|God in the Alley|
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Sam has survived physical, sexual, and substance abuse, terrible violence, and life on the streets. Wendy lives for the next high on crack, oblivious to her boyfriend's love. Neil is dying of AIDS.
These are the people of inner-city Toronto. Look into their distorted, obscure faces, their fractured lives, and catch a glimpse of the sublime. Greg Paul calls them tragic heroes---individuals who can offer a testament to God's love and mercy.
With emotional depth and spiritual intensity, Greg's compelling stories reveal that people with desperate lives have precious lessons to teach us about the character of God. God in the Alley offers a profound message of grace and calling that each one of us needs to hear.
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Christianbook.com: As we begin can you tell us a little bit about both your background and the ministry of Sanctuary?
Greg Paul: I was raised in a Bretheren setting. I grew up in a very white, middle class, solid suburban home. Somehow I got intrigued with life downtown. I used to skip school in my teen years and hang out downtown. Sometimes I would even stay out overnight, my parents never knew this at the time, and hang out down town. So I had a long-time fascination with the energy of the streets and the life that most people weren't looking at.
Then my life journeys were pretty circuitous towards Sanctuary. I was a carpenter for about 15 years and involved with a church in the suburb where I lived. During that time I got involved with a band called 'Red Rain.' Out of a sense of mission, we played mostly in secular venues. We played in bars and on the coffeehouse circuit in an attempt to meet people on their turf and on their terms. I really didn't have any understanding of 'incarnational theology' at that time, but that's what it was. Jesus came onto our turf, on our terms and let us do what we would with him. Our ministry was an attempt to live that out.
Eventually the band got located in this old, dying, Bretheren church in downtown Toronto. These old saints embraced us and told us that this was the place for us to be. That was a bit of a miracle, because they were pretty conservative people, but they were willing to let us go and do what we were doing and be who we were supposed to be. After we had been doing that for a couple of years here at what was then Central Gospel Hall, my own life-situation changed. The construction business went into the tank because of the 1990 recession and it really seemed like God was saying that "this is the time. You've had a sense of calling for years and years and you haven't known what it is about. This is what it's about. Go do this." I talked to my own home church, which was a suburban, white, blue collar kind of a place, and they were able to say yes to my calling and embrace it. What they were embracing was the concept of me going as a missionary and playing rock-and-roll in bars in the downtown core. That was a miracle in itself. As a conservative, evangelical congregation they weren't cutting edge people, nor did they have any desire to be, but they sent my wife and I as missionaries. At that time we continued to live in a suburban town about 30 minutes north of Toronto. Some years later we moved on into the city.
|In the meantime, what started out as one guy wandering around the streets during the daytime and playing in bars at night, slowly began to grow. Other people began to gather, bringing their own measure of vision and activity. We started with drop-ins and street outreach and it has expanded to health care, an unemployment training and housing initiative, as well as arts, music, drama and a variety of other things. But really Sanctuary is focused on being a community together. It's not really programmatic so much as it is relational. We need to be a community together.
|Christianbook.com: The main purpose of your book is to assist Christians in the "cultivation of our ability to both be Jesus and see Jesus, if only by a dim flickering light." How does someone begin the process of being Jesus to a broken world? Does this process require a conversion or is it something that can be learned?|
Greg Paul: Yes, to both of those latter things. You can certainly learn, you learn because you're willing to be converted. You learn because you understand you need to be changed. I am firmly convinced that I am here doing what I'm doing because this is where God can reach me, not because this is where God can use me to reach other people. God doesn't need me to reach other people. He can do that quite well on his own, thank you. But he chooses to do this because this is where he can reach me.
One of the things I talk about in the book is the idea that if you want to see Jesus you really need to be present with people and vice versa. It almost doesn't matter where you start, I would say. If you start looking for the presence of Christ in broken, needy people, then you are going to find that you start to become Christ's presence to them and they'll become Christ's presence to you. If you want to be the kind of presence Jesus was when he lived in the world, then you will become very vulnerable to people. You will find ways of being present in the difficult places in their lives. You'll go to the difficult places and you won't be afraid of poverty, either material poverty or the poverty of soul. And you'll realize that the people that society generally shuns are the people that Jesus seeks out. So I think that's what you do. You go looking for those people that society writes off. That's the first step and from there you just follow it.
|Christianbook.com: Can being and seeing Jesus happen at the same time or are they separate experiences? |
Greg Paul: I'd say that they are inextricably linked. They are dependent on each other. Someone talked about them being two-sides of the same coin and I think that's true. As I said earlier, it doesn't really matter where you start, as long as you start somewhere. The process is cyclical. I think that if you want to be the presence of Christ, you can't do that, it's impossible in fact, without seeing the presence of Christ in other people and vice versa.
|Christianbook.com: What does the term 'abandonment' mean to you? How is abandonment related to our ability to be and see Jesus in the world?|
Greg Paul: Abandonment, I think, heads in two directions. The conventional view of abandonment, and quite a legitimate one, is that abandonment is a bad thing. Cars get abandoned, houses get abandoned, children get abandoned. That abandonment is some kind of statement about the relative value of the thing that's left. Thus, when children get abandoned it destroys their sense of personal value. This is a really negative thing. Yet it's reality, it's part of our brokenness. All of us have some kind of fear of being left, that we're not worthy of the attention of those we love and want to pay attention to us. Even in terms of our relationship with God I think the most difficult thing for us to believe is that God loves us and takes pleasure in us. This is really difficult stuff for us to believe. In fact, I think itís the core challenge for people of faith, to believe it when God says that: You are my Son or daughter, I love you, I am pleased with you. Those three statements are virtually impossible to wholeheartedly believe in this life. So we wrestle with this sense of fear or being abandoned, but we need to acknowledge it and embrace it.
