As the song says, “You don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone.”
On the morning of the day I left Toronto for more than three weeks of consulting and speaking in Australia and New Zealand, my friend Cliff died. He had been desperately ill for months, so it was no surprise. Cliff had been deeply entrenched in street life for many years, having left his home reservation in the far north at a young age; the traumas of his youth, and the ravages of street life, left his system so depleted that his organs began to shut down.
Unable to handle being in hospital, he had repeatedly checked himself out as soon as he could gather enough strength to stand up and walk away under his own steam. Our staff kept finding new medical facilities to take him in as his body failed him, but Cliff was never able to stay. He ended up living for more than a week in a meeting room at Sanctuary, cared for around the clock by a rotation of friends from the community. At the last, he agreed to move to a hospice – and still, he was attended almost constantly by the people he had come to regard as his family: street friends, staff members, and middle class folks who have also made Sanctuary their home. Cliff had forbidden us to contact his birth family.
As I sat with him one afternoon, the doctor on duty entered the room and introduced herself. We talked briefly about his condition and what would likely happen next, then as she was leaving the room, the doctor paused at the door and said, “Cliff is lucky to have so many good friends.”
As was his wish, Cliff died with his hand in the hand of Simon, his good friend who is a Sanctuary staff member. I thought about this while sitting in the airport lounge; I was homesick before ever I boarded the plane.
Over the next three weeks, I traveled to five different cities and talked with various groups about the importance of healthy, welcoming community – community in which kingdom justice places people who are poor and otherwise rejected at the very centre. I reflected with them on their current activities and approaches, and spoke about theological principles, sociological concepts, and practical applications. I talked about my friends, my brothers and sisters of the streets, and what we are learning from each other how and where God shows up when we actually try to live out the Gospel.
All the while, I was checking emails from home: flat black letters on a glowing white screen that gave mere hints of the pain, sorrow and little flickers of redemption that echoed in my own heart. The aftermath of Cliff’s death was more than usually complicated; just as those waves of complication began to abate, Fred died suddenly. Both men were in their thirties, and both were deeply rooted in our little community.
Unlike Cliff, Fred’s large family have almost all been connected to Sanctuary through the years. His health had been precarious too, but it seemed unbelievable that he was gone: his surviving two sisters and brother had now lost four siblings and their mother in less than two years. The entire community was reeling, and so, on the other side of the globe, was I.
The work I was doing was interesting, the people wonderful and responsive, the weather was splendid (especially as compared to Toronto’s winter!), and there was the excitement of seeing new places in countries I had never before visited.
But I missed my people so much that I found it difficult to tell their amazing story without losing control of my emotions. Those emails let me know that the folks at home were managing these incredibly difficult situations with extraordinary grace and wisdom. In fact, I had the sense that perhaps a new depth of strength was being forged as street-involved people, staff members, and people of privilege faced the challenges together. My longing to be with them wasn’t because I thought they needed me there to shepherd them through – it was clear that they didn’t. It was I who needed them.
I’ve never been so glad to get home in all my life. The word community comes from a compound Latin word that means to be one with. I was back with the people with whom I am “one”. And it was wonderfully healing to be with them!
The words of Isaiah, the early part of which Jesus took as his own mission statement.
, declaring that he had come to announce good news to the poor, make it clear that those same imprisoned, broken-hearted, blind people would be the source of recovery and reconciliation in the kingdom of God, for he would bestow on the a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor. They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations.
That’s what I experienced, coming home. Some kernel of that grand vision. That’s kingdom community.
 Isaiah 61:1-4; Luke 4:18-19
 Isaiah 61:3,4 [NIV]