A room with a view

How an unlikely community living situation in Winnipeg’s inner city is changing lives

Jeff ran downstairs to open the door, a woman was standing in the dark, it was cold – Jennifer had blood on her face.

“Are you okay?”

“I just want to come in,” she said.

“What’s wrong?”

She took her arm away from her abdomen and showed him the wound.

“My guts are coming out.”

“Yes they are! Come in, lie down.”

 

 

I live at Flatlander’s Inn, a light of hope for the transgendered woman who dragged herself across our gravel parking lot that night looking for help. Run by the Vineyard church and launched last year as a transitional community living arrangement, we are a presence in Winnipeg’s core, north of the tracks. We live here not because we’re licensed for alcohol or packed with video lottery machines, but because we’re foolish enough to believe that an inn, run by volunteers and ruled by the Spirit, can help people who are at risk of homelessness.

Two Flatlanders visited Jennifer in the hospital the next day. As she sat recovering from a near-death injury, she said she missed her makeup from home – and could we get it for her? The ways people cope with stress constantly amaze me. Daily habits like applying makeup and looking presentable are all part of coping. The unhealthy ways of escaping its grasp are as numerous as the needles in the parking lot.

Flatlanders. We’re not flat because we’re in the prairies. We’re flat in the sense of radical equality. We’ve chosen to live in a neighbourhood abused by authority, jails, police, residential schools, and welfare. We eat together, clean together, plant and harvest together at a farm outside the city, and pray together every morning.

One of my roommates describes herself as a binocular convert. Lisa would watch us from across the street as we watched movies, played games, and enjoyed life together. Why would this group of people, including a young woman who owned an expensive Prius car, sit and play rummy with Mike – a sniffer? Soon she found out, and Mike was beating her at rummy too.

Lisa was baptized a month ago, and she’s been dubbed “the nun of the west” by her old friends. She’s struggling to find her identity. Relocated by the government in the sixties and raised in an incredibly restrictive white Anglo-Saxon Protestant home, she wound up on the streets of Winnipeg at 30 years old, looking for her biological family and addicted to crack. Now she’s found friends at Flatlanders. Along with three women, she made her first meal for us – Indian Tacos – better known as bannock with all the fixings. It was a huge success. I gave her $20 to grab some groceries and she came back with a receipt and change. On her way to get tomatoes, she had to pass the crack dealer’s place.

Everyone at Flatlanders has a goal to reach. At first, Mike’s was to stay alive. He’d been sniffing since 10, and his landlord found him in a coma on his couch, with a failed liver and close to death. Now, a year later, Flatlanders gave him the opportunity to discover the joy of physical labour. We picked bags and bags of apples in the fall, and Mike sat for a whole day throwing them in the food processor. Ten hours later he was finished, got up stiffly, opened the freezer, and smiled at all 28 bags. That day he found value that went beyond just surviving. He still smells of lacquer from time to time, but the power in his punchlines are back, and the source of his contagious smile comes from a clear mind.

Conviviality – a new way of feasting, drinking, and enjoying each other is present at our Wednesday potlucks. Not only do we share in abundance, but we remember its source. With an open invitation to those who want to learn how we live, mealtimes are always interesting. George likes to be 15 minutes early. The victim of mistaken identity, his skull was struck from behind with a large metal pole, was in a coma for a week, and emerged as a very different person. He brings dessert and enjoys serving it. He loves watching the kid’s expressions as they grab an Oreo from his cigarette-stained fingers. George would never use the word conviviality but that’s the reason he comes back. God is present when we eat and laugh together – and George knows it.

Adam Ward is a Canadian Mennonite University alumnus and a core team member of Flatlanders.

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