In a new twist on a neighbourhood service that usually provides food for the mind, an updated version is providing food for the body.
The Little Deacon’s Cupboard at St. Peter, Erindale has repurposed the free book exchange depot to get much-needed food into the hands of people in need – in a discreet and confidential way. It has also become a joint communication project between the middle-class parish and homeless people living in a nearby park.
This past June, parishioners of St. Peter’s, located in an idyllic Mississauga neighbourhood along the Credit River, set up an outdoor pantry stocked with non-perishable food and beverage items. “Take what you need. Give what you can” urges the slogan on the cupboard’s signboard.
The 24/7 al fresco foodbank is the brainchild of the church’s incumbent, the Rev. Canon Jennifer Reid, who modelled it on similar initiatives at churches in the southern United States. “People in the neighbourhood can take food as they need it without coming in to our regular Wednesday morning foodbank, the Deacon’s Cupboard,” she explains. “It preserves their privacy and anonymity. I’ve never seen anyone taking food, but I sometimes see people putting food in.”
The cupboard was built at the bottom of the church’s hill by the St. Peter’s Phantoms, a group of handy volunteers who quietly repair things written on a fix-it list, explains parishioner John Bros. The cupboard’s design and building was coordinated by Doug Duncan, a retired banker with a gift for carpentry, and its sign was painted by Peter Pook, a parishioner and local artist.
The cupboard soon morphed beyond its practical purpose into a dialogue between St. Peter’s and homeless people living in wooded enclaves of nearby Erindale Park and Sawmill Valley Trail. This exchange was sparked by a handwritten note of gratitude penned by a mysterious cupboard user known only as “J.”
J, who always ends his notes with “and I pray for this help to be there for all of us brothers and sisters always,” started a process of communication through parishioner and former churchwarden Allison Gray, who left a small notebook for listing needed items. “Later another spokesperson named Diana joined the conversation, reminding us that there are also homeless women living in the parks,” says Ms. Gray.
Thanks to J’s and Diana’s notes left in the cupboard, the parish has expanded provisions to include fresh water, toiletries, socks, underwear for both genders, cutlery, and can openers. “And we’ve just added a few hooks on the posts so people can hang blankets, hats, scarves, and mitts,” says Mr. Bros.
Now enthusiasm is mushrooming beyond the cupboard itself, with parishioners discussing the possibility converting a janitor’s closet into a shower room for their homeless neighbours and installing a washer and dryer so for the homeless people. “We haven’t broached these ideas with them yet because we don’t want to scare them off,” says Ms. Gray.
“There’s just so much energy emerging around what we can do to help,” says Canon Reid. “It’s really snowballing – all starting with that first communication from J.”
Although she has never seen any homeless people in the park, she’s thinking of asking Parks and Recreation employees to take her to meet some of them. “I wonder if that might lead to a larger conversation about social justice and help me make the congregation understand why these people are having to live in the park.”
At the least, Mr. Duncan hopes the cupboard’s success will inspire other churches to follow suit, especially with winter on the way. “The project has given everyone so much joy,” he says.