Explorations in Love Beyond Personal Bias: A Theology of Friendship1

One day he [Francis] was riding his horse near Assisi, when he met a leper. And, even though he usually shuddered at lepers, he made himself dismount, and gave him a coin, kissing his hand as he did so. After he accepted a kiss of peace from him, Francis remounted and continued on his way. He then began to consider himself less and less, until, by God’s grace, he came to complete victory over himself.

After a few days, he moved to a hospice of lepers, taking with him a large sum of money. Calling them all together, as he kissed the hand of each, he gave them alms. When he left there, what before had been bitter, that is, to see and touch lepers, was turned into sweetness. “


This excerpt from the Life of St. Francis of Assisi is the inspiration for this paper. Our community, the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, has been called the poorest postal code in Canada and other unflattering names. One could say, our community is considered a leprosarium by the rest of the city and the country. Unfortunately, we may be guilty ourselves of treating other community members as if they were lepers. That said, this work first explores two types of violence, eurocentrism and lateral violence, and how this violence is expressed as bias on societal and local levels. Eurocentrism is normalized and expressed as bias, while lateral violence is often unnamed and ignored. I aim to construct a theology of friendship that can move us to love beyond our personal biases. It is important to say at the outset that although this paper is expressed from a Christian worldview, it is based on the premise that regardless of whether we have a religious affiliation or not, we are all the children of one Creator, or for those with a more scientific bent, we are all created from the cosmic dust of the Big Bang.

Exploring the Problem

The North American societal form of violence is systemic “othering”. Again, in the North American context, this form of violence looks at the world through a eurocentric lens. In this view of the world, people of European descent see themselves as the “norm” and everyone else as “ethnic” or “other”. This view fails to see European ethnicities as simply one group of regional ethnicities among the world’s many regional ethnicities. Rather, the eurocentric perspective deem as “ethnic” or “other” peoples that they have, at one time or another, colonized or oppressed. Therefore, peoples who have been colonized are less valued. Classism intersects with eurocentrism, so that poor and less educated people of European descent are also less valued, although their chances of social mobility are greater than those that are racialized. The Eurocentric view equates abuse of power with superiority rather than with the systemic violence that it actually is. This willful blindness leads to entrenched social injustice.

The injustice is expressed in an unfavourable bias against the marginalized and racialized, which seeps into all systems including economic opportunity, social mobility, educational opportunity and housing, to name a few. For example, in the Downtown Eastside slum lords are allowed to neglect their rental properties with impunity well beyond legal inhabitability until the City condemns the property. The former tenants have difficulty finding new accommodation because of the lack of affordable house. In addition, landlords discriminate against people on social assistance, Indigenous Peoples and people of colour. The tenants become homeless. Homelessness makes it difficult, if not impossible, to get or maintain a job. The resulting despair can lead to self-destructive life choices. The education system is geared to feed an economic system that demands an underclass. It is slanted to ensure intergenerational poverty. The latest assault on our community is gentrification, where new businesses, residential developments and their occupants are pushing out the older, poorer, and darker Downtown Eastside residents. The City is helping this along by relaxing the height restrictions on buildings in the area. In cases where the new buildings provide a few social housing units for local people, there is the discriminatory practice of having a separate entrance for poor folks. Systems of social injustice converge and intersect in the Downtown Eastside. Added to all of this, for Indigenous residents and residents of colour, a lifetime of enduring racism is an assault on the psyche that is spirit-killing. Systemic social injustice is the author of lateral violence in those who are marginalized.

In most of the literature on lateral violence it is used to describe behaviour within racial minority communities. With regard to our neighbourhood, Jens Korff offers a more appropriate definition. He states,

Lateral violence is a term that describes the way people in positions of powerlessness, covertly or overtly direct their dissatisfaction inward toward each other, toward themselves, and toward those less powerful than themselves2

Examples of lateral violence towards others include, gossiping, cliques in churches, verbal disrespect such as verbalizing racial slurs, blaming others, backstabbing, failure to respect privacy, and broken trust.3 Self-directed lateral violence includes addictions and other forms of self-harm.

