Breaking bannock on city streets

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Rev. Andrew Wesley (standing) visits with aboriginal men and women on Toronto’s streets during his regular walkabouts. The Cree priest, who grew up in northern Ontario, often discusses forgiveness in his work. “I tell them I did it and so can you,” says Mr. Wesley.

On a warmish Saturday morning in October, Rev. Andrew Wesley walks along one of Toronto ‘s major thoroughfares, Bloor Street, carrying a plastic container of blueberries and a bag of flatbread. While most city dwellers are just beginning to enjoy the start of the weekend, Mr. Wesley is heading for his constituents — a group of aboriginal people who live in Bedford Park just across from the University of Toronto ‘s football field.

The flatbread is bannock, a traditional Indian bread that is a taste of home for the people he would be meeting. He and a visitor are greeted in a friendly manner. Most of the group have just come from breakfast at a social centre. Their names are Eric, Marcel, Noreen, Joe, Jim, and some bear the marks of hard living — cuts, scars, missing teeth, a swollen eye — but not all do.

Mr. Wesley moves around to various members of the group, talking quietly one-on-one. The talk ranges over a story of jail — “I got bugs from a blanket from this jail in Guelph once” — to the question of where they will go when winter sets in. Shelters are all right, says Joe, “but they have rules there, like no drinking, no cursing, no fighting, and we like to do all that stuff.” A latecomer joins the group with the words, “I’m under house arrest.” “So what are you doing here, man?” asks Noreen. No reply and the newcomer sits down, pulls out a bottle of mouthwash, opens it up and takes a gulp. He is not freshening his breath. Mouthwash can contain as much as 27 per cent alcohol and at about $2, it is a cheap, though gut-churning, high. Another member of the group takes out a mickey of Southern Comfort.

Eric leans over to say that he is Sioux and Blackfoot, from near the North Dakota border. The talk turns toward attempts to find work. One man mentions roofing jobs. Joe hands a visitor a book, a copy of the New Testament. “My girlfriend gave it to me. She’s a Christian,” he says.

After spending an hour or so with the group, having distributed the blueberries and bannock, Mr. Wesley says good-bye. “Hey, next time bring some Klik,” says Marcel, referring to a canned meat popular in many northern communities. Mr. Wesley, who is Cree and who grew up in northern Ontario, laughs.

These Saturday morning “walkabouts,” as Mr. Wesley calls them, are part of a recent commitment by the diocese of Toronto to minister to some of the approximately 60,000 aboriginal people in the city. Mr. Wesley divides his time between the downtown Church of the Redeemer, known for its social justice activities, and the Toronto Urban Native Ministry office housed in an aboriginal service agency called Council Fire Native Cultural Centre.

He is counseling two members of the Bedford Park group, most of whom, he says, come from family backgrounds of alcohol abuse and violence. Help for alcohol addiction, guidance for job training and social services, leading worship services in native language are some of the activities Mr. Wesley pursues. Two members of the group went to church-run residential schools, a system widely publicized in recent years because of the abuse experienced by students in some of the schools. “I talk about forgiving and carrying on with life. I have dealt with my pain and arrived at forgiveness. I tell them I did it and so can you,” says Mr. Wesley, who also attended a residential school.

He is starting to see a few success stories, he says. One man returned to his native community from a life on the streets in Toronto. “He went home. Life is better for him. I heard from him last week. He went moose hunting. He said he misses Toronto but likes where he is,” Mr. Wesley says.

Archbishop Terence Finlay, formerly the bishop of Toronto, says that in 2000, as stories of the residential schools came to light, the diocese held a “healing circle” meeting to hear natives talk about their experiences in the schools. One of the organizers, Frances Saunderson, “challenged the diocese to do something and find and develop an aboriginal priest who would guide us in this,” says Archbishop Finlay. Mr. Wesley, he says, “has a real passion for this ministry and is helping native and non-native people to understand each other. He has a foot in both camps and the ability to be a bridge-builder.”

Mr. Wesley’s work includes meetings at native centres, jail and hospital visits, baptismal and funeral services, interpreting at court, and making presentations to native and mixed groups on such native experiences as residential schools, racism and spirituality. In the area of bridge-building, he is currently organizing a conference where clergy will be able to listen to the stories of native street people, “what happened in their life, how they ended up on the street.”

While some might find street work bleak, Mr. Wesley says that for him it is “almost like a dream come true ? I like what I am doing and it has helped me with my residential school years, when I was abused. It’s become a blessing.”

Five of the Bedford Park people come to Redeemer’s soup kitchen and Mr. Wesley says he wants to build a healing group with them. “Not really an AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) group, but a circle, just to talk, “he says.

Some native people who have had negative church experiences are hostile to his ministry. “One time, we got abuse at the door for saying we were church people. Many times, people will walk out when you mention Christ, but you just have to be strong,” he says.

His bridge-building extends to Scripture, he says. “When I teach the gospel of the day, I cross it with native teaching. For instance, Romans 12 talks about the various gifts each person can have. I use the teepee poles to teach it. Each pole represents a gift,” he says.

Ordained in 2003, Mr. Wesley says he is “very strongly rooted” in his aboriginal traditions but that he also “comes with Christ behind (him)” when he works with native people.

“I find these (street) people are very spiritual. If we talk about sin, they know it,” he says.

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Solange De Santis was a reporter for the Anglican Journal from 2000 to 2008.

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