When “Us and Them” becomes We

I parked on a side street away from the disorder and risk of East Hastings Street in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. I figured “better safe than sorry” when visiting this notorious neighbourhood, especially since we had our kids with us.

I’ll admit, despite my usual open-mindedness, I was hesitant to walk this area with my wife and two kids. What happens if they do something to put my family at risk? After all, they are at-risk people – drug addiction and mental illness abound in these parts. And we were walking right through their neighbourhood. They might harm us. I was out of my comfort zone.

As we rounded a corner onto the busy street, I heard it for the first time: “Kids on the block!”

At first I thought it was just some random, drug-induced shout – one of them displaying the type of erratic behaviour that was the source of my dis-ease to begin with. I pulled my son closer and paid that much more attention to the crowds that lined the busy street. My suspicions, I figured, were being confirmed.

But then I heard it from someone else, “Kids on the block!”

Suddenly I realized what was happening before my eyes – or more accurate, in my heart: they weren’t the ones with the problem.

I noticed many of them were making eye contact and smiling at this suburban family skirting awkwardly in their midst. Several wished us well. One offered some good-natured wisdom, encouraging our kids to avoid the traps of addiction and be sure to get an education. Some gave a humble “Hello.” One woman’s face lit up, “You’ve brought angels to visit us today!” And yes, more smiles.

To top it off, after finding out the group of volunteers we’d gone to meet were a few blocks away, a local resident offered to take us where we needed to go. This meant another walk up the same crowded street. I was still a little nervous, though not so much. Our guide walked at our pace, in no hurry to get to his own destination. As we strolled along, he began to tell us a bit of his story, an honest glimpse into his life like we’d been long-time friends. And while his story was no fairytale, honesty breeds hope. I could tell he had hope. Perhaps not surprisingly, his honesty gave me hope. As he led and shared and watched out for us, I realized how in his case, welcome and trust was assumed. I wish I could’ve said the same for myself a few minutes ago. My skepticism – judgment even – was met with hospitality. “Who’s got the problem?,” I wondered again.

Along the way, our new friend’s graciousness was shared by others on the street. They gave us more smiles and friendly greetings. “Kids on the block!” was relayed a few more times, yes, as a reminder that there are many un-kid-friendly happenings in our world worth sheltering kids from, but also to tell us that we are welcome by them.

Our world is full of them and us. Many times such distinction is an unavoidable reality of our complex society. But such social distinctions don’t have to guarantee division or conflict. We were welcomed with warmth and hospitality as we meandered along East Hastings Street. The lines between us and them became blurred. I wasn’t the one bringing blessing “to the least of these” (Mt. 25) as we are so oft to approach such situations. I was the one needing blessing and I was the one being blessed. They looked out for us. They embraced us. And in those moments of genuine connection, us and them became we.

Hospitality and love, echoed with the repeated shout, “Kids on the block!”


Photo by (flickr cc) Jeremy Brooks