No Teddy Bear’s Picnic


“I want our people to have the best Christmas banquet ever!”

The audacity and insight of this new guy who’d been three months on the job and already, apparently, knew about all the other banquets held in the city and their quality. NOT! Nor was I aware that YSM’s Evergreen Centre possessed only one stove, with no oven and a single working burner.

Still, the small but dedicated Evergreen staff staged a banquet complete with turkeys, cooked at staff homes, and carried to Evergreen in gym bags, creating an aromatic confusion among their fellow TTC travellers. Appetizers, veggies and desserts came compliments of churches and volunteers. Decorations were provided by my executive assistant and our public relations person.

The best Christmas banquet ever? Not likely, but still, it was amazing, right down to the colored-water centerpieces. I had wanted brandy snifters with goldfish.“They will drink them and the fish” I was informed. Wisely – even the colored water didn’t last through the appetizers.

Evergreen Christmas Banquet, 1983

Between 100 and 120 people feasted royally, and I was on a cloud, amazed by what unfolded before my eyes – until I watched men stuffing mashed potatoes into their dirty jacket pockets. I can still see one guy in a much-handed-down sports jacket stuffing both pockets. I couldn’t believe it, or understood what I was witnessing.

Later, during our evaluation, there was much to celebrate. We had given our best, abundantly, building on small insights gleaned from Jesus as he produced excellent food and wine at levels that guaranteed seconds and leftovers.

But I couldn’t get beyond the mashed potatoes. Although we decided the event more than met our expectations, and that we’d repeat it the following year, I vowed there would be no stuffing food into pockets: take-away food bags were our answer.

A year later we surpassed the year prior, in quantity, quality, decor and celebration. At the first of the evening, right before blessing the food, I announced we had take-away sandwich bags. “Complete with your choice of turkey or ham sandwiches plus an apple, orange, chocolate bar and a drink”. To drive my point home, I noted that we had sufficient bags “for you and your friend who couldn’t make it out tonight.”

“Take two!” I proclaimed believing that would provide two more meals for each guest.

“Take two” they did, and also stuffed food into their pockets.

My education as the new director had begun in earnest. The term “food security” had yet to be coined but on my second Christmas at the Mission I learned that when people are not sure when, or where, their next meal would appear, they might stuff food in their pockets.

Today vocabulary such as “food security” helps us feel intelligent and professional, when we actually are describing unconscionable realities. And I now accept and understand that when basics like food, clothing, medicine or shelter are not consistently available, then people in extreme need will always be tempted to grab all their arms, pockets or pack-sacks will carry. If I were chronically hungry or trying to feed my kids, I’d do the same.

We may call it “theft,” as though a crime; or “hoarding,” as though a mental illness; or “breaking the rules,” a violation of social norms. But we apply those labels only to the needy.

To ourselves, we apply a different vocabulary. “Smart business” covers everything from good efficient operations that earn a reasonable return, to over-charging, price gouging and unfair competition. We may be less than forthright on our taxes, or stingy with family, and call it “frugal.” Regardless, we’re just stuffing our pockets.

And what “need” compels us to fill our homes and closets, basements and storage units? Or drives our view of retirement, and the funds needed to be “comfortable?”  We don’t call it hoarding: we speak of wise investment, and planning for the future. But coupled with the sensible provision for the future is an underlying insecurity about having “enough.”

After many years, I finally understand the security that comes with a sandwich in a bag and a pocket full of potatoes. With those, I eat tomorrow.

What I do not understand is why we hoard when we have enough? What security do we find in having more clothing than we can ever wear or enough retirement money for two lifetimes?

Anyone who know me knows I am in no way anti-business, anti-wealth, or anti-savings. And I certainly have no idea what ‘enough” is for someone else: I often don’t know for myself.

But I am confronted by Tobit’s word to his son Tobias: “Give some of your food to the hungry, and some of your clothing to the naked. Give all your surplus as alms” (Tobit 4:16).

That conviction harmonizes nicely with a decision taken years ago by the board of The Yonge Street Mission, that the Mission should never be saving too much money for a “rainy day, because it was raining on people today.”

Blessings to you in the New Year. . .  Rick

The Teddy Bear’s Picnic

We don’t write songs about banquets and feasts for the homeless, at least none that I could find. We do however write songs about Teddy Bear Picnics; so recover your inner child, chill out and enjoy this classic version by Henry Hall and the BBC Dance Orchestra.






Longing for the embrace

charis-nativity-2016Embrace and inclusion, for me, represent the highest manifestation of our aspiration to be a just society. We can do many things to pursue that aspiration but for me, the acid test of justice actualized is embrace: Do we belong to each other? Are we a people together? Are we inclusive?

