Living in the Core
Our family chooses to make our home in Winnipeg’s North End. For those who live a distance away, that’s the core, inner city area of Winnipeg, known for violence, poverty and typically as a place to avoid.
I moved here 14 years ago with a passion to see God move in this neighbourhood. My heart broke for the schools that graduated illiterate kids because their hands were full just trying to meet basic needs like sleep and food for kids from broken homes. My passion for justice was fuelled by 2 bedroom homes with 3 or 4 families sharing the space, with slum landlords leaving broken windows and ill-fitting doors unfixed all winter long. My compassion for the hurting was aroused by kids without jackets, homes without heat and potato chips being considered a meal. And my mind was stretched with growing understanding with issues of racism, generational poverty and systemic injustice right here in my own backyard.
In the early days, I was loud. I told everyone I could the injustices I witnessed. I was bold in sharing stories of broken homes, ravages of addiction, well-meaning but often damaging government systems that weren’t helping, and the rampant racism none of us want to see.
Over the years I have become quieter. I’ve stopped telling stories of racism (though I can’t always keep my mouth shut when well-meaning Christians get on a rant about how they think it should work without any firsthand knowledge of the situation.) I’ve stopped trying to fix things, though I still support those in the trenches. We tend to talk more about the good than the bad – the neighbours we love, the cost of living that can’t be beat, the new spraypads and parks that are being invested in locally and the upgraded library just down the street. I’m tired of the bad, and if you hear me talk about the North End at all, it’s probably about what we enjoy about our neighbourhood instead of what needs changing.
I wonder, sometimes, if that’s a cop-out. God knows people need to celebrate the good, and there’s plenty worth celebrating in our inner city neighbourhood. But when I gloss over the problems, am I helping or hurting?
This last month, I was scared. I’m not often scared in our neighbourhood. I know most of you lock your doors to drive through, but this is where I walk my kids to the bus stop, where I buy my groceries, where we have backyard BBQ’s and where I go running. This is my life, and I can’t live in fear, so we choose to be as wise as we can, and go about our business.
This last month we had a middle age Caucasian male try to break into our house while we were in it. You know what’s sad? When I first told that story, I just said it was a guy. The number of responding rants I heard about Aboriginal youth in return was sickening. I need you to know that I felt threatened by a white 40 year old male. By the time I called the police, 6 other neighbours had also called in – most of them Aboriginal – because we look out for each other. Those “punk native kids” had my back on that day. That meth (we think that’s what he was on) is no respecter of age or race, and addiction is just as – or more – rampant in the suburbs as it is in the Inner City. (While he did significant damage to our home, he never got in and we were safe locked inside until the police came and arrested him).
Tuesday, there was a shoot out in the city. If you live in Winnipeg, I’m sure you heard about it. 9 of the 50+ officers involved are all on administrative leave, seeing therapists and counselors because of the trauma, but those of us who live in the neighbourhood are still scared.
I walked my kids to the bus stop that morning, across the street from police tape & cars surrounding a house I later found out is where the first shooting happened – our bus picks the kids up less than an hour after the incident happened. We didn’t know. We waited for the bus, wondering about the police tape and praying for whoever was involved.
Later that day, part of our city was put into lockdown – oddly, our house was in a corridor between the two. Two blocks north of us was in lockdown, and south of us, the school across the street was also in lockdown as they hunted for the shooter and told people to stay in their basements. Gas was eventually used to knock the shooter out and no one was physically hurt, but our whole city felt the trauma. Shootouts don’t happen in Canada.
Responding to Fear
So we pray, and we grieve, and we repair the door that was twisted in its frame and put in motion-sensor lights, and we walk to the bus stop together with cell phone in hand just in case, very aware of the nearby houses with neighbours we trust should the need arise to get inside quickly, and I’m no longer the only parent waiting with the kids at the stop. I’m thankful for the daylight savings that means it’s now light out at that time in the morning. I’ve stopped running alone outdoors – I tell myself it’s because of the cold, but I know I’m feeling a little vulnerable in our neighbourhood these days. And I fall in love with neighbours who bring me video of our attacker because they want me to know their eyes were on us – we’re in this together, and we have each other’s backs. We’re following the meth crisis a little more closely in our city, and I’m leaning in when our church launches a series helping us understand addiction.
But I’m not ready to throw out the good with the bad.
Yes, I’m scared.
Yes, rural living is looking attractive today.
But I’m also remembering why I moved here in the first place.
Remembering the Why
I didn’t move here with rose eyeglasses on, thinking it would all be wonderful. I knew what I was getting into. I also knew this neighbourhood needed some white middle class people whose voices couldn’t be ignored to say something when life isn’t fair.
