No Teddy Bear’s Picnic

teddy-bear-picnic-day-picture

“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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

Hannah: The Tomato Plant Sessions

moving streetcar“As soon as she boarded the streetcar I could tell she was poor.”

That’s how Hannah began her story.

“There was a sameness about her. I see it in so many people who are poor. They’re overweight, have stringy hair, and are dirty. I wanted to tell her she could at least dress with more care. So often poor women dress in uncoordinated clothes that are too small and too tight.

“They look so hopeless, so frustrated, and harassed and they seem to come equipped with bad mannered kids. Sometimes I think they are almost subhuman. As I watched this woman enter the car I thought “O God, why are they are like that?’”

As I heard Hanna’s pronouncement, a wave of defensiveness rose in me, chased by a tide of anger, and then, surprise and disappointment.

Defensive anger, because I have met many hundreds of people who have almost no resources yet they are immaculate and stylish, their children models of good behavior, and their homes a nurturing space — the very antithesis of Hannah’s caricature.

Surprise and disappointment, because it was Hannah speaking.

Hannah was a faithful Mission supporter. She prayed for us frequently, was quick to volunteer her time and was exceedingly generous with her money. And Hannah’s commitment to us was tied to her belief that God cares for people living with poverty and is deeply moved by their situation. That’s why her question threw me.

But before I got over my initial shock Hannah continued.

“Two weeks later I went out into my garden to get a tomato.”

Tomato mutant

“I found a beauty. It was large, ripe and luscious. I looked for another and found a strangely deformed, gross, ugly excuse for a tomato. It had not ripened properly and so was a mixture of green, brown, yellow and pinkish-red. It was lopsided and there was a deep gash that ran across its entire face. What a contrast. But then as I reached in to pick it I realized I had been responsible for its deformity.

“Earlier in the year, as the plant grew taller, I dutifully tied it to a stake for support. In the process I must have bound the young blossom which was to become this tomato. It grew hard against the side of the stake so that it was completely flat on one side. The string I tied it with ate right into the flesh of the fruit. I was just trying to get a good harvest. But I built a structure which, while good for the plant, was fatal to this particular blossom.

“Through no fault of its own, the fruit was denied the life giving nourishment and environment required for health and beauty. It was deformed and ugly.

“I remembered my question to God and found myself thinking about people who, through no fault of their own, live in environments that deny them the resources required for health. I realized that my misshaped tomato had much the same potential as my beautiful tomato but the environment I created limited its future.

“I wondered if the society we had created robbed some of the opportunity to live healthy and whole lives.”

Retelling Hannah’s story now provokes the same mixture of reactions in me as it did then. I want to defend those living with poverty and rail against her one-dimensional images of poverty.

Yet what most upsets me about Hannah’s story is that I see too much of me in her reactions.  Sometimes the outward manifestations of poverty repulse me as well, and sometimes I also want to distance myself from that which I find unattractive, unappealing or embarrassing, and to avoid all that causes fear to rise within me.

As did Hannah, I also wonder to what degree societal systems that perform well for the mainstream can damage those on the margins: some individuals and families must live with society’s failed intentions, ignorant mistakes and purposeful maltreatment.

There is no perfection. Even the best-intended interventions can have a shadow side, a ‘Hannah’s string’ with unforeseen consequence. Those unforeseen impacts, however, do not justify despair, but rather call us to diligence, vigilance, creativity and continuous review and dialogue with all stakeholders — especially those on the margins — as we endeavor to unfold compassion and justice.

My friend Hannah has passed on. I knew her for 30 years and I have no doubt she dwells in paradise. Her faith was like a mountain and she spent her life investing in others. When she had much she gave much, and when she had little she still found something to share.

And Hannah was open to God and to receiving fresh insight. She learned and embraced deep truths about poverty, and its impact on peoples lives. Hannah came to the recognition that so much is beyond peoples’ control, and for that, they deserve compassion and justice, not disdain and judgment.

 – Blessings … Rick Tobias

Gabriel and the Vagabond

Foy Vance is an Irish Catholic singer song writer. Gabriel and the Vagabond is a tender song about perceptions; both private and public. It almost always draws deep emotions from me. It reminds me that we might find grace in the most unlikely places. -RT

Postcards from Danny, Irish & Buddy Boy

It’s 1995 and we meet at church.

