I usually like to encourage people with funny stories. For example, one time I shared a sandwich with two men experiencing homelessness, and one of them asked me if I had accepted Jesus, and then offered me a free condom he had been given at a clinic. Today, however, I’m going to write about some difficulties in my life, what acceptance and heroism mean, and how important Flatlanders has been to me over this past year.
One of the obstacles I’ve faced is learning to accept the judgments of those we care about and admire when those views are negative and impossible to amend. If you have ever been in any significant romantic relationship, you know that it’s the people you care about most who can hurt you the most.
One of my favourite TV shows has a scene where, after years of working towards becoming a lawyer, a young man is denied a position at his older brother’s law firm because the older brother couldn’t let go of the bad name that the younger brother had earned many years before. It’s very sad, but incredibly cathartic for anyone who has experienced similar judgement.
Judgements regarding character and identity are often more subtle in real life. People may congratulate our progress or offer praise, but they do so in a voice that says that they are giving the same encouragement to you as they would give to an infant who just learned how to make it to the toilet before voiding his excrement.
Although I’ve drawn a humorous analogy, the realization that you have been permanently “chained to the potty” in the mind of someone you love is extremely painful. Some time last year I was with someone who has known me almost my whole life, whose judgement and approval meant a great deal. I’d done some amazing things and helped a lot of people in my life with limited resources, and I had thought that this person believed in me in spite of my bad habits, disabilities and poor choices. However, in that conversation I realized that in their view, I had made one too many mistakes to be thought of as an adult. It struck me in a way that, if I hadn’t already been through much greater pain, would have really hurt.
That’s when I came to a profound paradigm shift in my definition of heroism. As the central characters in our own lives, we all see ourselves as heroes (at least on some level). In my life, I have had to accept that I can’t change certain parts of myself with my own volition. I can’t make myself perfect, as Jesus commanded us to be perfect. I have desires that are hardwired into my mind and, without help, I can’t deal with them properly.
I heard about Flatlanders and the Vineyard Church from my friend Will, at a time in my life when I was trying to change myself on my own and doing it unsuccessfully. I woke up one Sunday in the Salvation Army in 2015. I didn’t have time to shower because they herd everybody out early so they can clean, so I just washed my face, came to the Vineyard, and sat as far away from the stage as I could. I really hated myself. I wasn’t dressed for church. The only reason I went was because my friend said this place was different, and I knew I needed to hear something encouraging. I was standing in the back, trying to be as unnoticeable as possible.
While I was planning my escape, Pastor Nathan walked up to me. He was extremely kind. He asked me how I was and I told him not good. He asked, “can I pray for you brother?” I said “sure”. Then he put his hand on my shoulder. But instead of swaying back and forth, pulsating his speech, Nathan’s gesture was familiar and comforting. He talked to God like a normal person. Not only that, without knowing me he managed to pray precisely for everything I was struggling with. During worship that day, I genuinely felt the Holy Spirit for the first time. God actually felt present.
I had grown up in the church, but it had often felt like very few Christians had an authentic identity or original thoughts. There was a span of three to four years where all we discussed in Winnipeg home-groups was the Purpose Driven Life, and you couldn’t go to any Christian program without hearing a girl sing “Jesus take the wheel”. Our heroes were people like Rick Warren, Tim Tebow, and Carrie Underwood. And ever since junior high, Christians around me would extol the virtues these people. The whole world of evangelical churches loved Tim Tebow because he was an NFL quarterback and kept his virginity. That’s great, but my conception of what a hero is has shifted. After living with different people and interacting with many characters in the community at drop-in, I don’t see sick or mentally ill people. I see characters with stories. And I measure people not by what they have, but by what they have overcome. We’re all tragic heroes.
At Flatlanders, nobody is “chained to the potty.” When my neighbour is struggling I see a hero. This is a place of evolution. Jesus commanded “be perfect as Your Heavenly Father is perfect.” Flatlanders isn’t just transitional housing where we live until we can afford a bigger place. It’s a community where we support each other to grow toward that perfection daily. Ever since that day Nathan prayed for me, I catch myself when I get frustrated and begin thinking less of people. At Flatlanders, I learned to separate my emotions from my pride so that the response I make towards someone, even when I know I’m right, will preserve their dignity and maintain trust.
Ever since my uncle passed away last year. I’ve asked myself what my legacy will be? I want it to be in moments of encouragement like the one I had with Nathan. And in the people I help build. The Flatlanders community is the spiritual soil that is helping me realize what the fully perfected version of myself looks like. And I am sincerely grateful to everyone who has helped create and maintain this awesome place to live.
—Alan Klassen has lived at Flatlanders since early 2016