A refuge of acceptance
by Jack Taylor
It’s clear with recent government and social decisions that Christians in Canada have lost the current culture wars. Some of us want to hang on and keep fighting an old battle in old ways but our education, media, and social systems have effectively left us behind. As we continue to fight battles with old ghosts there are many who continue to insist that there is nothing good in religion and nothing relevant for contemporary living.
The black community in Vancouver, which once sheltered around a four-block dirt lane nicknamed Hogan’s Alley, understands that sense of angst and loss as their neighbourhood was bulldozed in the 1960’s to make way for the Georgia Viaduct. Those cement arches were meant to prepare the city for the new way of life during urban renewal as the car culture pushed into the heart of Vancouver. Now those viaducts are being removed, the car culture is being discouraged, and a historical neighbourhood is being hidden in the shadows of skyscrapers.
Former teacher Debbie (Hayes) Austin married Jerry Austin – a Caucasian who became a minister. She spent some of her early years in this neighbourhood which housed Nora Hendrix, grandmother to rocker Jimi Hendrix, and a founding member of the Fountain Chapel. Jimi Hendrix actually attended school in the area as a child. So did dentist Ben Fung and his assistant Irene Chow. The ethnically diverse neighbourhood was home to Italians, Chinese, Japanese and the black community.
Religion held together a diverse community of people neglected or rejected by major elements of the society. It still does, being a foreshadowing of that day when every tribe and tongue and nation gather in perfect unity around the throne of Jesus.
Austin attended the famous Evelyn Ward Dance School during the 1950’s where she took tap, ballet and baton twirling. She marched in PNE parades, tapped in the Kits showboat during summers, and was an opening act at the Queen E. Theater. Religion didn’t stop her from enjoying the breadth of her culture. She eventually became a teacher like many others in her neighbourhood – a teacher who worked to develop a whole new way of thinking and tolerance into a new generation.
Austin says the truth was “no one else in Vancouver would rent to the blacks – they couldn’t even get service in the pubs.” The black community, made up of Afro-American porters working for the Great Northern Railway, opened the door to later infusions of black Alberta homesteaders and then finally members from the Caribbean immigrants. Vie’s Chicken and Steak House and the Pullman Porter’s Club were gathering places. They nestled in among the emerald green with white trim houses of the Italians.
Few even remember that we’ve just glided past Black History Month. The numerous families of porters and entertainers who congregated in the Strathcona area between Union and Prior streets from Main to Jackson Avenue made it a stronghold of delicious food and jazz. The train station pulled them together like a magnet where they could work. The place that welcomed newcomers still does.
In the middle of it all stood the African Methodist Episcopal Fountain Chapel (founded in 1923).
Fielding William Spotts Jr. was the first black Baptist in Western Canada and he settled in the neighbourhood.
Austin was part of the mainly Afro-American Standard Church (Salvation Army) where leaders emphasized a love for all nations because of the tensions many of their family members still faced in the United States.
Verbal abuse and racism was strong at school and Austin’s mother did her best to prepare Debbie with godly responses. The focus on love instead of prejudice in the church led to many interracial marriages in the 1950’s- 1960’s. Austin’s mother, Vivian worked for the Bay and for Jimmy Pattison’s News office. The family lived in a small quarters above Mr. Yip’s store on Campbell Avenue across from the Sacred Heart Church. The two children were dressed in their best “so others wouldn’t have the impression that we were prostitutes or drug addicts.” The Keeping it Real picnic brought everyone together on the third week of every August.
Austin’s father, Cleveland, stressed professionalism and hard work. The message was drilled in deep – “do better than me.” He bought the portering company he worked for and then sold it. He bought a home in the Killarney area of Vancouver and paid it off in five years. He spent 46 years working as a porter at the Vancouver airport where he made good friendships with influential people.
Churches, especially in the city, have proved to be crucial gathering places for newcomers where familiar cultures can be embraced, new friends made, a safe refuge of acceptance and grace created, and a foundation for new starts can be shared. Nowadays, the faces and races may be different but for Austin, and others like her, a church for all nations still gives a taste of heaven. Austin continues to be a community change agent for good.