By Karen O'Shannacery, OBC and Michael Markwick
This season brings home the fact of the impact we have on each other, and how ultimately irreplaceable we are to each other.
Al Mitchell was an architect of the Lookout Society as we know it today. He passed away suddenly, leaving many of us struggling with mourning. But all of the emotions and memories that keep welling up in this moment bring us back to the main thing about Al and what he taught us: no one is disposable, each of us irreplaceable, and we have to do everything in our power to love, serve and nurture each other.
If Al was walking among us today, he would be challenging us to rise to our best, to continue to take on the challenges, helping people who often have no where to go, or anyone to support them. This exhortation is especially important to keep in mind as we enter Homelessness Action Week.
Over his twenty seven years of devoted service, Al played a life transforming role in the lives of thousands of the most vulnerable members of our community. Inwardly, he anchored this in his faith, and outwardly it was easy for everyone to see in his tender compassion the depth and richness of his spiritual life. Al also advocated for change in the social service system, to both reduce the risk of people becoming homeless or being put at risk in the first place. His work was bigger than the work of the Lookout Society because he lived his spirituality and beliefs morning to night, committed to doing what was right, no matter what the obstacle, in the eyes of God and fellow human beings. This is an important truth, even for those of us who have no religious beliefs or affiliations, because it was such a vital part of Al and everything he did. It's an important truth to hold on to, especially as so many of us are wrung out with grief at this moment.
For Al, this translated into two core principles that have become basic to our work. First, he believed in making sure everything we do helps put the client back in control of his or her life and well being. Al's generosity and caring was for the whole person, and in practice this resulted in Lookout's golden rule: "When in doubt, the client is considered right." We work with people who have been for much of their lives or all of their lives rejected, betrayed, and stripped of the companionship that is essential for survival. While it might seem more efficient to build an institutional culture that just kept telling them what to do, Al taught us that we should always guard against the idea that we know what's best. He had a remarkable gift of talking to anyone, opening himself up to understand and connect with the person in front of him. And so it was never a mechanical thing for Al to believe in the client. The client was a human person, and our role was to do whatever was in our power to make sure this person could always decide what was in his or her best interest.
Very often this meant starting with the urgent necessity of making sure the client would actually survive the night. This was Al's second core principle. Ending homelessness was something we had to do structurally, by correcting the mistakes we're making as a society that result in putting people out on our streets and in our parks, but it was something we had to do personally, one individual at a time. Al was a life saver. To do this, he'd call us to set see in context the big, insurmountable challenges that were pushing our clients to the brink. Those challenges would have to be addressed, but the most important thing was to make sure this person survived the night. Our job is to make sure, for each person in front of us, tomorrow could in fact be another day.
The Lookout Society would likely be a very different, and much diminished, organization if Al Mitchell did not exist. There are many people alive and thriving today who would have perished if it were not for Al's work, and the way he called us to do our work with intelligent compassion. To honour his life, we're going to raise a Christmas tree for Al at the Dundarave Festival. Al had a strange obsession. He loved trains, everything about them. Al's tree will be on Dundarave Beach within ear shot of the BC Rail line. Join us there on Saturday November 30th as we cover it with trains and light it up at dusk for Al. If you'd like to get things started right away, click this link to "decorate" Shelter Al's tree with a charitable donation to the Lookout Emergency Aid Society.
We are now entering Homelessness Action Week. Let us do so in loving memory of Al Mitchell. Let this bring a new strength in our hands, a renewed clarity of purpose and a deeper determination to end homelessness in our community. Our friend, one way or another, is still with us and he calls us to the better angels of our nature, a loving, energetic and healing solidarity with the people who are pushed to the margins of our society.
The Dundarave Festival Society
We are a circle of friends working in the Dundarave Festival of Lights Society to bring to life the promise of Christmas in our community, a season of life, passion and purpose that leaves no one in the cold. This is community-driven social change, in the true spirit of Christmas and the best spirit of our community.