First United Church in East Vancouver describes itself as “a community at the margins.” The surrounding neighborhood on East Hastings hosts perhaps the largest outdoor assemblage of addicts, pushers, prostitutes, and mentally-disturbed persons in North America. The church itself houses as many as three hundred homeless people a night.
First United also is the place of sanctuary for an American war resister, 32-year old Rodney Watson. Since he can be arrested by Canadian and US authorities if he ventures outside, for one year Watson has taken asylum from war in an asylum of homeless misfits.
Next week the Canadian parliament is expected to hear a bill proposing humanitarian grounds for granting asylum in the country. Watson’s application for permanent resident status is on hold. About 40 other American war resisters are seeking asylum in Canada, where nearly 80,000 were given protection during the Vietnam War.
Each day Watson waives goodbye to his Canadian wife and two-year old son as they venture out of the church to shop, go to the parks and enjoy the amenities of Vancouver’s celebrated urban life.
An African-American from Kansas City, Watson joined the US army and was dispatched to Iraq in 2006. Back home, he had been holding down a well-paying job in an auto shop until the economy slowed down and he was laid off.
He grew up around the gangs of St. Louis –- Bloods, Crips, Folks, MS 13 -– and saw several friends die in the streets. When he lost his job, a dope dealer friend fronted him some weed to make a little money. Watson refused, and the dealer happened to be murdered the next day. It was a sign. Watson joined the Army.
He signed up as a cook on a three-year contract, imagining that he would open a diner back in Kansas City one day. Instead he was deployed to a unit defusing car bombs in Mosul.
Think Hurt Locker without the Academy Awards.
Every day Watson suited up and went looking for car bombs. He examined thousands of cars. It was 120 degrees and, he recalls, “I could hear my sweat sizzling.”
He has no idea how he survived. Perhaps a sheik he befriended was looking out for him. Otherwise it was random luck, the kind that runs out.
Just before his Army contract expired, Watson received word he was going back to Iraq on a unilateral extension of the contract, under the Army’s stop-loss policy.
He went home to Kansas City on a brief leave, and measured his options. His luck around car-bombs was sure to end in an explosion at some point. He was tired of the racial epithets in the Army towards the “sand niggers”, as Iraqis were called. “It reminded me of home.”
Keeping his thoughts to himself, he considered going to Mexico. Then while watching Tyra Banks one day, he was struck by some televised footage of Vancouver. It looked wonderful, an oasis of the North.
“So I hugged my parents good-bye, told them I was going back to Fort Hood,” he said, then took off for the Canadian border by Greyhound.
At the border, he remembers how a Canadian agent looked him over –- a nervous black American, of military age -– then smiled, said “c’mon” and waived him through.
In Vancouver, he had $2,000 and nowhere to go. For a time he lived in a hotel for $20 a night, and walked the streets looking for work. He took a chance and told someone at a hostel of his plight. “You’re not going anywhere,” he was reassured, and soon he was doing construction work as an immigrant without papers. That lasted for two years, until the day that the letter came from the immigration authorities.
Instead of turning himself over for deportation back to a US prison, Watson joined the small Canadian underground of resisters first built during Vietnam, which still exists to offer support, housing, jobs, and legal advice to anyone resisting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
That’s why he took refuge in the First United Church on September 18, 2009, one year ago this week. With Watson, when he entered the sanctuary, were two members of the Canadian parliament and the First United pastor, Rev. Ric Matthews, a native of South Africa. Rev. Matthews takes Christianity seriously. In a letter this year to President Obama, he wrote that he hopes for “meaningful conversation” about the issues of “war, personal accountability, conscientious objection and basic justice” underlying Watson’s case. He hasn't heard back.
Watson still sits in his self-made prison. When the wife and child go outside, he admits it hurts a bit. He has difficulty sleeping sometimes. His weight has increased. He keeps himself busy corresponding with his 643 Facebook friends. And he waits. The military could invade the church at any moment.
Meanwhile, the homeless addicts around First United treat his family reasonably well. But he’s aware that his transition in life has been from The Hurt Locker to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Howling incoherent arguments continually erupt, and sometimes fist-fights too, on the doorstep of the place he calls home. It, too, is a war zone.