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Mustard Seed pastor makes a difference

The church was packed and full of praise.
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Longtime Mustard Seed pastor Tom Oshiro attends his retirement celebration at Emmanuel Baptist Church.

The church was packed and full of praise. But on this recent Saturday afternoon at Emmanuel Baptist Church, the songs and testimonies honoured a Victoria man who committed 57 years of his working life to ministry — a good portion of it serving our city’s poorest citizens.

Tom Oshiro, 86, retired this month after serving for 23 years at the Mustard Seed — as a counsellor, executive director, pastor and friend to many in their darkest hours.

Most Victorians know the Mustard Seed as home to the Island’s largest food bank and a hub of social services. But it is at its roots a street church, with a congregation of 50 and a band, and a sister church to Emmanuel Baptist in Oak Bay.

“Many of us know you are a safe harbour because we’ve experienced it,” Jeremy Bell, executive minister of Canadian Baptists of Western Canada, told the packed house and Oshiro, flanked by his family in the front row. “There are some in our lives who are a reminder of the love and presence of God.”

Tributes poured in from family, community and faith workers, the mayor and those Oshiro has helped, culminating in a sing-a-long to Kool and the Gang’s Celebration and gifting of Canucks tickets.

A few days later, Oshiro was back at the Mustard Seed, slowly packing items into a cardboard box.

“I don’t really know what retirement means,” he said, smiling. His work has wound down in the past few years but he considers his time at the Mustard Seed as fellowship. “Just sitting and talking with people.”

He is famous among staff and clients for treating everyone like family, keeping tabs on the most destitute and carrying a roll of $5 bills to “lend” to anyone in need.

“His style is care and compassion for everybody,” said lead pastor Chris Riddell. “He tries to draw out what’s good in people.”

Outreach pastor Chris Pollock described Oshiro as a mentor and read tributes from clients. Trailer Bob said Oshiro “Always gave good advice”; Jessica Jones wrote “I love and adore him — best guy I’ve ever met”; and others described him as a “prayer warrior” and the “faith and goodness of the Mustard Seed.”

This is Oshiro’s second shot at retirement. He came to the Mustard Seed in 1991 as a volunteer after retiring as lead pastor at Royal Oak Baptist Church. Before that, he was an area minister for B.C. in New Westminister and led churches in Cambridge and Emo, Ont. He also raised three children with his wife, Vietta, an accomplished nurse who died in 2008.

“When I came here, we served a much smaller group, maybe a few hundred,” he said. The Mustard Seed now serves more than 7,200 people a month. “Eventually I began to notice we had to do something more to develop a responsible nature and spirit, not only for themselves but for their children.”

Oshiro said helping to launch the Hope Farm Healing Centre in Duncan, where those struggling with addictions can go to recover after detox, is one of his greatest endeavours.

The Mustard Seed Family Centre, which opened in 2012 and teaches parenting, cooking and life skills, was also a longtime dream.

He recalled driving a client home from the food bank with groceries to find cupboards already full.

“They were quite embarrassed and said, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know how to cook half the stuff you give me,’” Oshiro said.

As Victoria mayor Dean Fortin said at the retirement party, Oshiro has worked throughout the community, as a longtime Rotarian and member of many boards and committees.

In 2002, he was named a Victoria Citizen of the Year and in 2010 won a Leadership Victoria Lifetime Achievement Award.

Fortin said Victorians rich and poor alike saw Oshiro and thought: “That’s what a man of God should look like, be like, act like.”

Oshiro is quiet about his calling to the ministry. He was born and raised in Kenora, Ont., in a family of seven children. His father came from Okinawa Island to work on the railway and his mother followed. The Oshiros struggled financially and socially, in a place and era unfriendly to those of Japanese heritage, but they were a family of energetic achievers.

Two of his older brothers enlisted in the Second World War. Tom was too young but he joined cadets and went on to excel at sports, playing hockey, football and curling.

“Because I was small, I had a rough style of playing sports,” he said.

His parents were not especially religious, but his mother sent the kids to Sunday school at a Baptist Church to help them fit in. Oshiro didn’t take a real interest until his teens, when a missionary from his church was stoned to death by a group of hostile drunks in Bolivia.

“When he was put to death I realized how serious his faith was,” Oshiro said. “This generated something new within me.”

Another big moment came in a chance meeting with Mother Teresa on a plane, while he was on a mission in India in the 1970s. He asked the steward to speak to the Catholic icon. She welcomed him by blessing his hands as he thanked her for her work with the poor. He asked her about her ministry in Calcutta.

“She described her work as a blessing to the Lord, not from,” said Oshiro, noting he understood then she saw God in everyone she helped, despite their pain and hurt. “I think it’s beautiful and it really stuck with me.”