The powerlessness to confront the architects of our marginalization felt by those of us who are marginalized only partly explains lateral violence. Negative characterizations and stereotypes of poor people, people of colour and Indigenous people are normalized by the dominant narrative. Another factor in lateral violence is the internalization of these negative characterizations by those of us on the periphery. From childhood, we hear negative views of who we are. We begin to view ourselves in the same way. For some of us this internalization is expressed in addiction or other self-harming behaviours. This then expands to the way we view other members of our group, which can make us complicit in the systemic bias perpetrated against our own by the dominant society.

So far, I have given one perspective of how bias affects the Downtown Eastside from the macro to the micro level. Now, I want to explore a theology of friendship, that moves from the individual to the societal.

Developing Love Within and Without

Earlier, I said that our neighbourhood is seen as a metaphorical leprosarium by those who don’t live here. Many of us have internalized how others see us. By taking another look at the Great Commandment as written in Matthew 22:37-40, perhaps we can find a way to befriend ourselves.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” 40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’

Most Christians are familiar with this passage but I want bring attention to verse 39, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” What is often overlooked is the importance of loving oneself. That means reaching deep and seeing ourselves with all our faults but also with all our gifts. We are not lepers but we have internalized negative perceptions of ourselves that are leprous. It may be difficult and take time but it is essential for our healing and growth. We have to learn to love and befriend ourselves. The reward for doing this work is that we can then turn those bitter leprous thoughts about ourselves into a healthy self-love. We will then be able to embrace ourselves as the children of God that we are. In order to love one’s neighbour as oneself, one has to love oneself. Secure in who we are, we are then able to reach out in love to our neighbours.

Another outcome of internalizing negative opinions of ourselves is that we project these characteristics on others. This can cause the lateral violence mentioned above. But we can choose to get off this down escalator by choosing to step out of our comfort zone. We can choose to take part in the many life enhancing activities in our neighbourhood. Some of us are members of one of the local churches that provide us with a social network. Some of us do not have that. The beauty of our neighbourhood is there are also many opportunities to take part in arts or cultural pursuits in one of the local groups. For example, every year the Heart of the City Festival takes place in venues all around the Downtown Eastside. The work of the groups who take part in the festival work all year long. Every year there is a callout for people to participate. To participate one doesn’t have to be an artist, actor, musician or skilled. One gets to know people and learn something new in the process of participating.

The 2003 inaugural event, the Downtown Eastside Community Play: In the Heart of a City, is an example of a project that brought neighbourhood people from all walks of life together. As people worked together day after day for months, they began to learn each others stories. They got to know each other. Race, economic status, and other social indicators no longer mattered. Participants began to expand their wells of compassion. People who would never have socialized with each other before, became friends. Most of those friendships have endured from 2003 until today. The play and the subsequent festivals are just one avenue of how we can participate in activities that help us go beyond the familiar, grow in compassion, all the while expanding our circles of friends.

All of us are wired to be concerned about situations that affect our friends. It is in our nature to want to rejoice with them when they are happy and to commiserate with them when they are hurting. Through individual friendships broadened out to form group and coalitions, we can begin the work of addressing systemic injustices. What follows is a perspective on friendship rooted in the Gospel and is based on the belief that social justice is a Gospel imperative.

Love is a verb: The call to action

The parable of the Good Samaritan in the Gospel of Luke4 is the perfect example of loving beyond personal biases by expanding and clarifying the command to “love your neighbour as yourself.” The Samaritans were despised and thought to be ritually unclean by the people of Judea because they did not worship in a way that was considered ritually proper by the Jewish religious leaders. To paraphrase the story, two Jewish religious leaders see a man on the road who has been robbed, stripped and beaten and they pass him by. A Samaritan sees the man, tends to his wounds and brings him to an inn. He gives the innkeeper a deposit and promises to return to pay the rest of the bill when he returns, which he does. The story ends with Jesus telling his listeners to “go and do likewise.”