I tell you my name is Danny. You came to my town to speak in my church.

Young cool street style fashion male model isolated with copy sp

Well, it’s sort of my church. Fred, the minister, likes me and his wife brings me dinner sometimes. I don’t think the people like me too much but at least they’re not mean or anything. They just ignore me but that’s OK cause Fred lets me play the drums when nobody’s around. I tell you how I live with Mum and how Dad took off when I was little. I don’t remember much about him anyway. You’re OK. I don’t get all the stuff you talk about but you treat me OK, so I like you.

It’s 1999 and this time we meet in front of Evergreen.

You know my name but call me Buddy Boy. I think that’s ‘cause I’m from down east like you. I wasn’t sure I liked it but I guess it was OK and you were just trying to say ‘I know where you’re from.’ You tell me that nothing good is going to happen to me in Toronto, and that I should go home. I say I don’t know where ‘home’ is and you suggest I should be with my Mum. evergreen - halsBut she has a new boyfriend and they moved and forgot to tell me where they moved to. You remind me of the minister who befriended me but he moved too and the church people didn’t treat me so good after that.

You were kind of stumped then. I know you weren’t rejecting me. I guess you did want to help. But you didn’t know what to do with me either. Some of the things you suggested were lame. Us talking just kind of went flat and I moved on.

It’s 2003 and we meet on Church Street.

Now my name is Irish. It’s tattooed across my neck. It looks like the flag of Ireland and I like it a lot. You don’t mention it. I have a big white supremacist logo tattooed on my cheek. You try to ignore it but I know it bugs you – that’s the point. It bugs everybody, so people give me my space. You ask how I am doing and I tell you about the gang I joined and how violent we are. But you know I’m not tough and that without the gang I can’t even protect myself. But I tell you about how bad we are anyway. I don’t want you to think I’m weak.

Now it’s 2005 and I get you on the phone.

Not sure why I called. Maybe it’s because you’re from home or at least sort of from home and it’s been so long since anybody really talked to me.

I tell you I quit the gang. Truth is, they kind of let me slip. Everyone lets me go eventually. I tell you how good things are and about the great job I have and how great my place is. But you know I wouldn’t be calling if things really were good. I know that you know, but I tell you anyway and you pretend not to see through it, and you tell me “Good on yah!”

You invite me around and I say “sure!” but we both know it will never happen. You probably think I’m homeless but I got a place. Not so nice as I told you but it’s a place.

So why did I call you? Maybe ‘cause you’re the only person who knows about my life and I don’t really connect with anyone else. Maybe the closest thing to home is the times I see you every once and awhile.

I gotta go now. Things to do. Catch you later. Or not.

By the way, do you have any idea why God put me here?

+++++

It’s 2016.  It has been a decade since I’ve had contact with Danny.

I think about him often. Is he dead, alive, in prison, gone back east?

Twenty years later, YSM’s Evergreen Centre now has more staff, they have more training and our programs are more sophisticated. If Danny arrived today, perhaps the outcomes would be different.

Like thousands we met, Danny was dispossessed (Hebrew: rush) – a term used to refer to a range of people who are poor, destitute, forced from their homes or otherwise dispossessed. To be dispossessed is to lose your stake hold, to have no place you can call home, nowhere that you belong. Imagine – if you disappear, no one knows you’re missing.

Danny was, in every important respect, an orphan, abandoned by his parents. The church had no time or aptitude for him. In fact, there is really no place for any version of  – Danny, Buddy Boy, or Irish –  in Canadian society.

So I often think of Danny, and of the Apostle James who wrote that “real” or “pure” religion “visits” orphans and widows – which at the least means that the faithful find ways to show hospitality, to include and to embrace.

Epilogue

The church that had no time for Danny now has no time for anybody: it closed its doors some years back. But some young innovative people got their hands on the building and have opened a center for homeless and needy individuals in their town. Impossible to know, but had they been there in 1995, Danny’s journey might have been different. To me it seems that in that space,  Jesus has reestablished “religion . . . pure and undefiled before our God and Father . . . ” – James 1:27.