We reconsidered when our daughter was born. We wanted to move, and we thoughtfully and prayerfully looked at houses in the suburbs and in the country before settling in on a new place a mere 7 blocks from my first home in the inner city. We stayed because we believe not only are we needed here, but we believe we need these neighbours, too. We need the daily reminders that life’s not fair, that our privilege means something even if we’re unaware of it. We need our kids growing up with the recognition that “normal” comes in many stripes and colors.
We’re conscious and diligent about keeping our kids safe, but we’re just as conscious and diligent about making sure they grow up with the awareness that not everybody looks like, thinks like, or has the same privileges as we do. We may not send them to the school across the street, but they do attend a nearby public school where my tall blond kids stand out amidst a sea of short, brown happy faces. But I love that they have friends with names I can’t pronounce, and their education is full of stories of Kulu and Akilat instead Dick and Jane. My daughter takes jigging class at the Metis Centre down the street instead of ballet in a suburban studio, and we talk about homelessness regularly as we daily pass panhandlers. I’m delighting in jigging (I didn’t even know that was a thing) and love that her Aboriginal teacher is a whiz with the kids, passionate about dance and such an unassuming role model so worth respecting.
My kids are already grasping that we are being treated differently because of our color. I never have to check my over-large purse at the counter when I shop at Dollarama, but every Aboriginal person does. I don’t get eye rolls or side-eye glances when I put back food at the grocery counter because I took too much. I don’t get under-the-breath huffs or comments about laziness because I don’t have a job right now. I get that my color gives me privileges I take for granted. And if I ever forget, I just have to try dealing with a North End problem on the phone instead of in person to be reminded how differently I am treated when people see my color.
All those years ago I moved to the North End, a single gal full of righteous anger and a passon to make a difference.
Today I’m more a middle class housewife who doesn’t even think about the North End most days – I’m just living life. And when near-misses make us want to flee, I have to pause. Will the suburbs keep us safe from people high on meth? Is our area, shaken from violence, the only one affected? We may get the news coverage, but I know meth is a bigger problem in suburban areas than urban, and I recall the sleepy country village where our cottage lies had its own murder in recent months. We’re in this together: the inner cities, the suburbs and the country. As long as our world is broken, we all face addictions and violence and running away does not guarantee our safety.
So, for now at least, we’re still here. And I believe that means something.
It means we think there’s something worth preserving in the North End. It means we stand with our neighbours, who don’t get to run when they’re scared. It means we believe healthy families matter in our local schools and streets. It means sometimes our calling is to work in drop-in centres and preach in pulpits and use our voices as loudly as we can… and sometimes it means to just stay put. Be a presence. Don’t give up. So the morning after a shoot out, we’re still here. The morning after the attempted break-in, we’re still here. The morning after, when the world has forgotten, but we’re still scared, we stick around. We say we’re in this together. We say I’ve got your back. We say thank you for having mine. We say let’s take precautions – double check the doors are locked, don’t run alone for now, take that cell phone with you – but we aren’t going anywhere.
We’re still here.
How can you help?
Not everyone is called to live in inner cities – I get that. But everyone is called to stand for justice. What can you do?
I loved Falling Free by Shannan Martin, because she’s a rural gal who got thrown into inner city life and allowed God to challenge her views. She’s not preachy, it’s not a “book about racism” or anything like that – you’ll relate & maybe be gently challenged.
“Born a Crime” by comedian Trevor Noah about racism in South Africa was powerful – partly because it’s far enough removed from my reality that I can empathize easily, and partly because Noah’s able to talk about hard topics with some comedic relief. But the fact that South Africa’s apartheid was based, in part, by systemic racism in North America makes me do a gut-check now and again. (Language alert for this one).
Start with Riverwood’s sermon series on addiction, by Finding Freedom founder Tim Fletcher. You may be challenged by what you think you know about substance abuse.
Some of us need to get out of our comfort zones and do life next to someone different than yourself. I highly recommend SOAR Heartland‘s spring break missions program for youth groups.
Small groups can volunteer in food banks (The Garage), or be a part of an event like the Christmas Party at Inner City Youth Alive. It’s a lot harder to have generic stereotypes once you have faces and names in place.
Go out of your way to find places for you & your kids to be “other.” Where yours is not the majority color. Where your language isn’t everyone’s first language. Where your belief system isn’t assumed. We have an incredibly diverse city, but sadly most caucasians never experience it.
Challenge racism. I will never forget a Northern Irish friend’s words in his visit to Canada: “You guys think we have problems in Northern Ireland, but you are completely blind to the church-sanctioned racism. I have loved everything about Canada – except this. I cannot reconcile the lovely Christians I keep meeting with the utter racism that comes from their mouths without any awareness that it’s happening. At least in Northern Ireland, our churches know we have issues. In Canada, you can’t even see it.” OUCH. Pay attention. We’ve got a racism issue (against Aboriginal people) IN OUR CHURCH. If outsiders can see it, maybe it’s time we start acknowledging it too.