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It is a Tuesday afternoon in downtown Burlington, Ont., and a small crowd is waiting outside a portable building in the parking lot of St. Christopher’s Anglican Church. The group is a little early: the portable, which houses a community food bank, doesn’t open until 5 p.m.
When the volunteers inside give him the okay, Archdeacon Steven Hopkins opens the door and lets in the people. The patrons spread out to peruse the shelves and the small paper signs indicating how many of each item they are allowed.
Inside the church building proper, a group of shoppers inspects the used clothing and other goods in a second-hand shop. In the large, professional-looking kitchen, volunteers prepare a stir-fry for the weekly community meal.
“We sort of function as a community hub,” says Hopkins, the church’s rector, shortly before taking the Anglican Journal on a tour of the church’s programs.
“I call us a community-identified community hub,” interjects Sara Collyer, who has served for the past two years as director of Open Doors at St. Christopher’s, an umbrella program that includes 13 smaller programs and one network. The community, she notes, has long looked to the church in times of need.
“We link folks up with other people,” she continues, “but we also link them up to other service providers in the areas.” The needs can range from housing, disability and mental health support to domestic violence counseling.
St. Christopher’s has been bringing people together for community meals for a long time-the Tuesday night supper that is one of the cornerstones of Open Doors has been going on for over 16 years. Thanks to Collyer’s work and a grant from the Government of Ontario’s Ontario Trillium Foundation, the church has become a significant source of help among Burlington’s marginalized population.
“Burlington likes to think of itself as a wealthy community,” says Hopkins, but it really is more diverse than most of its residents realize. Open Doors is helping people “get a more realistic picture of what their community actually looks like and who actually lives here.”
Anaseini Pascale, a regular attender at the Tuesday night dinner, is one of the people for whom St. Christopher’s provides a vital lifeline. She recently injured her knee, which has greatly reduced her mobility and her ability to manage day-to-day tasks. With two young boys in her care and the rest of her family living in Fiji, she turned to the church for help when the government wasn’t able to provide it. St. Christopher’s was able to provide her with a walker, a cane and assistance with cleaning her apartment.
But it is the sense of community that she is most thankful for. “When you don’t have family in this country, it really fills that void, because if anything happens to me, I don’t know what is going to happen to my two boys,” she says in an interview. “I see this is quite a multicultural place-people here are not all from Canada. I have met Africans, Germans…it’s like a multicultural, multinational situation here. So I don’t have to feel left out.”
The church currently feeds about 220 people every Tuesday, a number that has been increasing steadily over the past few years.
The volunteers who make it possible-around 30 a night-say it has been an eye-opening experience.”Food is so important to people, and people in Burlington don’t realize that there’s a real need for it,” says Wendy Ernst, who has been volunteering at the Tuesday meal for 16 years. “We have a lot of people who may look like they have enough, but one meal a week is really a help to them.”
But while Open Doors has been able to accomplish a lot, Hopkins says St. Christopher’s is reaching the limit of what it can do, given its current facility. The funding comes from a mix of congregational giving, grants and donations, but the space is over capacity.
“We’ve outgrown the building…we could really use more space,” he says, chuckling as he admits that this is “a great problem to have.”
When asked why St. Christopher’s has been able to do so much, Hopkins gives a lot of the credit to the congregation itself-of the 250 volunteers at St. Christopher’s, he explains, 173 are regular parishioners.
“It’s part of the spirituality of the place,” he says. “From before my time, people had a sense that being a community of faith meant being here for the community and being here to serve the community, so I think it’s kind of been wired into the spirituality of the parish for some time.”
But over the course of the tour of the programs and the loud communal dinner, it becomes abundantly clear that it is also connected to Hopkins’ own spirituality.
“When I try to imagine what the Great Banquet looks like,” he says at one point, “it looks like Tuesday night supper, where people from different backgrounds-different kinds of mental health statuses, different kinds of income statuses, different gender identities and sexualities, different kinds of life experience, different ages-sit down and share the same meal at the same table.”