33) Do to Learn: Habits Make Thoughts | Jake Aikenhead (Part 2)

Which comes first, habit or thought? Do thoughts make habits or do habits form thoughts? This week, Mark walks us through his thoughts on how small groups overly focused on Bible study fail to maximize their potential to mature and influence their neighbourhoods; on the other hand, groups centred around weekly rhythms of set practices can bring about huge change. Arguing that habits form learning better than learning forms habits, he proposes using Michael Frost's "B.E.L.L.S. Challenge" as a way of kicking off a new community called The Alter this fall.

Then Mark sits down with Jake Aikenhead, Director of Toronto's Salvation Army Gateway. Jake opens up about his upbringing in Toronto and what compelled him to pursue philosophy, theology, and frontline support work. This week in Part 2, Jake talks about people who find themselves needing shelter at the Gateway and the people who serve them by volunteering there. He shares from his unique perspective about poverty issues in Toronto, about how city shelters can find parallels in the church and vice versa, and about what it means to be "the hand of God in the heart of the city."

Recorded on location at Marche Brookfield Place.


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Notable Quotes from Jake Aikenhead 

"You're coming to the Gateway because you don't have anywhere else to go. So you don't have any other options. You need a bed, and you need three meals, and you need a place to set up shop for a little while all you figure things out.... And if someone's been experiencing homelessness for long time and they're living in a shelter, there can be some serious anger and frustration that they've gotten their life, and people aren't always that courteous about who they take it out on. So our front-line staff – they have to put up with a lot of grief sometimes. That's really just people trying to cope; it's not directed at X person because they're a bad person, But it's just that it has to get out. So they're the easiest person to let it out on."

"We're a mixed bunch [on staff]. So, lots of folks end up there kind of in a similar way or fashion that I did – exploring those questions. Some people are full-on they know what they believe and they want to be part of a Christian ministry. Some people are just not really in that headspace at all, but they still want to be part of the good work that we do and that's wonderful. So we are a mixed bunch, and it's kind of nice to have that sort of diversity as well on the staff."

"We all [staff/voluntters] sign off on our mission statement, which is a Christ centered mission statement, and we all kind of agree to the core values of the Salvation Army. So there's that requirement for sure, but the Army is pretty open in terms of who they hire to do things like this and to work at ministry units - and that's a good thing. So you don't need to be a Salvationist to represent the organization and to uphold the good work that's happening."

"'The Hand of God in the Heart of the City' is something that's mentioned a lot - we talk about that is what we want to try and achieve. If that's what we want to be. So it's sort of a slogan, sort of a vision. We probably don't all have a perfectly aligned understanding of what that means, but what is rooted in his, Scriptures like Micah 6 scriptures like Matthew 25, the call is to love those around us... in very tangible ways. So in Matthew 25 you hear about visiting people who are in prison and clothing people who are naked and feeding folks. And the Golden Rule. Like, it's all kind of... that's I think what it means to be the hand of God in the heart of the city – to try and bring those things about in our context."

"And the way I think about it, too – and this just might be me – I think about being the body of Christ as a physical continuation of Jesus' physical body in the world. So when his body was in the world, he used it to go around healing people and teaching and being with people who were lonely and were outcast. And so that's what it maybe means to be his hands and feet now."

"You do hear bad stories [about things that happen to clients at shelters], so I think there is an element of truth to that. What wev'e done at the Gateway is tried to be really intentional about creating a safe space. And there's been from the early leadership some really amazing decisions that have created an atmosphere that is really safe. So I think in my time there – which is about 7 1/2 years – I broke up 2 fights. Things happen, it's a lot of people in a shared space, and emotions are going to get high sometimes. But overall, it's a pretty peaceful place."

"We're really intentional about making sure our staff are always in the drop-down. So instead of this kind of stand at our front desk intake area, and huddling up there, you should be as a front-line worker in the drop in with our residents and community members building relationships not just keeping the place safe but being around so that you have a positive presence there, you're getting to know folks. And then when things do need up a little bit, #1 you're right there, and #2, you know the people involved so you can de-escalate that."

"Something else we've done which I love is we don't have any glass dividing our front desk from our lobby. So when you come in through our front doors, there's nothing protecting our staff from you and there's nothing protecting you from our staff and that sort of sends the message, you know what? We're not afraid of you....'  And so that has the effect of communicating, 'We're not afraid of you. We don't think that you're different from us. We don't think that we need to be protected from you.' And also over the years I realize it has the effect of ensuring that as a staff member you don't say anything that you wouldn't be able to get away with just because you're behind glass. and so that's the kind of thing we try and do to make sure that we're sending this message to our community that, 'Yeah, look, this is a safe space. We care about everybody here, we care about how this placed functions and how everyone gets along.' And so because of that we've had really good success and a really good track record of not being violent and not having those kinds of critical incidents happen regularly."

