I’ve tried my hand at working hard to be a Good Christian. Social justice efforts, surrounding myself with intellectual theologians, investing in church cultures, all in sincere effort to find relationship with God.
Mostly these efforts left me achingly close to getting it right, but unfortunately falling short.
Then I met women on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. They did lots of ‘wrong’ things, and very few of the ‘right’ things, and yet I saw in many of their hearts the deep knowing of God that I had never found in my own life. It shook me up.
After acquiring my bachelor’s degree in Social Work in 2013, I became an outreach worker to women on the DTES. This neighborhood is known for its collection of social services addressing problems of heavy drug use, poverty, homelessness and untreated mental illness pouring into our city. If you continue along the main road in this neighborhood, you’ll find tourist destinations, overpriced condos and million-dollar views of downtown Vancouver, the things this city is known for in brochures.
For five years I had the honor and heartache of knowing mighty women and families of this community, hearing their stories, offering tangible supports and doing what I could to ease their burdens.
This honor and heartache were intertwined in ways I didn’t know they could be. Some women I met were pillars of strength, but others were crushed under the weight of impossible traumas. A woman might have been overflowing with laughter and quick wit, and yet her story could have held more pain than it seems any one person could survive. I’ve seen ladies tenderly care for the well-being of everyone around them one day, and another day be asked to leave the building for an explosion of anger and abusive language.
From their experiences, these women have gathered far more wisdom than I, and yet it was I that held space for their troubles like a parent holding children in comfort.
The relationships I formed with these women shattered the small box I had thought encompassed God’s relationship with us. We are far more complex than I realized, and if God is truly as great and big as we proclaim him to be, He does not shy away from this complexity.
I no longer wonder if you can have a relationship with God and also struggle with opioid addiction. I know you can. Women who didn’t want to be using heroin but felt they had to in order to survive their demons sought me for prayer, asked for Bibles to replace their worn-out copies and cleared out our supply of Daily Breads faster than we could order new ones.
Part of my role was to offer anyone help out of their addiction if they decided to try. But I never wondered if God loved them even if an overdose took them before they could one day succeed at sobriety. I think He understands. I think He understands the pain that fogs someone’s ability to leave addiction.
“As a deer pants for water, so my soul pants for you” never held as much meaning as when I met women who had every right to be angry at God for their circumstances, but instead sought his wisdom and comfort.
I believe the compassion Jesus had for each flawed person in the Bible still reach forward to these women, too. It reaches toward me, and all others who wonder if God really loves them.
I acquired a Traumatic Brain Injury last year. Because of the way this TBI recovery is playing out for me, things that made me feel like I had a relationship with God before don’t “work” anymore. I have a low tolerance for noise, socializing, reading, standing for long periods of time and dedicating myself to focused tasks.
So I don’t study the Bible as much. I can barely crawl through theological books, one chapter every few weeks. I only sometimes really pay attention in church (when I can even go). I can’t stand and sing joyfully in worship. I stopped going to Bible Study. I rarely take time for intentional prayer.
I have learned through this experience, and reflecting on the experiences of the women I met, that even without these actions I once used to seek God, He seeks me still.
He still seeks us.
I feel him seeking me as I pant for him. Even as I cannot put my usual work into our relationship.
In short walks around my neighborhood, God has met me by showing me the supernatural delight of lightly falling snow. Through the people at my church who keep checking in even when I can’t attend events, He shows me I am not forgotten. In the love I am given by family and friends, even as I cannot see them as often, or do as many good works for them, I am shown that it’s not what I do for people, but simply for who I am, that I am loved.
He stays in relationship with me every day. I may be weak, but I can still accept His love.
It seems silly to relate my own trauma to the women I know on the DTES. I don’t want to minimize what they’re going through. I have privilege that has supported me in immeasurably important ways. I just feel like the divide I once saw, no longer exists between myself and them. We are all made of the same emotions, we live in the same culture, we seek purpose and meaning and love. And we seem to ache for God whether we always acknowledge it.
I hope to contribute to changing the world so these women don’t face what they face anymore, but I also know they are loved by God, and we are both given equal grace.
Robyn Rapske writes her thoughts about Christianity, culture, social justice, and chronic illness at www.robynrapske.com. She works and plays on unceded Coast Salish indigenous land in Vancouver, Canada, working at a Christian non-profit that addresses homelessness, addiction, and poverty in the city.