Jack Knox: This year's Mustard Seed dinner even more heartwarming, heartbreaking than usual

Half an hour before the first turkey dinner was dispensed, the line outside the Mustard Seed Street Church already stretched down the block.

The queue would grow longer, turning the corner from Queens Avenue and extending onto Government Street, but at this point it was anchored by a little girl, maybe seven years old, who quietly sang Jingle Bells while holding the hand of a grey-haired woman who might have been her grandmother.

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The Mustard Seed’s annual Christmas supper has always been a combination of the heartwarming and the heartbreaking — generosity colliding with the reality that for many Victorians, a paper-plate dinner with hundreds of others is as good as the holiday gets — but Sunday’s version was particularly poignant.

Usually, the event is held in the Bay Street Armoury, 800 people gathering under one roof, but this year COVID-19 turned the sit-down dinner into a takeaway. Instead of breaking bread together, people picked up pre-plated meals and disappeared into the night. Some went home, some found a darkened alcove in which to eat hot food in the cold.

It wasn’t ideal, but it was as good as possible under the circumstances. The alternative would have been to cancel the 43rd version of the dinner altogether, and there was no way the Mustard Seed was going to do that, not this year.

“In a time when the reality is a ­little bit more challenging, we’re able to offer a little bit of hope,” said Rev. Chris Pollock, standing outside the church.

He was wearing a jacket emblazoned with the name Gipper — a treasured gift from the Mustard Seed’s founder, the legendary Gipp Forster, that Pollock only dons for special occasions.

So Pollock and other organizers did their best. Christmas lights framed tents over the sidewalk. Peter Bourne, sightless since birth, sang Silent Nightwhile playing his guitar. A team of volunteers spent two days preparing the dinner — turkey, stuffing, mixed veg, mashed potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce — in the CFB Esquimalt kitchens.

Other volunteers handed out coffee, hot chocolate and goodie bags whose contents included nice notes from students at Pacific Christian School. Long and McQuade donated the sound system, again. The Empress provided pies for dessert, again. Save-On Foods contributed buns, butter, mandarin oranges and more. The Times Colonist Christmas Fund paid for everything that wasn’t donated.

Volunteers followed an array of pandemic protocols involving work bubbles, temperature-testing and so on. The Mustard Seed limited the number of people on the site by asking diners to show up at one of three serving times — 5 p.m., 6 or 7 — and to wear masks and adhere to social-distancing markers lining the sidewalk while waiting their turn. Nobody butted in. Nobody complained about the damp, the chill. This is the way the church has been serving meals since March.

Some of those in line were obviously from the street. Most weren’t. Most were neither fashionably nor badly dressed, so unremarkable as to be invisible, which is somewhat disconcerting to those of us who like to keep fixed in our mind’s eye a convenient, if inaccurate, image of what poverty looks like.

There were old people, children and the in-between. Their stories varied. Terry Rhodes, a born-and-raised Victorian, used to own a house, had kids, coached their teams and worked in the hospital for more than 20 years until addiction caught up to him in 2002. “I ended up losing everything. I ended up living on the streets.”

Don’t have to be an addict to have the legs kicked from under you, though, the 62-year-old cautioned. He has seen plenty of lives turn on a dime, bewildered people robbed of all they took for granted after being blindsided by fate. “It could happen to anybody.”

When that happens, some people fall further, while others try to climb toward the light, he said. “You’ve got to have some sort of faith.”

Rhodes said he missed the camaraderie of the Christmas dinners at the armoury, all those people eating together, kids running around, music playing. That said, he was thankful for Sunday’s takeaway meal. It wasn’t just about the food, but the sense of belonging, of being treated “in a polite and kind manner.”

He was grateful, too, for the generosity of the donors who made it happen, because he takes that as a sign that people here care about their fellow Victorians. Same goes for donors to the TC Christmas Fund, whose proceeds go to mainly to the Mustard Seed and Salvation Army to distribute to those who need it most.

jknox@timescolonist.com

HOW TO DONATE

The Times Colonist Christmas Fund, which supports the Mustard Seed Street Church and other organizations, is aiming to raise $700,000 this year. There are several ways to donate:

Go to timescolonist.com/donate. That takes you to the Canada Helps website, which is open 24 hours a day and provides an immediate tax receipt.

Mail a cheque, payable to the Times Colonist Christmas Fund Society, to the Times Colonist Christmas Fund, 201-655 Tyee Road, Victoria V9A 6X5.

Use your credit card by phoning 250-995-4438 between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m., Monday through Friday. Outside those hours, messages will be accepted.

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