I took the Bloor Street subway line west across the centre of Toronto, then went south by bus to Queen Street. I wasn’t sure whether to go left or right to my destination, but the sidewalk was busy and a kindly young woman pointed me in the right direction.
Small restaurants offering great prices on ethnic food reminded me that this Parkdale neighbourhood is home to an exceptionally high number of immigrants including the largest Tibetan population of any place outside Asia and many Roma people from Eastern Europe.
On Dunn Avenue brick homes framed by tall trees and groomed lawns, the epitome of gracious Victorian living, face off against a large high-rise apartment across the street. Bonar-Parkdale Presbyterian, built in 1897, has one foot in each world. This large structure is white brick with stained glass windows. But around the side, at the back, is Bonar-Parkdale Place, a low-rise providing non-profit housing for seniors. Between the two, connected to both, is the church hall where Dale Ministries holds its weekly drop-in and lunch.
The Dale Ministries congregation, originally called Parkdale Neighbourhood Church, met in a storefront, then in a basement. In 2012, without enough money to pay the rent, the decision was made to become a church without walls. At first they held services in a local park. Over time partnerships were forged with other community groups. Now drop-in events, meals, art opportunities, Bible study and worship take place in various locations. The lack of a permanent home has actually made the ministry more available to the community. People go to the venue closest to them, become connected, then join other events.
Dale Ministries is a registered charity governed by a board of directors and has recently become incorporated. The Dale receives a small grant from Canadian Baptists of Ontario and Quebec, with whom they are in relationship, and have been written into the budgets of congregations from many denominations as well as organizations including the Meeting House and Warner Brothers. But their widest network of support is through individuals.
When I arrived at the Bonar-Parkdale fellowship hall at about 11 a.m., a few people were seated at tables that would later accommodate close to 150. I heard cheerful chatter from several people who were busy in the kitchen. Coffee and cookies had been set out at a table near the door.
I spoke intermittently with the two ministers but they were busy attending to the needs of their congregation. Joanna Moon, whose degree combined theology with community development, was in great demand to chat, advise and sign papers. Director Erinn Oxford spent most of her time in a far corner playing keyboard for a small band that was rehearsing for a concert in the park. As a student, she had two career choices, music or ministry. God found a way to combine them for her. When Erinn left the keyboard someone else sat down to play a vigorous stride piano version of You Are My Sunshine. (At the Dale, first names are preferable.)
I sat beside Yolanda. She wanted to know where I lived and if rent was cheaper there. When Greta joined us she wanted to know if I had eaten breakfast that morning. Then she wondered what I’d had. After I talked about sharing peanut butter toast with my grandchildren, she told me with satisfaction that she also had breakfast that day. An apple. She asked where I lived, what rent cost there and how I got to the drop-in. When I explained my travel, she made a connection and said in awe: “You have a car?”
The room was full when lunch was served at noon—salad and potatoes on big platters and chicken breasts placed on our plates. I saw that Greta didn’t eat. I asked if she wasn’t hungry. She told me she didn’t need to eat because she had breakfast that morning. Then she reached under the table and brought out plastic containers which she filled with the food from her plate. I wondered how many meals she would make from this lunch.
After Erinn offered a blessing, before we received food, Souad Sharabani came from the kitchen to welcome guests and explain the menu. She sounded like a chef addressing delegates at a high level conference. The food matched her introduction: tasty and nourishing. Better than a high level conference!
Souad is one example of the diversity and spirit of the Dale. She was born in Iran and grew up in Israel, speaks five languages and had a career travelling the world as a radio documentary producer. In her cookbook, Scents of Memory, Souad shares memories and stories related to her no-fuss, easy-on-the-budget recipes. She lives in the neighbourhood and has spent many years serving up good food there as her contribution to the Dale. In times past, when money was very scarce, she prepared healthy meals of lentils and rice for 60-80 people at a cost of $40-$60.
Souad’s work is easier now because she gets food from Second Harvest. This organization, which has some early Presbyterian connections, gathers food from many donors including food retailers, restaurants and caterers. They redirect this food to 220 social service groups of which the Dale is one.
Both Erinn and Joanna emphasize that the Dale ministry is not a charity where some people give and others receive. It is a place for developing personal relationships and belonging. Although many people in Parkdale have lost connections with their previous lives and have reasons to feel isolated, the Dale welcomes everyone to full participation because, as Joanna explains: “Each of us has both brokenness and gifts; we live and share this together.”
For more information check out thedale.org