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.


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 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.

julie maclean
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.”

How soon can “them” become “us?”

The arrival of the Syrian refugees in Canada has left me thinking a lot about my Lebanese grandmother, whom I knew by the traditional name, Sitti.

Sitti profile
Amelia Tobias, born Amelia Laba, and assigned the English name Amelia Stephen

What was life like for her, as events over which she had little control landed her in Atlantic Canada?

Amelia Laba (Amelia Stephen was her assigned English name) was born in the mountains of Lebanon in 1901. Before her second birthday, her parents left Amelia in her maternal grandmother’s care and emigrated to America,  but not before arranging their daughter’s engagement to my Jiddi (grandfather). He was then 21.

My Sitti was raised by her grandmother, who, before my Sitti was 12, packed up their belongings and set off to Canada to introduce her granddaughter to her husband-to-be. The fiancée, my grandfather, had been in Canada since 1896, returning to Lebanon only once, to secure his future bride.

But in France, my Sitti’s grandmother failed a health inspection and was quarantined. Entrusted to another relative, the adolescent my Sitti set sail for North America.

Imagine waiting on the docks knowing you’d never again see your home, or heading off with a stranger not knowing where you were going, or what awaited you or even the person you had been committed to wed? It had to be terrifying.

Her story includes a missed passage, rescue by the Red Cross; further details remain unclear, and some I heard as a child that now seem not even in the realm of possibility. Yet we do know that she landed in the U.S, and traveled overland, with yet another relative, to Saint Stephen, N.B where she was smuggled across the border hidden in a false-bottomed wagon.

My Sitti was an illegal alien. (In due time she became a citizen.)  What was it like, to be a child under the Ottoman occupation of Lebanon? What was it like to be told you were leaving? How deeply imprinted was the fear of capture, and the terror of imagining the consequences of falling into the hands of the authorities?

In 1915, just shy of her 14 birthday she married my Jiddi.

Jiddi-Sitti wedding
Wedding day January 18, 1915

He was 33. As she stood at the altar at the Bishop’s Palace, did she imagine a different life? Did she question within herself the adults who determined her path?

Like many Middle-Eastern refugees in Canada, my Jiddi — Raymond Michael Tobias – initially worked as a peddler because he could not get other work. Jiddi eventually became a “successful” merchant and land owner. By the time he was married he had helped form the Lebanese Syrian Protection Association to buffer the community from the abuse they suffered at the hands of non-Middle Eastern people in the city.

So I wonder about my Sitti’s experience as a child bride and then a mother. Undoubtedly she worried about what would happen to her children and her husband. Did she worry about her own safety?

How many stares or sideways glances did she have to ignore as she shopped or entered the Cathedral for mass? How many times did she pretend not to hear the label “Sheeny,” a racial slur applied to people of Jewish and Middle Eastern origin?  She became a citizen but did she ever escape the category of “those people” or “them”?

My Sitti was part of a wave of Lebanese immigration that came ashore in Saint John Sitti-Jiddi seated outdoorsin the late 1800s and early 1900s.  A century later we are well integrated into Canadian society. Now we are doctors, lawyers, judges, internationally known musicians, social service providers, priests and ministers, elected government officials, global business leaders, actors, small business owners and entrepreneurs – in short, as diverse, contributory and connected as anyone.

My Sitti would have seen or even imagined little of that. All of which is why thoughts of my Sitti and of refugees from Syria are inextricably entwined.

Can we even imagine what a refugee feels? However, smooth the transition, everything is utterly foreign. Whatever lies ahead, all that was left behind can never be regained.

We have seen many stories of amazing welcomes and efforts to offer our new Syrian neighbours Canadian experiences ranging from tobogganing to making maple syrup. As grateful as I am for those examples, I know that in the background lurks the category of “them” and “those people.”

And we fear “them” and “those people,” whether displayed as outright hatred and open bigotry, or in unspoken disquiet. Will they take our jobs? Will those people fit in? How long will I have to support them” And perhaps most toxic “How do I spot the terrorists among them? — When will they come for us?”

I think of my grandparents and wonder, how long does it take for all the new “them” to become “us?”

The word “refugee” is not a common form in Scripture. But “foreigner,” “alien,” and “stranger” are referenced about 200 times.

One such reference is Lev. 19:34. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God.  Or as Jesus would say; … I was a stranger, and you invited Me in . . . Mt. 25:35.

Taken together, those passages make clear the divine will: the alien dwelling in the nation has an amazing array of rights and further, people of faith are instructed to welcome the alien with extreme hospitality and to commit themselves to ensuring the rights of the newcomer.

It is the righteous thing to do. Jonathan Sacks, the former chief Rabbi of Great Britain has stated. “The Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) in one verse commands, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself,’ but in no fewer than 36 places commands us to ‘love the stranger.’ The supreme religious challenge is to see God’s image in one who is not in our image.”

Perhaps when we can lovingly welcome refugees as “us” we become more like the people God intended we should be.

 – Blessings … Rick Tobias

Whose Little Boy Are You?

Marti Shannon a Canadian musician who grew up in Saskatoon, SK and released her only album in 1966. “Whose Little Boy Are You” was written as a civil rights song but certainly has relevance to every refugee child trying to make their way to a better life.


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.

Amelia Tobias nee Laba.

Sitti standing alone outdoors print dress
Amelia Tobias

I have a lot of good memories of my Sitti. I picture her baking flat Lebanese “mountain bread,” cooking for my extended family and laughing and smiling when we visited. I remember the bed I slept in when I stayed over. I remember her caring for me as a child when I had a bad sunburn.


