t always trickle down to the most vulnerable. The history of Hamilton is the history of a city that bankrupted itself to modernize, leading to intergenerational poverty with deep roots going back to inadequate health care in the 1930’s, when the wealthy lived close to the escarpment and the working class bunked where they could near what is now Tim Horton’s field. The encampments in our city parks today are an eerie echo of the kinds of shacks that were common along the harbour a century ago.
It is no wonder there are so many longstanding institutions in Hamilton to serve the basic needs of the most vulnerable. Oftentimes, our students are nervous to begin placements in these safe havens. They wonder how to make conversation with folks who are seeking help. They are uncomfortable with their own privilege. And yet, as one student recently reflected, she was so distressed on her first day—seeing the long line of those seeking food—until a client told her she herself was very uncomfortable, that it was her first time accessing the food bank. Taking a deep breath, our student took the woman by the arm, and they leaned in to one another to get the groceries needed for another week. Amidst the terrible injustice of food insecurity, a moment of grace.
In class and in the wilderness, we talk about what it means to belong to a place, what it means to have a theology of place. But we are not a school of philosophers. Students need to take their wonderings about a city of immigrants birthed on native land and see for themselves where the fault lines are; how a city flourishes and how a city is burdened by legacy. What is the difference between those who give jobs and those who take them? What is the perspective of those who work to simply survive? (The vast majority of the population.) We believe in praxis, in the experience of work, not the idea of it. Recently, one of our students shared that after weeks of helping clients eat their pre-portioned meals, she was invited to prepare lunch for the entire home. Her whole being lit up at the carte blanche opportunity. (This is a young woman who regularly prepares enough food for an army at Blake Street.) Little did the staff realize they had tapped into her deep gladness. As long as she’s in their midst, the meals will be hot, delicious and abundantly portioned. And she will walk home with the sweet satisfaction of a job well done.
While many students have found their way to established NGOs in the city, especially working with vulnerable and marginalized communities, others have pursued workplace placements in business and the trades, in fields where they hope to study in the future. We talk about how students watch those who have been working the frontlines for years and take their cues from them. They come back to Blake Street marveling at the dedication of their supervisors, their calm demeanour when faced with frustration and conflict, and their capacity to treat others with compassion and dignity. We equip students with a theoretical framework for how to operate in the workplace, but there’s no teacher like experience for dealing with fifty pounds of ground beef, hyper chihuahuas or what to do when everyone in the office stops work to gasp at the news in horror. Sometimes, the show doesn’t go on.
Last but not least, this year three of our students have been working at New Hope Community Bikes, a learning hub for building and repairing bikes that offers safe cycling education, access to affordable transportation, and a rich and inclusive cycling community. They are being mentored by some of the most community-minded and engaged folks in the east end, and are seeing the tangible ways a bike shop can be a catalyst for justice in the city. And, testing out the rentals isn’t a bad way to spend an afternoon, either!
Surprised by joy. This is what characterizes students’ experience going to work in the city. David Brooks might argue that they shouldn’t feel surprised. He observes that “joy is a by-product of a committed life”, and students have thrown themselves into the workplace with open hearts and open hands. We are convicted that the essential call on all of us is to love God and to love our neighbour. That’s our shared calling and vocation. That’s the source of our deep joy. To the glory of God. Amen.
We would love it if you can support us in continuing to live out our ever-growing mission—both in discipling young adults and in growing our faithful presence on Blake Street and in Hamilton. Here is how you might support us:
Placements, especially during COVID lockdowns, have been a challenge for our staff to organize and we are sincerely grateful to the following businesses and organizations for their role in mentoring this year’s cohort of students.