Monday, February 20, 2012

The Dr Peter Centre Diaries, Part 1

Earlier this year I published an article in the local paper about  a woman I had met on the ferry around Christmas time. In the piece, I mentioned that she had been visiting her brother who was with the Dr Peter AIDS Centre in Vancouver. It was only a short time after that article came out that I received a touching and heartwarming letter from Dr Peter's mother, Shirley, inviting me to come visit and volunteer for a day.

Wednesday 8 February was that day.

It began when Marielle and Shoghi got up very early to take me to the ferry. Shoghi had wanted to come with me, and I would have loved to take him, but you have to be 19 to enter the building.

Now, I have to say, I wasn't really sure what to expect. I mean, I knew that it was a place for people with HIV, that there were some beds available for people who needed hospice care, that there was a lot of counseling and medical stuff going on, as well as that they worked with many who were homeless and hungry. I got all that from the web-site. I knew they did good work.

And I've been to many hospitals, hospices, rehab centres, care centres, and in every single one of them, the majority of the people look like they have the weight of the world on their shoulders. This place is different.

The first thing I noticed when I walked in, besides the beautiful and welcoming entry hall, was that everyone was smiling. That gave me an immediate good feeling, beyond what I got when I had received the initial invitation.

But perhaps I should go back a bit. What is the Dr Peter Center, and how did it begin? A whirlwind history is that Dr Peter had just finished his doctorate degree in medicine back in the late 80s when he was diagnosed with HIV. He approached the CBC about recording a weekly diary about his experience with the disease and, over the next few years, won himself a wide audience of admirers for his courage, wisdom and spiritual ideas. After he passed away, the Dr Peter Foundation was started in his name, and based on his principles. (You can find lots more info in other areas and I don't want to repeat it all here.)

There I was, in the hallway, wondering what to do. I introduced myself to Kamal, who was standing behind the front desk sorting something.

Aside: Kamal has one of the most difficult jobs in the building, as far as I can tell, and he does it admirably. His job is to greet the people who come in and make sure they get where they need to go. This is particularly difficult because he has to greet people without inadvertently offending them. Given some of the tensions that people can be facing when they arrive, it is truly amazing how well he does this.

So there I was, a stranger who had just been been given a beautiful smiling thanks by a man for whom I held open the door, and now wondering what to do.

I went to the desk and said, "Hi. My name is Mead..." and got no further than that when someone poked her head from around the corner and said, "Oh! You're Mead." That was to prove the motif for the day. "Oh", I would hear over and over again, "you're Mead." Those three words can often prove to be a disappointment, when the first word is stressed, or a blessing, when the second word is emphasized. Here it boded of excitement that someone would come so far just to volunteer for the day. Little did they know that the real blessing was mine.

It was only a few moments later that I met Shirley, dressed in her apron, serving breakfast to all who came her way. She greeted me with a warmth and a smile that made me feel even more welcome than before. And I then understood that no matter what she would think, I knew I had found the heart of the Centre.

The next few hours were a bit of a blur as I met many people and was given the tour. I want to tell you all about the people I met, and the things I saw, but I'll save that for later. As you can tell from this wildly all over the place article, it was a bit of a whirlwind for me. I wanted to give you a bit of the sense that I felt while I was there: joy, being overwhelmed and welcomed, and a sense of curiosity. Over the next few days I'm going to try and show a couple of the things they are doing there, but for now I want to share one little story.

I had the wonderful bounty of talking with Shirley a bit more later in the morning, and I told her about that line from 'Abdu'l-Baha that had confused me for so long. I've written about it here in the past, but I think it bears repeating. "The good deeds of the righteous are the sins of the Near Ones."

She seemed to really focus on me when I said that line from Some Answered Questions and asked me to share what I had learned from it. I said that, to me, it meant that many of us would feel good about giving money to support a cause such as the Centre, and that this donation would be a righteous deed. It would be a good thing to help support it in that way.

But for others, to merely give money would not be enough. They would need to get to know the actual people involved. They would need to pour out their heart and soul, the sweat and their blood. To merely give something as superficial as money would practically be a sin to them.

This, I said, is what I saw in her. With all the love that she gave her son, she gives herself to the Centre. She embraces each and every one of the people that the Centre has helped, and regards them as her own children. Dr Peter's sacrifice, for really, what else could you call his last few years on this earth, has really helped grow the tree of her service. Shirley really has become the loving mother of everyone who walks through those doors, for she has seen what they are going through and doesn't see the illness, but the dear soul trapped within the body. Of all the things I saw and learned at the Centre on that rainy Wednesday morning, this is what touched me the most: her loving service.

As 'Abdu'l-Baha said, "Service to humanity is service to God." And "This is worship: to serve mankind and to minister to the needs of the people. Service is prayer." I feel so honoured to have been able to see such a servant in action.

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