 – Blessings … Rick Tobias

Georgia Lee

As a child, Georgia Lee Moses, of Petaluma, California, routinely fled a home that has been described as dysfunctional and abusive. Georgia Lee head-and-shoulders screen captureIn August 1997, at age 12, she disappeared. After eight days her naked and strangled body was found dead in a ditch. Her murderer was never found. Local firefighters built an angel memorial to honor her. Singer Tom Waits wrote this song to remember her. Her memorial was recently moved from the crime scene to a parkette by the Petaluma City Hall.  (With material from Lori A. Carter, The Press Democrat, Nov. 2, 2012)

 

DOING THEIR PART

Doing their part is a way for me to show appreciation for people I’ve met who have been influential over me (and often many others), or who simply are impressively committed, insightful or effective in pursuing compassion and justice.

Julie MacLean

It is no secret that the single most effective way you keep youth off the street or out of gangs is early relational engagement. Julie MacLean, an extremely invested and caring community worker, created and leads Yonge Street Missions’ “Tree of Life” project. Here’s her commentary. – RT

My family and I are blessed to have been part of the life of the Regent Park community for 22 years. Eleven years ago I became the Children’s Program Coordinator at the Christian Community Centre which really opened the door into the splendor and chaos of Regent Park.

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Julie MacLean and young people from the Tree of Life program at YSM

When I started, The Centre provided a framework for the “Tree of Life” children’s programs; inclusive, fun and holistic learning environments incorporating homework clubs and summer camps. We have become a tight knit community of around 60 children and 30 “youth in training” who pour into the Centre to develop their talents, experiences and ideas. They bring the pre-existing values of Regent Park’s cultures with them; hospitality, respect, family, faith and self-expression.

My role has been to encourage our children and youth in their gifts and provide opportunity for growth and leadership. Longevity and the creation of safe space have been key to the healthy growth and development of our children and youth. So strong are the community ties that our alumni still visit frequently and many have begun their own community development projects such as overseeing the new community garden, running fitness classes for people with diabetes, and working with other community based agencies.

One of our youth blossomed this fall when we started a project to help children and youth to choose a short term goals. His goal was to get a “six pack”. The boy who struggles in school wrote out a detailed five-part plan, enlisted six of his friends to approach the manager of a gym to see if they could use the treadmill, found a gym supervisor to run an after-hours training program and helped all the other children in homework club with their goals. He managed all this despite being bullied and threatened at school and battling family problems that have resulted in him being removed from his home.

This is not the end of the story. I believe that his resilience, strong bonds with friends and multilayered support and love from YSM will see him thorough this challenging time. And beyond that…..I believe God has his hand on this 11 year old.

“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”

Jesus – Shelterless, not homeless

shelterless not homeless
There was no room in the Inn. Jesus was born into what had to be a vermin-infested den for animals. We can paint whatever images of shelterlessness we want and they will be true of Jesus birth. And only friends who have been truly shelterless, not for a day or week, but for a season can understand the harshness of the reality for Jesus without shelter.

Yet Jesus was not born homeless. His mom and earthly dad stood by him. His immediate heavenly family, God in heaven and the Holy Spirit, made sure extended family were there to welcome him. Angels announced his birth and lit the skies. Did the angels who sang “Gloria” hover over the stable? I wonder, did Jesus the Baby feel his family’s love as he lay in that hovel.

I think the distinction is important. Shelterlessness is bad but to be outside the love and support of family, even our earthly somewhat dysfunctional families, is worse. Maybe it is THE worst. For all who have family, even the “messed-up” variety, let us be grateful this Christmas. We have been given an amazing gift.

Jesus’ birth was not about homelessness. His death, however – now that was all about homelessness. He cried out “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Even as his mother and friends stood by and watched, Jesus died alone and outside the comfort of his heavenly family. In the worst moment of his earthly existence, Jesus is truly homeless. He is on his own. How appropriate.

At Christmas, I have shelter. May I remember, in tangible ways all who are houseless. At Christmas, I have home. May I remember, in tangible ways, all who are “family-less” – that is to say, all who do not belong and are without home. We can sing with the angels, rejoice with wise men and still stand beside the shelterless and homeless of the earth

– Rick Tobias