Of Seeger, Squamish and social justice 

United Church minister sees some hope for the homeless

Daniel Bogert-O’Brien has a newspaper clipping tacked to his office door at the United Church of Squamish. The story is about folk musician and political activist Pete Seeger, who, in O’Brien’s eyes, was one of the social justice movement’s founding fathers, a man of spiritual verve and moral tenacity. In a very real way, Seeger was O’Brien’s catalyst. Footage of his 1963 concert We Shall Overcome triggered a spiritual reflex in the outspoken minister and advocate for the homeless.

“I was really struck by what I call the spiritual element of his concerts,” says O’Brien, his eyes casting about one of the few overstuffed bookshelves that help characterize his downtown office. “It was all about social justice, and yet it’s just spiritual stuff, just a power that works in human community, for the well-being of human community.”

Human community is something O’Brien spends a lot of time worrying about. In his position as minister, he regularly deals with Squamish’s homeless population, and he sits on the district’s social planning council, a body committed to tooling solutions for those people left behind in these prosperous times. He also sits on a branch of the Helping Hands Society, the organization that runs Squamish’s drop-in centre and emergency shelter.

“It’s pretty bad news in Squamish,” he says. “It’s a difficult group. Some are very hard to house because they have multiple issues, mental health and drug issues. We need to see these as problems. And some of those problems are on the edge of legality because they don’t buy drugs from a guy in a pharmacy — they get them from a guy in a jean jacket in a crack house.”

Sitting in O’Brien’s office, it’s easy to see why local homeless might seek him out. And that they do; there’s even a man who sometimes sleeps outside his office window.

Maybe it’s the minister himself. With a thick head of hair and a full beard, glasses stuck on the edge of his nose and lanky body relaxed and reclined, he’s very much a compelling figure, someone you want to listen to. Even his office puts you at ease, with his banjo resting in a chair as a candle flickers next to some prayer books, a clock ticking quietly beneath the conversation.

The whole effect stems from his past. Even before seeing We Shall Overcome , O’Brien’s mind was inclined towards social justice. The Great War traumatized one of his grandfathers, while the other was the first caretaker of Burnaby’s Central Park.

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