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.