The Poor - Our Masters
By Fr. Roberto Umbertino
In January 1987, with no first and last rent money; no down payment to turn on the water or electricity; one old table and a few chairs; an icon, a Bible, and a used Horologion, St. John the Compassionate Mission opened its doors in a poor, downtown neighbourhood of Toronto.
A group of dedicated lay people helped me to develop this mission. What we wanted to do was to pray in the midst of a very troubled neighbourhood. Our hope was to learn how to live, to witness and to share the orthodox faith, especially with the poor and marginalized of society. At the time we believed that this “orthodox” faith could be received and lived within the Ukrainian Catholic Church. Those early years were very difficult. We never knew if we would have enough money to pay the rent. A few volunteers would come to help, but most would soon leave. Yet some remained, and have stayed even to this day.
There was, and still is, no other Orthodox outreach among the poor of Toronto. Most of such work is done by Protestant and Roman Catholic churches and we did not want to copy what was already being lived. Orthodox faith, theology and worship should colour and shape Orthodox diaconia.
Gradually a pattern of life developed, centered around the Divine Services, all night vigils and vesper services in a chapel that, although only the size of a small room, was in constant use. First to come through our doors were children, then their parents, and then other adults. Many of these children are now parents themselves, and we keep in touch.
It was not until we moved to our present location that St. John the Compassionate Mission came into maturity. Eight years ago we moved 15 minutes away from our original location, to the building we now call home.
Now we are accessible to many people. The place has quadrupled in size and activity, and we have about 280 volunteers and three coordinators. The Mission is run by a Board of Directors, besides myself and my staff. The work of the Mission is understood to be a commitment to a way of life: a life of prayer, community, and compassion. We are operational seven days a week and serve over 500 meals to the hungry each week. We have a thrift store and a bakery that trains people and helps them to find work.
People come through our doors for all kinds of reasons, but they all encounter a “Presence.” They often speak about coming in tired or depressed and being met and surrounded by Love. People speak of the Mission as a church. I believe this is not because we have a sign outside, but because they actually experience it to be so. In spite of our struggles to be an “official church,” the poor have never stopped referring to the Mission as “the church.”
With our move to our new location on Broadview Avenue, God also graced us with the desire to enter into full communion with the Orthodox Church. What followed were six years of much suffering for everyone. At last, God in His infinite Mercy, found a way for the Mission to be received under the Omophorion of Metropolitan Nicholas (Carphatho-Russian Diocese) just a year ago. Since that time, the work of the Mission has continued to bear much fruit. The poor who come feel it is their home and love St. John’s. The Mission is also respected by many of the social service agencies of Toronto.
Local Orthodox Parishes Become Involved
The Mission serves as a resource to all of the Orthodox churches in the area. It hosts youth retreats in which youth groups from the various Orthodox parishes spend a day or part of a day at the Mission. They serve food and help out with various chores. I generally give them a presentation on life at the Mission and they usually join in whichever prayer service is being held while they are there. The Orthodox parishes also provide the mission with dry food and paper supplies, clothing and other household items for its Thrift Store, and with volunteer helpers. Other volunteers come from the community at large.
We live truly as a family. For example, on Wednesday, the president of the Board of Directors comes and washes dishes as she listens to people’s stories. I feel honoured to be called “father” because the people have made me truly so for them. Our work still continues to be “interrupted” three times a day by the ringing of the bell, inviting people to come and pray.
We still have no real regular income and our accountant cannot always understand why we have not yet gone bankrupt. Professionals still try to figure out our “secret of success.” When I tell them, they don’t believe me, but the truth is what Mother Teresa once said, “Our business is to be faithful, not successful.”
In the day-to-day living out of the Orthodox faith with simple, beautiful but often very broken people, the words spoken a few years ago by Metropolitan Nicholas ring so true: “Orthodoxy does not need more professors, but confessors.” Sometimes people connect the Orthodox faith only to books, lectures and videos. All these are useful and have their rightful place. Nonetheless, there is such a powerful “dynamism” in the truth of the Orthodox faith that it can be tasted and discovered only in the daily living of it. The poor and the marginalized, as promised, by our Lord, are a privileged place to discover this new life.(St. Cyprian , “On love of the poor”; St. John on Matthew, Homily 48.9) In our chapel, the words of St. John the Compassionate are written out; they speak about the simple truth: ” The poor,” he says, “are our teachers and Masters, for only they can bestow upon us the Kingdom of Heaven.”
The grace of the Mission is to discover the place of our individual poverty and brokenness, and to learn to receive and give compassion from that place. “Christ, Himself, identified with the hungry, the lonely, the prisoners, the loveless. We approach Him and serve Him in this life only in the poorest among us.” (St. Gregory of Nazianzus, XIV Discourse 39 on Matthew 23). It is St. Maximus the Confessor who in his “Mystagogy of the Church” summarized the simple truth of what the Mission is asked to see and touch each day. “The poor man” he says, “is God!”