Interview with Jeremy Zehr – by Erica Fehr (edited transcript)
Hello, Jeremy, thank you for taking time to talk to me today.
I’ve been using the term “high risk population” for your neighbourhood in Winnipeg’s North End. Is that an accurate term?
Yeah, I think so. I don’t tend to use that language. Some people do and that’s okay. We tend to say neighbours and friends. I mean, as we try to communicate about some of the challenges that people face, we might use vulnerable folks; we might use those living in low-income neighborhoods. That would be a little bit more of how we would describe it, but I’m not opposed to that language.
Thank you. I will try to use your language. What drew you to your neighbourhood?
I was drawn to the North End when I was in university. I felt a longing to be part of this community in particular. As I was kind of formulating what the calling was and what my direction in life was, being able to live in a community where maybe it’s more on the fringes, more overlooked you know—poverty—those areas was where my heart went. It was more than just wanting to go to help. It was very much a sense that I wanted to become part of the community, and my wife Teresa as well was on board with that.
Have you personally walked alongside people who have died by suicide?
I have not been close to someone who themselves has died to suicide. I have walked with people who have had family members die and who have grown up with people who died by suicide. In our community there is a higher risk of suicide, but I also think of folks who are at risk of dying of overdose deaths. There’s a similarity in the reasons why they go there and are at risk of dying in that way. Even though it’s not necessarily labeled a suicide and we don’t know for sure where that person was at the time, we do know that a lot of people who are using drugs to that degree—taking more and more, or they add drugs in—there is often an awareness that “I could die of this” and sometimes people are looking for that. They are looking for escape and sometimes it is a desire to leave their life here. So, I have been close to situations where overdose death has happened.
What skills do you need to have in these situations?
There is training that is helpful around suicide prevention. What comes to mind though, is being able to listen to someone who is expressing their deep pain, which in a case of suicide or thoughts of suicide, includes speaking about death or self-harm. So being able to listen to someone in that situation without needing to give answers is huge. Allowing people to feel safe to share whatever they are thinking, whatever they are feeling without judgement—that is a huge starting point for being able to enter into the situations in a helpful way and in a loving way. Also knowing some of the basic questions to ask around safety for a person who is suicidal and knowing when to call for emergency help.
Is it hard to teach yourself not to talk, but to listen?
That takes practice and it continues to take discipline even after doing it a number of years, absolutely. I think one of the responses to pain, to seeing someone in such pain, is that we want to make it better for them, and one of the ways we, I, or many of us will respond then is trying to give answers or to convince them otherwise—convince them to not think or feel that way or point towards what’s good in their lives. There may be a place for that, but I believe it’s important that is not the go-to in a situation like this, so to be able to resist that urge is quite important.
When you’re walking alongside people and you’re required to walk in it with them, that must take a toll. How do you manage that?
Yeah, we do recognize a need for caring for each other as a team, so our ICYA team members are important to be able to debrief with. If we don’t have a team member around, then sometimes, I’ll debrief with my wife. It’s very important to have somebody to talk to after a fairly intense emotional situation. There could potentially be some secondary trauma that can come out in intense situations like this too, so to be able to have that rhythm where we can go talk to someone else that we know and trust in. I think it’s important that we’re not carrying it on our own.
That is part of the balancing act—to know how to release the heaviness of a situation like this as we’re walking out of it, knowing that ultimately it is not up to us to save this person. I think that is a temptation too—to feel that pressure, to feel that responsibility. And while we do have some responsibility to care for them to the ability we can, once we do what we can—you know calling for emergency help—then it’s pretty clear it’s out of my hands, at least for the time being.
But it might not have gone to that degree. We might be walking out of a situation where this person has kind of come to a settled place and we don’t feel like they’re going to harm themself right now. Then we need to walk out of that and be able to give that person back to God and to know that God is one who holds them. Ultimately, we need to lean on that, and we have to come back to that, whether we’re going into the situation or whether we’re leaving the situation. That’s not easy to do but it’s essential to be able to—to continue to have the heart space to go in and out of those situations when necessary.
What gives you hope?
I think the foundation for my hope in these situations is that I firmly believe that person that I’m going to spend time with carries the image of God in them. That’s how God created them and so for me that never changes no matter what’s going on with that person. To me, that is hopeful. I can also speak that when necessary in certain situations as encouragement to that person if it’s an appropriate situation.
I also am hopeful and hope-filled from the resilience I see in so many people in our community. There are situations where I know people have multiple close family members who have died either by suicide or overdose deaths and they continue to persevere in the midst of that. They continue to find their way and that’s hopeful to me and that shows me that there’s a lot of strength in people.
What would you want people to know about your ministry, especially if they’re joining a ministry like yours?
So those who are getting involved in work that is similar to this, I would say it’s important to know that it’s not up to you, as the ministry worker or helper coming in, to change what’s going on. It’s not up to you to save people from their circumstances, from the pain that they have going on. But there’s a lot to learn about God’s love—about the way of Jesus as you walk with and get to know people in our community—people who deal with a lot of hardship and who have suffered. I feel and I believe one of the most important things is that we come into ministry in these communities ready to learn, ready to allow God to teach us about who God is. Part of that is being willing to enter into broken places and into those situations that include a lot of suffering. I think that’s something I would like people to keep in mind.
What would you say was your biggest change as you learned?
For me what comes to mind is that I can, and I need to trust God in these situations. That no matter what happens, God is still here—that God is still working and moving—bringing light and life even if it’s not the way I would want it to be, or the way I vision it to be.
There’s a certain amount of giving up what I think should be done and what I think should happen and being willing to continue to walk with people and walk in situations even though they’re very uncomfortable and there’s a lot of pain and suffering and injustice. But God is still here and the more I have that mentality, the more I actually see it. I mean, I think it’s quite clear that that was who Jesus was. That comes out pretty clearly in the Gospels and so that gives me hope. If I can humbly follow the way of Jesus, as insufficient as it is, obviously very imperfectly, but if I can enter in with a heart that maybe reflects Jesus a little bit, then I can trust that God is working in me and despite me.
Thank you very much, Jeremy.
Jeremy Zehr is Community Minister with Inner City Youth Alive serving in Winnipeg’s North End.