On a bright Saturday morning on Thanksgiving weekend, our youth group and other members of the St. Cuthbert’s community gave thanks to God by serving those in need in a community Open Door program.
We visited St. John The Compassionate Mission to give back to the community, but we ended up also receiving a gift from those we went to serve – we were invited into their stories.
St. John The Compassionate Mission is a small Orthodox Christian community that is focused on running a space where people can come to discover their own value. With a variety of projects that are motivated by a deep respect and love for the poor, the organization opens its door to people of all religions and walks of life. Their aim is to build a communal life, amidst the city, that is structured around the reality of God’s love.
The patrons we met at St. John came in to have a meal but it was clear that they were also drawn there by the sense of community emphasised in the St. John setting.
“I didn’t expect it to be a nice social place where everyone could sit and eat. I thought that it would just be a typical sort of café and kitchen where people would just drop in and take their food and go,” says William, one of the youth group members who was particularly impressed by the community setting where most of the patrons obviously knew each other.
Jan and her daughters Alex and Brywn were also among the St. Cuthbert’s members who visited the mission. Jan says she felt a sense of community there in a way she hadn’t felt previously in similar programs.
“I have had experience helping out at food banks. They were much larger places were the focus was on getting the food to the table and serving a lot of the people. So there wasn’t the opportunity to have a conversation,” says Jan. At St. John, we were encouraged to not just serve but to sit among the patrons at the tables and have meals and conversations with them.
We also learned from listening to the stories about the resiliency of many people who live in very abject situations. Jan was especially inspired by the story of a man she conversed with who lives in a tent. He owns a huge grill and usually invites his friends to share in his cook-out.
“Even though he was living in tremendous poverty, here was somebody who was creating social opportunities for others around him because he had something which gave him the opportunity to be the host, provide for others and to reach out a hand. You don’t think of that happening. You think of people who live in the streets huddled and cold and your heart is torn because you think of people being out in the elements.”
Often when we are on the outside looking in, we make judgements, Jan feels. The human spirit is so resilient and the will to survive is really strong – we don’t always appreciate that.
“Here was a man who’s lived on the street all his life and who had a number of incredible coping mechanism to survive and you’ve got to look at that at say, ‘he has blessings and gifts that I am not even aware of.’ It makes you feel like you want to go back and do something. I want my kids to do something,” says Jan.
Sometimes that doing something can be as simple as listening and being aware of what people can do for themselves and what skills they have. In Jan’s case, her conversation with the man at her table began with talking about food and forayed into other topics.
“For me that brought up the whole Christian focus and the focus of the Anglican Church on food being the Word; and the Spirit being the food of life, which drives and empowers us.”
Among the blessings of listening and hearing about their stories is the realization of seeing God in others, including persons who have little or nothing. Jan feels that the Spirit is among people even when they don’t know it is there. “It must have been there for this man. There must be someone looking out for him and maybe he’s not aware of it. It makes you feel very humble and causes me for sure to want to go back and listen again,” says Jan.
It was certainly a good learning experience for all of us, especially for the youth who were surprised that some of the patrons who dropped in were not obviously poor in the way that we typically think of people being poor. William describes becoming aware that poverty can come in many shapes and forms and that the incident of poverty in a developed city like Toronto is more hidden than that of less developed areas of the world.
“I also learnt that the way to solve problems associated with poverty isn’t just with relief but also with restoration,” he notes “And St. John practices restoration in creating a community for its guests.”
Article by Maureen Ononiwu Pastor to Children, Youth and Family