The Nativity story is infused with the spirit of inclusiveness. Mary demonstrates it as she welcomes “shepherds” into her primitive delivery room. Shepherds, anonymous, impoverished, and of the lowest possible status were considered culturally unclean and excluded from the community and its religious life. Imagine such a group showing up at your house for Christmas or for the birth of your child.

And while they wouldn’t appear for a year or more, eventually came the Magi, the “wise men” with their gifts both valuable and symbolic. They were, perhaps, even more distant from Mary and Joseph’s world than the Shepherds, rich guys who could afford a speculative vacation, with a newborn King as the end of their vision quest. They were culturally and socially removed from every other person in the Holy Family’s life. Yet there they are, hanging with the carpenter’s family on our Christmas cards.

Then of course there was the Little Drummer Boy. (No there wasn’t! But wouldn’t it be nice if he had been?)

So, the cast includes shepherds and magi, the poor and rich, Jewish, and perhaps Zoroastrian, the unwanted and the cherished. They are drawn together by a birth. And Mary and Joseph have the capacity to welcome all into their space. That is embrace; and speaks to their inclusive spirit.

I like to think that, had the Shepherds and Magi arrived at the same time, Joseph would have offered them the chance to sit together over some bread and curds, and created a safe, welcoming space for both.

Christmas might be the most inclusive time of the year in Toronto. This is my 34th Christmas at the Mission and I am in love with the way that Christmas still brings people together. Our city’s poorest and richest, people from every imaginable nation and culture come to YSM to give and to receive. They come to share and be part of something bigger than their fears, resentments, prejudices and judgements. Collectively, we stand together for a better city and world. We belong, we care and we contribute to the good of all.

And the YSM gathering is strikingly diverse.

People who lean far to the left and others who lean far to the right; the very rich and they very poor; people whose judgemental nature or religious beliefs often lead them to exclude others; people who are either ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ whatever’s being debated; people who openly bleed from the deep wounds on their soul and others who mask wounds and silently suffer alone; groups and cultures who may disdain each other – all stand shoulder-to-shoulder in our food room or toy store, rising above differences to work for a higher good: together they bring their own gold, frankincense and myrrh and for a moment, enter an aspirational realm that seems unattainable from January through November.

This inclusive moment is no less real, even if for the rest of the year we may not readily like or tolerate each other. For a moment, like Mary and her visitors, we connect; we are Christmas people living in the hope of a more compassionate, just and inclusive city. For a moment, just as in your favorite Christmas card, we stand together around a poor born child and commit ourselves to break down so many walls of division and choose, for a moment, to be together for the good of all.

Ain’t it great? Imagine if we could do it year ‘round.

Merry Christmas … Rick

Remember Yonge Street Mission all year

While all of us respond to people’s needs more readily at this time of year, human need is a year-round reality. Yonge Street Mission’s community engages people experiencing “need” 365 days a year. Thank you for remembering the Mission this Christmas. Please remember our work throughout the remainder of the year. Thank you for your friendship, connectedness and generosity.

O Come, O Come Emmanuel

This is the official music video for O Come, O Come Emmanuel from Anna Hawkins’ latest album Divine. Filmed in Israel in the desert and streets of Jerusalem. Anna Hawkins is from New Zealand where she has become a local sensation with two CDs to her credit. I just recently found her music and quite like it. Again Merry Christmas and a blessed 2017…. Rick

Mirroring my enemy

enemy-9It was the Buddha, or so I heard, who first said “We become the mirror image of our enemy.” That is, we look like the exact opposite but share the same essential nature which so offends us in our enemy.

I believe that

That’s why the left and the right can sound equally intolerant. We see the principle at work when police begin describing themselves as the biggest gang in town, and when religious leaders who spend their lives fighting the devil or the Great Satan begin to sound extremely nasty.

The mirror-image effect is acted out at work, in communities, on condo boards, in churches, social clubs and myriad other places where relationships, good manners and grace are lost or misplaced.

The mechanics are simple: people treated with intolerance begin displaying intolerance in return, in a mutually-reinforcing downward spiral.

Still, it’s a choice we make.

At one point when I worked at YSM’s Evergreen Centre for Street Youth, a new church-based drop-in center opened just up the street from us. Asked if their presence bothered us, I responded “the more, the merrier.” As far as I was concerned, they could open across the street from us and we would both be swamped with more need than we could handle – always too much need.

I went to visit the newcomers and welcome them. When I arrived the first person to greet me remarked “You really need to be here; this is what Evergreen was like before you ruined it.” The conversations which followed went downhill from there.

The attacks on me were so pointed that I didn’t stay long, leaving before my dark thoughts became angry words.

