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Bakery Offers Taste of Heaven with Thanks

BY MICHAEL SWAN
The Catholic Register
TORONTO

Life is bread. It's warm to the touch, fills the senses, rises and transforms itself from a gluey mass to the most fragrant offering.

bakery1The idea of transformation is central to Christian religion. Which is not to say sacrifice and morality don't play their part. But it just wouldn't be Christianity without Jesus' crucial anastasis.

When Christians hope, they hope for anastasis. When Christians love, their love produces anastasis. When Christians die, other Christians pray for their ultimate anastasis.

Anastasis is a Greek word which can be traced to the first serious thinking about theology in our 2,000-year tradition. It's a simple, natural idea, observable in tulips rising from their bulbs in spring, butterflies struggling out of their chrysalis, and bread rising in the kitchen. Anastasis is Christ rising from the grave.

bakery2Anastasis is the transformation which is life, and the transformation of meaning and identity at the heart of the sacraments. Christians are baptized into a new and transformed life, they are married into a new and transformed unity, they are reconciled into a new love greater than their sins, they are ordained into a living sacrifice which is freedom for the whole community, they are anointed into that royal priesthood which transcends their death.

bakery3The Christian universe is alive with this constant rising and transformation. Which makes St. John's Bakery on Broadview Avenue in Toronto a perfect Christian factory. It is not a place which forces the transformation of dough into bread. It is not the toil of science and industry subduing nature.

The St. John's bakers allow God's anastasis to overtake them nightly in the process of baking organic breads with such names as Angelicus (a white sourdough), Maria (a fluffy, buttery french loaf) and Cassoni (white whole wheat). What makes St. John's bread taste better than corner store bread is that they wait as much as six or eight hours for the bread to rise. That factory sandwich bread might take 45 minutes from mixing to bagging.

bakery4St. John's makes 20 different kinds of pastries and bread, about 1,500 loaves a week sold in some of Toronto's finest shops. But the bakers, initially trained in 2000 by the French monks of the Pain de Vie community in Brittany, know they are participating in a transformation beyond them – one they cannot force or hurry.

The Christian imagination cannot fail to connect bread with Eucharist. And Eucharist is another Greek word at the root of our theology. It means thanksgiving, and that thanksgiving is also a transformation.

bakery5On Thanksgiving Day we feast on turkey, ham, cranberry sauce, gravy, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie – or perhaps samosas, basmati rice and tikka chicken. We empty our pantries and throw our kitchens into multiple crises. In the food, including a buttered roll, we see the meaning of thanksgiving because we are aware of the anastasis that brought all of it to our table.

Christian thanksgiving is supposed to transform our lives and our world, just as bread is the transformation of ground up seeds of grass. Thanksgiving raises us to new life with Christ.

bakery6St. John's Bakery exists for anastasis. It was begun by Doughnut Joe, an alcoholic Hungarian baker who lost it all to the bottle. He struggled against the disease, but ultimately lost – finishing his days living out of his car and baking bread in the St. John the Compassionate Mission's basement when he could.

Eight years later the bakery is open to others for the transformation Joe never quite realized. Gordon Brown was a crack addict for 16 years. Before he was an addict he trained in the commercial cooking programs at George Brown College and at one time ran his own catering business. Now he qualifies as the cooking professional on a crew of amateurs and semi-professionals.

Brown doesn't think he qualifies as such a remarkable story for putting down his pipe and going back to work. Brown's hero is Stanko Stankov who lends just one hand once a week as a volunteer.

Stankov has only a left arm, making it difficult for him to put on his own apron. But there's always somebody to help. He absolutely loves the bakery, where he is put to work without regard to his missing arm, or his Bulgarian accent, or his age.

bakery7"I tried a lot of times to find jobs, but nobody gives me a chance to start," said Stankov. "Here I feel well because I feel useful."

He looks at the St. John the Compassionate Mission next door and sees a church that lives up to its name.

"You can see on every corner a church, but not each one is 'Mission' and not each one is 'Compassion.'" he said.

There's no telling which of the people shaping the loaves, mixing the dough, filling the pans is on welfare and getting the Ontario Works hours they need to maintain their cheques. There are no distinctions between them and middle class volunteers who have discovered a love of making bread and working with people.

bakery8Jake Pyne is a part-time social worker and part-time lead baker.

"What interests me about St. John's is that community approach," he said as he mixed dough for Angelicus. "The world would be a better place if everybody had Angelicus for breakfast."

Bakery manager Marc van Beusekom believes the bakery is a way of transforming a community. He's dedicated to the idea of a social enterprise – one whose goal is a little higher than making money.

bakery9"Economics and making money is not a bad thing," he said. "(The economy) should serve people. People shouldn't serve the economy."

Sapomi Hirosawa, in Canada studying English far from her family in Japan, says she's at the bakery because she loves bread. But she could buy bread, or bake it in her own kitchen. Pushed a little harder, she reveals she's addicted to being a part of the process and the community which bakes the bread.

"I love this place, the people, the environment."

Mexican immigrant Ana Vargas struggles to express herself in English, but she knows what Stankov means when he speaks about feeling useful.

"Here, I help the people," she said.

bakery10None of this is misty-eyed, soft-hearted idealism points out Brown. The transformation the bakery seeks begins in the harsh reality of people who have no place in the normal economy – people invisible to society.

"Fr. Roberto and Marc had this vision and they made it happen," said Brown. "They just didn't sit around and say 'Oh, the poor, the poor, the poor!' They went out and did something."

Thanksgiving, it turns out, is how a Christian participates in every reality – social, economic, or spiritual. And the reality we participate in is deeply tied to a vast transformation, to which Christ has perfectly linked every human being. This Thanksgiving Day think anastasis, and remember St. John the Compassionate's plucky downtown bakery.

Reprinted from The Catholic Register

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