The recent release of documentary movie, “The Chicken Manure Incident,” shines an uncomfortable light on the city of Abbotsford, BC, which like many Lower Mainland communities is wrestling with the problems of poverty and homelessness. When city workers unceremoniously dumped a truckload of chicken manure all over a homeless camp near the city’s downtown core, it fueled national embarrassment for the city and increased mistrust and anger on all sides.
However, what has ensued is a long overdue conversation about how we view the marginalized, poor and disenfranchised in our communities. But what has this got to do with our health?
A 2013 Canadian Medical Association info-graphic revealed that poverty and social isolation are among the top reasons for ill health in Canada. But, “how to resolve that?” is the subject of intense political and social debate. One group, on the cutting edge of addressing that question is The Oasis Society for Spiritual Health of Victoria, BC.
- Residents and staff at Oasis
“Oasis is a safe place to come and learn about living in community – to reconnect – to belong,” states Margaret O’Donnell, the Director of the Society. Their vision statement describes their work succinctly: “Oasis works with homeless and newly housed people to create a shared and inclusive spiritual community for the mutual well-being of all.”
Margaret has learned lessons from those on the margins of society that could teach us a better model for establishing healthier communities. “People are looking to belong. They yearn for authentic relationships and that has led us to reconnect them with their families. They didn’t know how. Here at Oasis they can begin to learn what it means to belong – through family meals, time for sharing, and listening to each one’s story of success, challenge and gratitude. Oasis enables that to happen in safety and trust. We learn together that it is our willingness to go on a spiritual journey that builds relationships of trust with others and with ourselves.”
Margaret shared one touching story as a perfect example. “Some time ago one of us found a man just lying under the bushes. His life had collapsed. We reached out to him. Gradually, rebuilding began, and a question arose: Who cares for this man more than we do? His Mother!” Margaret realized this, and went in search for her. “This mother was over-joyed to reconnect to her son from whom she’d been separated for years. Her embrace connected him to his most original self, and gradually to his huge extended family. He began to find confidence, healing and a return to health.”
I asked Margaret what she sees in a person such as this man. “I see an opportunity to be transformed. In this man, I recognize the capacity that is in me to survive collapse, to forgive, and to begin again. In this place – Oasis – I am discovering the meaning of compassion and of how to listen and be present. Those we reject because of our fears have a rich lesson to teach us. In my earlier years, I might have thought it was me who was doing something for them, but later I learned that it is they who are doing something for me. They are teaching me who I am and how to put my intelligence at the service of my heart.”
This discussion about separation and reconnection has a larger lesson. I feel that it is the deeper sense of spiritual separation – alienation from the Divine – that many feel. And, it’s outward appearance is often physical and mental illness, isolation and poverty.
Jesus told a story (parable) of a young man who left his family for adventure. However, a time came when – having nothing left – he, like the man under the bushes, had lost all hope. He felt that disconnection deeply. But going home to his father and feeling the warm embrace and acceptance as a son, healed that breach. The father never saw him as anything less than a beloved son – no alienation. It seems that’s the way Margaret sees people. Her profound Christian approach fosters that restoration, bringing healing to both mind and body. This forgotten sense of wholeness – of being at one with the Divine – is actually what we all yearn for. It’s at the root of our health.
Listening to Margaret reminded me of how much we have yet to learn from those who are marginalized, poor or disenfranchised in our communities. It involves seeing through the outward picture we form of an individual to their deeper, truer self, and honoring that view.
The Oasis Society for Spiritual Health of Victoria is a non-profit Society, and registered charity, founded in 2006, and governed by a Board of Directors who appoint its Executive Director. http://oasisvic.org