The two heroes of this story are the Samaritan who was moved to compassion beyond his bias and the innkeeper, who trusted the Samaritan even though he was a Samaritan. I suggest that this story is about individual acts of compassion but it also points to collective compassion, solidarity and action. The Vancouver Catholic Workers (VCW) and its Samaritan House are a concrete example of what is being suggested.

Sarah, myself and a few others wanted to do something that would be a response to the call to follow the Gospel. We found the perspective of the Catholic Worker Movement a good fit and opened Samaritan House in June 1998. Since then, Samaritan House has been providing a place to stay for ideally, up to three people but have housed five in a pinch. People have stayed with us from one night to five years.

We don’t take in people in active addiction or newly in recovery because we live too close to temptation to be helpful. We can’t take in persons with severe mental illness because we are not qualified in this area. Otherwise, anyone is welcome as long as we have room. We live in a single-family home and try to model family for our guests. We don’t charge rent because we want people to save what money they have for when they move out on their own. We invite them to pray and worship with us but it is not a requirement.

Sarah and I support the house from our own funds but do accept and receive outside contributions. Likewise, Sarah and I are the permanent residents of the house but there is a small group of Vancouver Catholic Workers who live elsewhere but worship with us. After my ordination to the priesthood, the Our Lady of Guadalupe Tonantzin (OLGT) worship community began with members of this group.

The VCW is part of an international movement that does more than provide hospitality. OLGT does more than pray. We also works for peace and justice. For example, the VCW and OLGT together work to put reconciliation into action in three ways. First by educating ourselves on the issues. Secondly, by standing side by side with our local Indigenous leaders as they seek justice with regard to their lands and waters and lastly by attending monthly prayer vigils held outside the Watch House on Burnaby Mountain.

Locally, decent affordable and social housing is a major issue in our neighbourhood. We stood with the people demonstrating for decent housing and have worked to elect City councillors who are serious about addressing this issue.

Some issues call for individual action. However, to get local, provincial and federal politicians to address issues within their jurisdiction, it takes collective action. Systemic injustice such as racism, economic inequality, and inadequate housing, all call for collective action.

I have tried to show, using the VCW/ OLGT as an example that “love of neighbour” calls us to go beyond personal friendships. It calls us to let that love spiral outwards toward the common good. “To love” is a verb that calls us to add action to our thoughts and prayers.


Although time and space constraints do not allow for delving into all the issues in the Downtown Eastside. I have tried to provide enough substance to show that a theology of friendship includes a call to work for the resolution of local as well as national and global issues that adversely affect our community and beyond. A theology of friendship extends to the human and also includes the non-human world. It promotes a loving concern that begins with us and grows to include all parts of God’s creation.

The theology of friendship that I suggest in this paper can be summed up in this way: to learn to love oneself is the first step in loving others in an ever-expanding spiral of inclusion. In so doing, it moves us to love beyond our personal biases. A theology of friendship entails learning about, praying for, and actively working for the well-being of all others.

About the Author:

Victoria Marie is an activist and co-founder of the Vancouver Catholic Worker.  Pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Tonantzin Inclusive Catholic Community, she is an ordained priest with the Roman Catholic Woman Priests Canada. She has been a spiritual director since 1997 and worked in parish ministry as the coordinator of adult religious education for six years in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver until 2002.  Her social justice interests have taken her to Kenya and Mexico; to Colombia with Witness for Peace; and to Asubpeeschoseewagong Netum Anishnabek (Grassy Narrows First Nation) in north-western Ontario with Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT). In addition to spiritual direction and her pastoral ministry, she author of Transforming Addiction: The role of spirituality in learning recovery from addiction (Scholars Press, 2014).

1 This paper was first presented at the 2019 Downtown Eastside (Vancouver) Constructive Theology Conference on November 16, 2019

2 Korff, Jens.2018. Bullying & lateral violence - Creative Spirits, retrieved from https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/people/bullying-lateral-violence#toc

3 Embree, Jennifer L. and Ann H White. “Concept analysis: nurse-to-nurse lateral violence.” Nursing forum 45 3 (2010): 166-73 .

4 Luke 10:29-37: ‘And who is my neighbour?’ 30Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” 36Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ 37He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’

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