A sermon where none is needed (1st place)

Dear Navita:

It’s been a while since I was here in your neighbourhood. That was way back when I drew your face for my fear-in-fragment art project. Anyway, today I’m sharing a meal with two friends at the Jade Peony in Chinatown, which isn’t all that far from your place on Hastings, so I’ve been thinking of you. Thought I’d write. There’s this thing I remember about Vancouver’s East End. Like, I’m walking down the street with everyone else and it’s this shared space, you know? Then suddenly I cross a corner and I’m a visitor. I’ve stepped into someone else’s home without even asking. I feel like people who live here on the streets own this area.

It’s tangible. I can feel it as if I’ve walked through a curtain. The sidewalk is your living room. That doorstep is someone’s bedroom and the kitchen is, well, everywhere, anywhere. I smell the bathroom when I pass a dark alley and turn my head away. So I walk down the street and I take care to be extra polite because I feel like I’m trespassing. That hasn’t changed so much. People are okay with my presence for the most part, I guess, but it all makes me wonder what it’s like down here if you aren’t visiting.

When I was here last, you sat for me for a couple of hours. I drew and you talked. So I now know that you are close to my age, you’ve spent some serious time in a mental institution (bipolar disorder), and you’ve been let loose on your own since the facilities closed down. I know you live in a fourth-rate hotel room and can’t get, let alone keep, a job. You have practically no money and rarely get your medication right. You’ve been violent several times and have lost rights to various resources in the community, including a couple of churches, and have been in and out of jail.

Lately I’ve been getting this magazine called Geez and they had this off-the-wall-not-in-the-sanctuary sermon contest which is fairly bizarre in the first place. I thought, what would I write? To whom would I direct my words? To you? Well, I figure I’ve got nothing to say to you, Navita. Zero. Not for your enlightenment anyhow. What do you need to hear from me? That Jesus saves? That God has a wonderful plan for your life? Do you even need to know that a literal view of the Bible is a modern invention? How about a rehash of the Ten Commandments? Or maybe you need some clarity on how the message of holy scriptures jibes with the current eco-crisis. Sort of falling flat? I thought so.

More questions
The thing is, I have more questions than answers these days. One of the big ones that burns right into my soul when I think about you and your neighbours living here in this community without enough money or support or respect or safety or even a bed to sleep on sometimes is this: why are you still alive? As in, why haven’t you killed yourself yet? You aren’t the only person I got to know down here. Some of you had scars on your wrists, so it’s not a moot question I’m asking.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not all blind compassion or anything. I don’t think it’s great that you clawed up a friend of mine. My eyes weren’t closed when a woman I drew was found dead in a dumpster. This stuff is shit. But that’s part of the point, isn’t it? That’s part of what hurts so much down here? And despite this, there’s laughter here and affection and people fighting for respect. How come?

Navita, you’re an unusually intelligent, talented person. You write poetry and paint. That last time you took me for a walk, we went inside the Fire Hall Art Gallery, hiked some stairs to a smaller room, and there you showed me a heart-stopping painting, something out of Munch’s catalogue of emotional impact. Your layers of black and purple nearly ate the fire-reds and oranges that swallowed in their turn a rocky precipice in the midst of it all. I didn’t see the other image at first; then I pointed, asked: why the cross? And you said there’s got to be a ray of hope in hell.

To be honest Navita, I don’t know if there’s a heaven or hell out there beyond this life but you and I both know there’s a hell here on earth. And if you know something I don’t about that ray of hope, please drop me a line sometime and tell me what it is.

Take care Navita,


Leslie Barnwell is a visual artist and writer living in the Kispiox Valley of Northern B.C. You can see more of her work at Navita is not the real name of the woman addressed in the letter.

Issue 10

This article first appeared in Geez magazine Issue 10, Summer 2008, 30 Sermons You'd Never Hear in Church.

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Issue 10, Summer 2008

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