Later I met with our staff and had two messages for them. The first was a warning, that the new center would be saying nasty things about all of us. Second, an instruction that we would not be responding in kind: I urged them to live out one of the paradoxes of Christian faith, that others have a right to speak ill of us, and we have a responsibility to bless them.

The Apostle James, who likely was Jesus’ half-brother or cousin, wrote “Submit to God, resist the Devil and he will flee from you.” As a young pastor, I had preached a sermon on the text that focused on resisting the devil.

Following the service the chair of my board graciously challenged my emphasis. I got defensive and opened James’ epistle and pointed to the text declaring “resist the Devil and he will flee from you. “Ha,” I thought, “argue with that.”

He did and again with great grace pointed me to the first part of the passage: “Submit to God.”

In fact, what James was suggesting was much the same as the Buddha; if you fight the devil you become like the devil. James understood that if your focus was on God you would have already resisted evil and become a much nicer person. “Graceenemy-11d” people keep graced images at the forefront of their minds and hearts.

Jesus couldn’t be more clear: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

Our impulse, however, is that what happened to us today is the exception, that Jesus was expecting a bit too much to ask me to love this particular enemy. I certainly thought so while smarting from the unprovoked condemnation from the newcomers in street ministry.

It’s hard to live it out, when our reputation, credibility or personality is under attack, even harder still when our way of life is threatened, our livelihood endangered, our values stomped, beliefs swept aside, or our sense of place in the world undermined.

What could be more counter-cultural in this age than loving one’s enemies? Yet Jesus word does not falter: Love all, even your oppressors, even your enemy. And of course, once you love your enemy, regardless of what they think, they no longer are your enemy. Other may label us enemies, but we are freed from responding in kind.

That doesn’t dictate that we never disagree nor argue for our understanding of what is right, just and true, or advocate for principles, philosophies, theologies and praxis we believe in.

What it does mean is that we focus less on defeating an enemy, and more on serving God and reflecting the values, ethics, vision and high principles that spring from faith.

Let us be consumed by love and good, by peace and justice.

Perhaps our mirrors will also then reflect something quite different back to us.

Blessings … Rick

Note: I apologize for the significant delay since my last post. I had planned on taking the summer off but then also became ill in late August. It has taken more time than I imagined to recover the energy to write more.

I Stand for Love

I Stand for Love was written by David Roth, an American singer/songwriter. His music has been covered by Peter, Paul and Mary and the Kingston Trio, been performed in Carnegie Hall and the UN and carried into space on the space shuttle Atlantis. Anne Hills, the daughter of Methodist missionaries is an American roots and folk singer/songwriter. Her amazing soprano voice has made her one of the best-known contemporary folk musicians. She has performed and recorded with Tom Paxton, Cindy Mangsen and Michael Smith. Both Roth and Hills are known for their great writing and deep spirituality. I Stand for Love is a collaboration for their Rhubarb Trees recording.

God help us, we need more Third Ways

misdirection-bigI just read a C.S Lewis quote that suggests evil always sends error into the world in opposing pairs.

The ploy is to get us to focus on choosing between the two options, with no common ground or alternative – Clinton/Trump, left/right, Black Lives Matter/All lives Matter, immigration/no immigration, guns/no guns – the list goes on. In the end we are always left with exclusionary choices, when it is inclusion and embrace we so desperately require. The trick, Lewis suggests, is to steer a course between the two and to find the higher or better way, or maybe even the best way.

We live in a time when we are fed numerous bogus and destructive choices which keep us distracted and unfocused, unable or unprepared to seek out fresh solutions to deeply rooted social issues. I don’t believe it is always intentional. But intentionally duped or not, like the victims of a magician’s misdirection, we’re looking in the wrong places for our answers and solutions.

Watching our current leaders, both secular and faith-based, cluster in camps and hammer away at each other saddens me. The manufacturing and enforcing of divisions is the very opposite of the unity we so desperately require. Perhaps at no other time in North America have we so needed our best thinkers to find and place before us new options for how we live, engage each other and lead.

We as a people, must refuse to buy into the divisions offered us by so-called, often self-appointed leaders: we must out-think the retailers of binary options which are currently being put before us in so many highly-charged realms.

Imagine the amazing progress that could be won if a new generation of thinkers could listen to and maybe even hear the genuine grievances of others. Might that be the fertile soil out of which new options are discovered?

If we need a template, consider the story of the woman caught in adultery: I love this story, although I always wonder where the man got to? Jesus is confronted with two choices: stone her or let her go. Either choice is disastrous, for her, for him and for the community. Jesus creates a third option and the woman is spared, his reputation soars and evil is shamed. He does it all without ever uttering a harsh word.

At a time when even reason itself is being questioned we must call forth, honor and celebrate our best minds and hearts — and pray to the Most High God to guide them, and us, into new paths forward.