One of the strongest memories I can still see is my Sitti sitting quietly at the kitchen table praying. A Maronite Christian by birth she became a devout Catholic in Canada. I can still see her large black-beaded rosary. She prayed it every day, often more than once.She is the only person I remember who prayed for the sake of praying, for the joy of it. Others prayed in church or said a grace before a meal but my Sitti loved to pray. She prayed for me and occasionally she would invite me to come and pray a “decade” of the rosary (one segment) with her.

My Sitti died when I was 12, long before any real faith had been birthed in me. But I have come to feel a direct spiritual connection between her prayers and my life as a Baptist minister and care giver. Everything I have been part of has been touched by her piety. I like that. Unknown to the world, unassuming, alone in her kitchen, she did her part.

– RT

Beyond the Elders’ Wisdom

thinking and results feedback

The young must assert their vision and claim today

For a number of years I have advised students in my classes that they have a responsibility to think past their elders, teachers and leaders. I believe that each emerging generation is responsible for moving their society or group beyond its status quo, to see the new and the innovative, to envision a different future and move towards it.

Young leaders must think more deeply, higher, further and more broadly than their elders. Without that progression, societies, organizations, faith communities and cultures stagnate. We become “freeze-framed” in a particular space and time, and relegate ourselves to museum status. Not unlike medieval monasteries, we may be the keepers of valued truth and relics while also losing connection both to the culture about us and to God’s ever progressing revelation. Indeed we fall behind.

As well as thinking past its elders, each emerging generation must give birth to its own visionary leaders, prophets who clearly see what is shadowy or invisible to the rest of us: such leaders move communities and cultures in fresh directions.

Coldbrook church plan
In 1973 Charis and I began a church plant in Coldbrook, NS, meeting in this building, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union Hall. It was a wonderful time in our life, but a long way from Toronto and YSM.

I was a 27-year-old rural-oriented pastor when a friend introduced me to a group of young urban pastors, educators and poverty workers who viewed the world in ways I had not imagined. Like most Old Testament prophets they are mostly unknown beyond their circles. I’m thinking of people like Doug and Judy Hall and the community around Boston’s Emmanuel Gospel Center; the SCUPE consortium in Chicago; Gipp Forester in Western Canada and Dan Dryer in Atlantic Canada.

Collectively, they and others created a counter-cultural movement which re-visioned the place of the church in the inner city. While North America embraced all-out consumerism and a “me-centeredness,” they fostered a vision that was more grace-filled, generous and inclusive. Their insights and convictions changed how many of us engaged our world: we became more compassionate towards the homeless, the poor and marginalized; we became a more inclusive people.

My life was transformed. My focus shifted from rural to urban, and then deepened to truly see the urban poor, to question accepted truisms about poverty, to revisit what we meant by care of the poor, and then to recognize the centrality of justice.

But it began with young leaders who dared to see things differently. I believe that in spite of the many wrongs we see in our society, North America is in significantly better shape because those who influenced many of us dared to think beyond their elders.

Youth are not automatically smarter or wiser. Nor is something inherently faulty with elder-think: the wisdom of the elders is usually foundational for new wisdom and insight. Elders mentored me and taught me how to think beyond them. On the shoulders of people who precede us, we occupy new realities.

Sometimes older leaders say “The future belongs to the youth!”  What goes unsaid is “Leave the present to us.” Yet the young must assert their vision and claim today: otherwise their future is determined by people who will not have to live it.

That’s how God calls us forward: the great issues of my life will not be the great issues of my successors. But my successors and their peers must grapple with that reality and come to a fresh and maybe ground-breaking understanding of the world and what God is doing. They must do the work to choose a future that is fully theirs, and commit to a path that will get them there.

“As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be,” youth must do more than simply claim their inheritance or manage their birthright: they must envision and create the future.  In the words of Lauryn Hill:

I hear so many cry for help
Searching outside of themselves
Now I know his strength is within me
And deep in my heart, the answer it was in me
And I made up my mind to define my own destiny

 – Blessings … Rick Tobias

The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill

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.  

Carol Ann McGibbon

Carol Ann and I worked together in Saint John creating a community based ministry in the south end of that city. Later we attempted to create a program to Carol Ann McGibbon croppededucate urban leaders in Atlantic Canada.

Carol Ann went on to become the Program Director, a faculty member and ultimately the Executive Vice President of the Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education (SCUPE). She has served at SCUPE for more than 30 years and has been responsible for training hundreds of young urban leaders and influencing urban ministries and community development activities across North America and around the world.

More recently she and David Frenchak have formed Educational and Leadership Design Consultants, Inc. While I could focus on Carol Ann’s involvement in designing curriculum for Community Development Degrees or her current work with Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary around “public theology” I like this story from her early years when she was trying to break into the Saint John Jail.

“One memorable moment was that first summer when a guard released about 15 women to go to the church service at Germain Street Baptist Church. He forged my signature stating that I had picked the women up, and when I arrived to get them, they were gone.

“The guards were smirking. They really disliked my taking the women out for nutrition, cooking and GED classes, or to church on Sunday. I panicked because if I lost one I could be tossed in jail and charged with being an accessory to escape. I drove to the bus station, the train station, and finally to church to ask the church to pray. The Pastor greeted me at the door laughing and saying the ladies were wondering why I was late. They knew the guards were trying to sabotage the program and both them and me.

“So they walked to church and were sitting in the pews waiting for me. It was a miracle.”

– Rick Tobias