But on the other hand, the power of abandonment is wonderful. Because, if you're abandoned to music, for instance, or you're abandoned into the arms of your lover then you release this protection of self, you release yourself from expectation and you let whatever is going to happen, happen. Think about Jesus on the cross abandoning himself into the arms of God. This is the moment of true power in his ministry. When he seems most abject, most weak, most pitiful and he says "into Your hands I commit my spirit." He abandoned himself into the hands of God, who has abandoned him. That's really the image, isn't it? Jesus saying, "My God, why have you forsaken me?," and so giving us permission to say the same thing. Yet, at the same time, saying to God, "I abandon my Spirit into your hands." It's an apparent paradox, but those two things, held in tension, are really what enlivens our relationship with God and each other. In the book, we talk about the abandonment of power as being something we can cultivate deliberately, not just being victims, not just embracing the reality that we've been left behind by others, but willingly giving up those aspects of power that have been conferred upon us by society.
|I am a white, middle-aged, middle-class guy and that places me very firmly in the middle not only of the North American power structure but the world power structure. I am in the power class in this world. In terms of people who have privilege, a voice and all those things I am in probably the upper tenth percentile just by virtue of where I was born. What God calls me to do is what Jesus did: to abandon that, to let it go. Not to stand on that, but to take those downward steps like Jesus did to become one of us.
|Christianbook.com: Throughout God in the Alley you carefully recount the stories of your friend's lives. The care with which you tell the stories suggests that you consider them to be parables Christ's presence and God's love. How has your ability to see the incarnation of Christ in your friend's stories helped you to love them more passionately and point them more effectively to the redemption of Christ?|
Greg Paul: Well how could you not? If you look at somebody and you realize that this person is representing Jesus to you at this moment, how could you not love this person more? How could you not be willing then to stare their brokenness in the face, to look at their pain and suffering realizing that you are not just looking at the messy details of one person's life but you are, in fact, looking at the very reason that Jesus hung on the cross? That is what it's about. That is what Jesus teaches us in Matthew 25.
I think that the idea that the suffering of individual people is somehow linked to the suffering of Christ dignifies the suffering that my friends endure and have endured. It says that it matters, it has meaning, it has value to God, rather than just saying that this is a pitiful person who has been abused by life.
|Christianbook.com: Jean Vanier, the founder of the L'Arche Communities and one of your strongest spiritual influences, often speaks of ministry as a type of midwifery by which we help others give birth to the true life that is latent within them. Building upon this metaphor, Vanier says that while we help others give birth to true life we often realize that they are helping us through this birthing process as well. How have the people you minister to helped you embrace the eternal life that God has given?|
Greg Paul: Well, I had a speaking engagement last year. It was a city-wide worship thing and I was asked to speak about the ministry of Sanctuary. I took with me a friend who is actually one of the people who is mentioned in the book. When I introduced him, I spoke of him as one of my greatest teachers. Now, he has not taught me deliberately, he has not sat me down and told me the way it is and this is what you need to learn. But being with him and watching what he goes through and his struggles of faith has forced me to take a different kind of look at myself and understand who I am in the context of God's love.
This is a man who at one point told me that "Greg, if I don't commit my life to God before I get out of bed in the morning, I'll die." It was that bald for him, that raw for him. He meant that literally, it wasn't a metaphor for him, he wasn't being fancy with words. He was saying if I don't do this, my body is going shut down. I'll go back to my addictions and it will kill me. He had that visceral sense, that sense of immediacy that he had to have his hooks in God immediately or he was toast. The difference in my life is that I have had so many privileges and enjoy so many privileges that I can float for a long time. I have a lot of reserve fuel in the tank. I don't live my life with the needle hovering on empty like my friend does. So I can coast a lot and I do. So that is one of the ways that the lives of my friends really challenge me to say "how much does this mean to you, right now, in this moment? How real and immediate is it?"
|Christianbook.com: Early in the book, you note that Toronto has one of the largest homosexual populations in the world and Sanctuary is located right on the edge of their neighborhood. This, as well as the fact that you are both an evangelical Christian and a pastor, two groups which are known more for judging than loving the homosexual community, led you to the conclusion that you needed to "submit to the direction of gay and lesbian people, where (you) could be accountable to them for (your) attitudes and actions, and could learn something about their culture." What has your ongoing interaction with and ministry among homosexual people taught you about how Christians can more effectively love and minister to this community?|
Greg Paul:Well, I still think that the principle of submission is a really good one. We need to remember that is what Jesus did. He submitted himself to us. Paul talks about this also in I Cor. 9 when he says that "although I don't owe anybody anything I make myself a slave of everybody, so that by all means I might win some." I think that if we really want to reach people for the gospel, whether they are gay, straight, Muslim or other, what we need to do is choose the place of submission like Jesus has done. We do not need to ask ourselves how to dominate with our viewpoint or political agenda, but how we can become submissive to them and place ourselves under their power. That's part of the abandonment of power we were talking about earlier. I think that's key.
It's amazing to me how many of the political issues, and I'm using the term 'political' in the broadest sense, around something like gay and lesbian rights and same-sex marriage, become functional non-issues when you are dealing with people on a relational basis, rather than on the basis of the issues. That's certainly been the case in our situation.
Christianbook.com: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us! God in the Alley taught us a great deal about incarnational ministry. We hope that it has a similar impact upon others.