August 1st, 2016
It’s almost noon on a Monday and the streets outside of Bonar Parkdale Presbyterian Church are quiet.
An elderly man limps towards the front entrance, pausing to unzip his fraying sports jacket before thrusting the door open. A wave of chatter and muffled music hits the air before the door swings shut and the streets are still again. Inside, members of The Dale Ministries are about to face their busiest hour of the week.
“Anywhere between 120 and 150 people show up for our lunch drop-in on Monday’s. All are welcome, regardless of circumstance,” says The Dale’s Executive Director, Erinn Oxford. “Almost all of the food we use to cook for our community comes from Second Harvest.”
The Dale Ministries has been serving Parkdale’s most vulnerable since 1907. A once affluent Toronto suburb, Parkdale experienced a steep decline in the 1970s after development severed access to the waterfront and the de-institutionalization of a nearby mental health facility. Individuals struggling to get by moved into once single family dwellings turned rooming houses.
Embracing the transience of the community it serves, The Dale Ministries is not permanently housed anywhere. From a Monday lunch drop-in at the church, to Tuesday coffee corners at the Salvation Army and Wednesday art and breakfast drop-ins at a community centre, The Dale and its core member’s move from space to space, offering diverse programs and gatherings to its patrons.
“There is something very unique about inhabiting the neighbourhood by physically being all over it,” laughs Erinn, “It’s a good use of community resources.”
Since 2011, Second Harvest has been delivering fresh food to The Dale Ministries, ensuring they can provide a healthy lunch to 100+ people every Monday.
Every week, several dedicated volunteers plan a meal and ensure it’s ready to go for noon. They use up all the food they have, and if there are leftovers, they prepare packages for people to take home.
“I know as somebody who struggled to keep up a food budget, it’s easier to rely on heavy carbs, but I feel that part of offering a respectful space is being able to offer really good food. We have a real salad every week in addition to whatever other vegetables have gone into the meal,” says Erinn.
As the main hall begins to fill up, a sudden burst of excitement sounds. Several people run to greet a slender, smiling man who has just walked in.
“He was sick for quite a while and the community hasn’t seen him lately,” says Erinn, “we missed him.”
“The food brings people here. These are some of the most nutrient dense meals some of us will get in a week. But the sense of comradery, and the good feelings we have towards each other keeps us coming back,” says Gord, a Dale member who has been attending lunches for the past three years.
Before lunch a small jam session breaks out. With Erinn on the keyboards, Gord on the guitar and a group of community members singing, dancing, and hitting tambourines, the group launches into a momentous rendition of “This little light of mine.”
On the menu today, a selection of colourful salads, chicken, potatoes and rolls.
If there’s one thing you walk away with at the Dale Ministries, it’s an overwhelming sense of old world community, where people rely on one another and watch out for each other.
“I think the Dale belongs to the community. It works and continues to thrive because people have said, ‘this is ours and we’re doing this together,’” says Erinn.
After lunch wraps up you head outside, onto the contrastingly quiet side street. Round the corner onto Queen Street and the church disappears, but a distant tune rings in your head, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine. Everywhere I go, I’m gonna let it shine.”