"We start taking people on a waiting list at 9 AM every morning, and in the evenings when we do bed check we figure out how many open beds we have. We keep our waiting list of 12 names, because otherwise it would just be too long, and usually our turnover is between two and five beds. So it's not a guarantee that you're going to get a place just because your name is on the waiting list.... Sometimes people are waiting for two or three days just to get in."

"For the Gateway, we've been operating above capacity for the last 18 months. Because the city of Toronto has requested, can you guys put out your 10 emergency weather beds essentially every single night? So we were doing that faithfully for a while in the winter of 2013 which then continued into the spring of 2013 on nights when I wasn't below zero, and there was some confusion there - are these emergency weather beds or not? And the demand is high enough that the city then asked us to make those permanent – to keep them on for the next year. And so that contract has been extended."

"If you look on the City of Toronto website, or just Google 'Toronto shelter occupancy,' you can pull up those stats; the men's sector usually hovers around 95/96% full. The Gateway is always at 99.something% full. And if you don't count those extra 10 beds as regular beds, we're at 108% occupancy."

"When I look at the 96%, it's a bit mystifying to me because I don't know where those beds are in the system – but they must be out there. I know that for us it's tough to make the referrals at night. Oftentimes we know that folks experiencing homelessness are waiting at the Assessment and Referral Centre, which is like a central hub to find a bed and have a place to go. So it does seem like there's a bit of a shortage of beds to us, and certainly we are full every night and that's our experience."

"Before you ever worked in a shelter, I gave change the people all the time. And whenever somebody asked, I would try to give something. And then I started working at a shelter and I realized that so much of the time folks are spending the money I give them on things that may be destructive. So maybe I shouldn't do that and instead I will either give nothing or maybe offer to buy coffee or something like that. and in a few more years went by, and I thought Well who am I to say that? You know, who am I to say, 'I'll give you money, but if and only if you spend it this way. You better put that in the bank and put it towards your first and last months' rent.' That's not my decision to make. So with that sentiment in mind, I just try and let my heart lead me when I am asked."

"What I would say is, when somebody asks you for money, one of the most dignified things you can do is stop and ask them how they're doing. So if you say, 'Sorry, ma'am. I don't have any change,' but ask them, 'Do you have a place to stay?' Oftentimes they do and sometimes they don't and maybe you could make a few suggestions. Maybe you could get to know that person if it's someone who is on your regular route to work or something like that. But I would push people in that direction and not give a yes or a no as to whether it's bad. And I can think of situations where people are going to stay outside because they have an addiction to a substance. And until they get enough money, they're going to just stay out there until they can purchase what they need and then use and then go inside. So that's a huge moral dilemma. What's the loving thing to do in that situation? I don't know."

"For so many of the men and women that I know through the Gateway, we are a place that they trust, and in that way we're a light in the community. We are a place that they can go to that they know they are not going to be judged and they know is safe and they know that they can come in and have a meal and experience some friendship, and those are all really fantastic things. Intermixed with all those things are the restrictions that we have to place on people and the arguments that happen and the disagreements and the fact that things just don't always go exactly to plan."

"The practice in ancient Israel of the sabbatical year and Jubilee – they are about release and they are about forgiveness. And so through release and forgiveness there is liberation. So the practices as they are laid out in Old Testament law are: every seven years you released prisoners and slaves and forgave debts.... and no questions asked – it doesn't matter why somebody is in debt; it doesn't matter if it's because there was an illness in the family or because they made some really bad decisions. But there is a forgiveness of debts happening on that seven-year cycle. And then every seven seven years – in the 50th year – there's a Jubilee which is this kind of ultimate forgiveness. This radical return to the way things were. And so with those two practices in place, there is this economic glass ceiling. You can only go so high, and then things will return to equilibrium - an equality.... And so it's kind of like, that kind of radical-putting-things-back-to-the-way-things-were is like a regulated asset recovery. Because the Year of Jubilee was returning back to your ancestral land, which is how people would make money in those days. Through agriculture. So it's something that makes sure there's no cycle of poverty that continues on and on and on forever, but it resets."

"The moment of Jesus's birth is like, 'It's happening - we're blowing the horn and everything is going to be set to rights.' And I guess now we're in the process of everything being set to rights."

"I would just like to see the church globally kind of expand our imagination and bring in areas that we haven't been considering. Justice issues. Bring those into the conversation. So we talk a lot about - we focus a lot on - believing the right things, but we don't talk a lot about things like where our food comes from or where our clothes are made or what our economic practices are and what effect those are having on people overseas. And I think that a renewed church will have those conversations and then will look like a really different group of people in the world because they will be saying something that nobody else is really saying. They'll be saying, 'This isn't right and here's a better way to do it.' And that to me is a church that I want to be a part of. And I think probably a lot of the folks who have left the church would look at that and say, 'Okay, there is some legitimacy back in the church again. And I want to be there.'"


Next Week's Episode 34

Junia band (David, Amy, Joel)