The Church of the Redeemer is a refuge for the poor in Toronto’s most upscale commercial and cultural district. Photo: SimonP
Toronto’s Mink Mile is an upscale shopping strip on Bloor Street that stretches west from Yonge Street to Avenue Road. To the south, lies the provincial legislature. To the west, lies the University of Toronto, The Royal Ontario Museum and the Royal Conservatory of Music. To the north beckon the boutiques of Yorkville, upmarket hotels and tony residential enclaves.
In the heart of all this commerce and culture sits a haven for the homeless, the hungry and the haunted: the Anglican Church of the Redeemer. In its longstanding commitment to the Marks of Mission, it has become a magnet for the city’s dispossessed.
Redeemer’s core outreach is a hospitality initiative called, simply, the Lunch Program, and its beginnings were simple enough. “It started back in 1992 or so when hungry people, primarily men, would knock at the door. The church secretary would make them peanut butter sandwiches and they would go away satisfied,” says the Rev. Canon Andrew Asbil, Redeemer’s incumbent priest.
“It’s been said that evangelism is one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread,” adds Asbil. And as word of the sandwich program quickly spread among the homeless and the mentally ill, soon parish volunteers stepped in to make large numbers of sandwiches, which were frozen for future use.
After that, soup was added to the menu and visitors were invited into the church for lunch. “We were offering a warm place in winter, a cool place in summer and a general place of respite,” says Asbil.
Ever-expanding, by the late 1990s the lunch program had burst its boundaries to offer breakfast, nursing services, foot care, counseling by clergy and friendly conversation with volunteers. “In 1998, the program was serving 50 to 60 visitors a day and space was very tight,” says Asbil.
So the parish embarked on an ambitious effort to excavate the footprint of the church and build new facilities for the lunch program and the entire parish in an expanded basement, completed in 2001. “Today we feed 120 people a day, five days a week, 44 weeks a year,” Asbil says.
As well as lunch, the church offers a breakfast of toast, cereal and hard-boiled eggs, all facilitated by a full-time coordinator and 75 interfaith volunteers. “We have university students, business people, retired people. Some arrive having no experience with a church community and join the parish because they like what they see,” he says.
The program attracts high schools students from all over Ontario doing their required hours of community service. Some young people and youth groups come from the U.S. as part of their own outreach efforts and spend a week as volunteers. “They’ll bed down in another church in the area and spend part of their week providing meals with us,” says Asbil.
Today, 80 per cent the program’s $130,000 annual cost comes from the parish, but it also receives contributions from Second Harvest and Daily Bread. “Starbucks brings in day-old pastries, bakeries donate bread and Victoria University sends up unclaimed student bag lunches, so folks can eat and leave with a bag lunch,” says Asbil.
At the moment, the program is undergoing a rebranding that may see its time-honoured name change. “It’s obviously evolved into something more than a lunch program,” he says.
Asbil stresses that part of the Christian’s baptismal covenant is a call to outreach and that one of the five Marks of Mission is to seek to transform unjust structures of society. “By feeding, serving, listening and being present for men and women who are poor, underhoused and struggling with addictions, and by providing a place where they can meet and form community, we begin to hear the stories that move beyond charity,” he says.
He adds that the church also promotes contact and fellowship between the upstairs worship community and the downstairs client community via shared meals and conversation. “All of us have experienced poverty,” says Asbil. “We are all trying to find a place called home and to find God’s grace and be transformed by it.”