One of my heroes passed away today at the tender young age of 99.
I feel so far away from the community that mourns her in Vancouver. As I was searching for ways to connect and remember, I found an article I wrote about her five years ago. I hope it gives you a window into the life of this woman who so inspired me...
Moments after we walked through the sliding glass doors of her seniors' home, Pauline asked us to lay hands on an elderly resident of her building and pray for healing in his arm. As we knelt obediently and awkwardly around this stranger in the foyer, I thought somewhat sacrilegiously, “God, it's sure going to be hard for you to take Pauline home to be with You – she just won't stop being useful to your kingdom.”
Pauline Fell, who will be 95 years old this February, is the founder of Jacob's Well, our little community in the Downtown Eastside (DTES) of Vancouver, BC. Alberto and Helen, two of my fellow Jacob's Well-ians, accompanied me to visit Pauline. I hoped she would give us some tips about sustaining ministry over the long haul, maybe one or two nuggets of wisdom that would give our community longevity.
Pushing her walker, Pauline padded softly over the carpet to her usual chair by the table. The light from the window shone off her impeccably coiffed silver hair. I opened my laptop and asked her to tell us her story. She grinned, her eyes glinting with an inexplicable youthfulness, and protested, “Come now, you've heard it too many times already!”
Pauline may look like the little old lady in your church who's been praying and volunteering at soup kitchens her whole life, but this is not her story. She didn't even become a Christian until she was in her late fifties. At that point she had already raised children during war times, opened clothing centers for the needy in a couple small towns in BC, raised horses on a ranch, and lost her husband to cancer. It was during her husband's illness that she first spent time in the DTES, among some of the most marginalized people in Canada: injection drug users, people who struggle with their mental health, poor people, and homeless folks. Pauline would regularly visit people in jail, in parks, on street corners, and even in pubs, slowly building relationship with hundreds of DTES residents.
Once she met Christ, Pauline continued her visits, sharing her faith with the friends she'd already made, eager for them to find the same freedom she'd found. She began praying for people to be healed. Her ministry of visitation and healing was largely voluntary and self-initiated, though she found support and friendship among the staff of various Christian missions in the neighbourhood.
Through her seventies and even into her eighties, Pauline would walk the streets and alleys of the DTES almost every day, wearing a cute hat and carrying a purse full of Scriptures she'd printed out to give to her friends. “There were times I'd say to some of the guys, 'Do you want me to pray for you?' They'd say, 'Yeah, mama. Mama's gonna pray for us.' A group of them would gather around me. The police would stop, thinking surely something bad was happening to me. I said, 'Oh no, everything's all right; these boys have asked me to pray for them.' I got to know that they're just boys. They could be anybody's brother or son.”
I asked Pauline if she was ever afraid. I had heard her tell stories of stepping between people who were fighting in the alleys, and sternly confronting friends when they had hurt others. Pauline told me that she had no reason to be afraid. She was respected by most of the neighborhood, and had “heavy-duty dudes” who watched out for her. She described the culture of fear that surrounded her: fear of drug dealers to whom debts were owed, fear of abusive partners, fear of the justice system. Her own lack of fear drew people toward her, and toward Christ, who overcame fear with love.
Ten years ago, at the age of 85, Pauline founded an intentional community in the DTES, not because it was the trendy thing to do, but because she thought it would be the best way to support her friends. In a vision, she saw her friends as an inheritance from the Lord, an inheritance she was being asked to pass on to others, since she was growing old, and would not be able to carry these friendships alone for much longer. She wanted this community to bring together Christians from many denominations, because she had come to believe strongly “that only as we are one will the world be one.” She leased a storefront space, and without much strategy or planning, Jacob's Well was born. Soon, Pauline moved into the neighborhood, right around the corner from Jacob's Well, relocating to be close to the ones she loved most. She would often stop by and bring us boxes of cookies, until a few years ago, when she made the transition into a seniors' home, her new mission field.
After listening to Pauline recount her years on the DTES, I pressed her to tell me the hard stuff. Did she ever feel discouraged? Did she face criticism? Did she ever burn out? Her answers were frustratingly consistent: “It was easy. It was the Lord who opened and closed the doors. I just had to follow His lead and depend on His power. I didn't have any preconceived thoughts about how to do anything. I just went.”
“It's easy.” “Just do it.” These were not the nuggets of wisdom I had been hoping for. The advice sounded simplistic. Yet from the lips of a 95-year-old whom I so respected, they were cause for reflection.
Pauline was a risk-taker, a true individual, feisty, confident, and bold. I was more tentative, doubtful, weighing options, slow to take risks, eager for the consensus and support of my community. I realized that things that came easily to Pauline would not necessarily come easily to me, and that God would likely use us in different ways for the good of His kingdom. The sources that nourished the life of a founder were not necessarily the same as the sustenance God gave to those following in her wake. But this I knew: at the core of Pauline's journey was a relentless obedience to the voice of God, a careful and prayerful discerning of the doors opening and closing to her. As I sat and considered Pauline's life, my longing for myself and for my community was that we would follow Him with the same relentlessness, into brand new adventures, always straining to hear His voice.
As we prepared to leave, Pauline asked if we could pray together. We offered thanks for her life, and the ways she had been faithful to God's call, and the ways her faithfulness was bearing fruit in our lives and the lives of our DTES friends. Her prayer for us was short and simple: that we would be bold witnesses, fearless in proclaiming and living out the love of Christ. These words, spoken so delicately from Pauline's lips, seemed to weigh heavy in the air, falling on us like a mantle.
Of course, she wouldn't let us leave without a box of cookies.