St. Silouan the Athonite Mission Parish

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Toronto Star – December 20th, 2006

Sell to the Rich to Employ the Poor

December 20, 2006
Jennifer Wells

Away from Wall Street, home of record-breaking multimillion-dollar bonuses and the baubles they buy, we meet Father Roberto Ubertino.

We will put a capitalist spin on this.

Father Roberto is "executive director" of St. John the Compassionate Mission on Broadview Ave., a hop north of Queen St . He makes those little air quotes when he states his title – which he prefers not to use – and laughs at such a corporate sounding handle for a Greek Orthodox priest.

He has a full and greying beard, and a resumé that spans his birth in the Congo (his father had headed there to build a leprosy camp), to a stint in Brittany learning to bake bread.

The bread. Before we go any further we have to talk about the bread.

Immediately adjacent to the mission is the St. John's Bakery. It's open to the public. You can shop there. You should. It's a cheery and uplifting place. It feels so good to go there.

The bakery's all-organic breads and buns are baked on-site. A network of retail suppliers has grown to a number that now approaches 30, including The Big Carrot on the Danforth and Bruno's Fine Foods on Avenue Rd.

A decade ago there was a guy sleeping in a car outside the mission with an interest in baking bread.

Thence was struck the idea of baking bread in the mission's basement. Father Roberto got to thinking there was good mileage to be made from figuring out this artisanal bread business. So off he headed for Brittany.

Now there's a full-fledged operation, employing the very people who rely on the mission to help them set their lives straight. People once considered to have no "market value" are now hand-shaping the walnut raisin sourdough boule, which sells for $5. "The basic idea," says Marc Van Beusekom, who runs the shop, "is to sell to the rich to employ the poor."

Twenty years ago, Father Roberto founded the St. John mission and today, just to give you a sense of the place, the mission serves 2,000 meals a month to the marginalized, the addicted, the homeless. "The busiest spot in Riverdale," Father Roberto calls it.

Over at the busiest seasonal spots for capitalists – where would that be? Bymark? Canoe? – anticipation has been running high for weeks as to the size of this year's bonus cheques.

Here at the mission, anticipation has been running high for a tranche of funding that Father Roberto expected to receive this week, as part of the city's extended winter-hours funding for drop-ins such as St. John's .

Except the funding did not come.

Father Roberto is dismayed.

The winter-hours program, launched three years ago, would have allowed the mission to keep its doors open through evening hours. Father Roberto says the mission's application was actively solicited by the city. The programming was to commence on Friday and run to the end of March. He assumed, though this is not the language that Father Roberto would use, that securing the funding was a slam-dunk. Everyone attached to the mission was excited.

On Monday they were notified that no money would be headed their way.

This has given Father Roberto pause. He is sitting in his warm office, off the dining hall where Nicolae Gavriliu is painting radiant orange and yellow murals of St. Xenia, the homeless wanderer of St. Petersburg , and Mother Maria, the orthodox nun whose soup kitchen fed the starving in Paris during the Second World War.

He sets to talking about what he calls the "poverty industry," within which he sees the city as a corporation more comfortable dealing with larger, professionally run not-for-profit corporations. "There's a corporate mentality that sets in and evaluates everything on a corporate model," says Father Roberto. This model, he believes, has left volunteer-based organizations such as his on the sidelines. "The real work, the real social work, the real change, happens on a micro scale," he says. "We have a long history here. It's a different model."

For the record, the city is exceptionally forthcoming as to why the St. John mission failed to secure the extended winter-hours funding. Eight agencies submitted proposals. There was $80,000 in the pot. Each proposal was "scored" by a group of three people at the city's Shelter, Support and Housing Administration. The nearest centre to the mission that did draw funding – the Toronto Christian Resource Centre – is able, says a city spokesperson, to accommodate greater numbers and that proposal stipulated professional staff instead of volunteers.

"I don't believe it's always the professionals who deal the best with people," says Father Roberto, citing a volunteer co-ordinator at the mission whose education comes not in the form of a social-services degree, but rather a prolonged period of hospitalization and marginalization. "Where's the vision?" he asks of the city. "Where's the social understanding?"

On a sunny Tuesday afternoon, Father Roberto has just finished writing a letter to Mayor David Miller in which he has posed this question. He is, understandably, concerned about the fragmentation of funding and what that might mean for the mission going forward.

In the bakery, Van Beusekom is busily tying gold ribbons on breads for gift baskets. Corporations have been ordering them. They look incredibly upscale, just like something you might find on Bay Street .

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