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Gimme Shelter: My Vocation as a Peacemaker

by Dion Oxford


September 15, 2014

Gimme Shelter: My Vocation as a Peacemaker

Dion Oxford

This essay is part of the Vocation of Peacemaking series where we asked members and friends of the BPFNA to write brief essays on their peacemaking work. The Vocation of Peacemaking stories come from students, activists, teachers, parents, pastors, lay people, and retirees who work for peace in their jobs, their communities, their families, their volunteer time, and their neighborhoods in a wide variety of ways. Each story is a wonderful reminder that there are as many ways to live a life of peace as there are people, and that we can act for peace in real and important ways wherever we find ourselves.

We will be publishing the stories one at a time over the next several weeks and then compiling them into an Issue Monograph before the end of 2014. The monograph will be available as a free download from the BPFNA website.

This is the first in the series, but keep checking the Vocation of Peacemaking webpage for more!

“Oh, a storm is threat'ning
My very life today
If I don't get some shelter
Oh yeah, I'm gonna fade away”

-The Rolling Stones

I’ve committed the 24 years of my professional life to something I fundamentally disagree with: homeless shelters. I have built, consulted on, and advocated for the construction of these buildings that are specifically designed to provide food, shelter and clothing to folks who have slipped through the cracks of our so-called communities and ended up living on the streets.

But the fact is, these places should not exist. If we citizens, if we people of faith, actually took seriously our commitment to loving our neighbours as ourselves, we wouldn’t have the constant, steady stream of humanity flowing out of our neighbourhoods and into shelters. But the reality is we have no idea of what it actually means to truly love our neighbours, and as a result we do need shelters for folks who have no other place to go.

So for now, I’m committed to being an advocate for shelters all across Canada (my context). While our society continues to be willing to allow the media and politicians to define us as taxpayers and not citizens, we peacemakers have to respond to the almost complete lack of concern that many people have for anyone else but themselves.  My role, my calling, in that is to build shelters, train staff, and do my best to redefine how an institutionalized shelter has to operate so as to insure that the dignity of everyone who enters our shelter doors is upheld.

However, one thing I’ve been developing in order to counteract the need for more shelters is an initiative called Causeway. Through my workplace, The Salvation Army Housing and Homeless Supports- a system of 5 shelters for men and women experiencing homelessness in Toronto, we are attempting to connect the local church to the street.

We help around 500-600 people per year get off the streets into their own housing. Unfortunately, oftentimes the people that we house return to our shelters within a few weeks or months. In social work this is a phenomenon called ‘recidivism’. Research shows that when we house someone in a neighbourhood, the person often feels as though they’ve moved to another planet. They have no community connections, often lack the skills necessary to form community from scratch, and feel the violence of isolation and loneliness. As a result, they leave their new places and come back to our shelters because it’s the only place they have any kind of connection.

Causeway attempts to counteract recidivism by tapping into local peacemakers who want to step up and come alongside folks who have moved into their neighbourhoods. We are trying to ‘de-professionalize’ social work. We aim to create unlikely yet mutually beneficial friendships that will not only decrease recidivism, but change communities and churches as well. We think that this might play a tiny role in reversing or at least slowing down the tidal wave of the violence of selfishness and neglect that is plaguing our world today. And in that process, our lives can be changed.

Dion Oxford is the Director of Mission Integration at TSA Housing and Homeless Supports. He lives with his wife and daughter in Toronto, Ontario.

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