Wednesday, December 3, 2008

How a new calling for service grew from a seed

Tom Oshiro photographed by Deddeda Stemler

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
December 3, 2008


Folks greeted the small figure by patting his back, or by pumping his hand.

“Bless you, Pastor Tom,” said one woman, looking him in the eye after delivering a hug. “We prayed for you last night.”

It is a busy time at the Mustard Seed. The weather is cold and Christmas approaches. Tis the season for fundraising, as those with are asked to share with those without. Seventy cents of every dollar given to the charity will arrive in these next weeks.

On Friday, a surfboard store is offering discounts in exchange for food. The Salmon Kings hockey team has set up bins for donations at the entrances to their arena, which happens to carry the name of a grocery chain.

There will be a truck parade and food drives and charity events.

In 11 days, the parade grounds inside the nearby Armoury will be filled with paper-covered tables on which roast turkey and mashed potatoes will be served to people who have already begun to anticipate the upcoming feast.

A familiar figure at these Yuletide events is the Rev. Tom Oshiro, a gentle, moon-faced man whose ready grin makes him look like he’s permanently squinting.

The constant need to replenish the larder, which feeds hundreds of hungry citizens throughout the year, can so dominate the discussion that the pastor thought it best to offer a visitor a reminder.

“The Mustard Seed is a church, not a food bank,” he said.

The street ministry opened a generation ago with a prayer closet in a downtown store. The needs of the underprivileged are so great that it is now housed in a former marine garage, where it offers food and clothing banks, as well as offering such services as counseling, advocacy, and prison visits. A 32-acre farm outside Duncan, called the Hope Farm Healing Centre, provides recovering drug addicts a working life on a spread with livestock, orchards and vegetable crops.

The old garage is where services are held, although the room today is filling with donations. Tables in the centre of the room are covered by mounds of discarded pants and blouses and hoodies. Two blue work shirts, still wrapped in cellophane, carry a gas-station logo.

The clinic, a small room not much bigger than a closet, was an untidy mess of tins of formula and medicinal flotsam. A layer of order could be seen behind the disarray.

In the entryway, coffee and carrot cake was being served to visitors. At the food-bank window, a tiny, big-eyed girl in a pink shirt, who looked a lot like Cindy Lou Who from Dr. Suess’s Grinch tale, reached for an overhead box of milk cartons certainly weighing as much as herself. Rev. Oshiro gently warned her away.

Seventeen years ago, as he neared retirement age, the pastor accepted an invitation to help out at Mustard Seed. It has been a consuming passion ever since, an unexpected grace note to conclude a rich life.

Rev. Oshiro wrote a story in the church’s current newsletter about his own background.

“In my lifetime,” he wrote, “I need to confess, I have never known abject poverty.”

He began working at age 9, delivering newspapers. His father, George Oshiro, had come from Okinawa to British Columbia to work on the railroad. An educated man, he soon handled bookkeeping and became foreman of a work crew. With his wife Tsuiru, he settled in Kenora, Ont., where he worked at the Canadian Pacific Railway roundhouse.

Tom was the sixth of seven children. The newspaper gig was followed by work as a caddy. During the war, his family was ordered, as enemy aliens, to stay within the city limits. Two older brothers circumvented the restriction, while also disproving the accusation, by enlisting in the armed forces.

Tom got a job at a 7-Up bottling plant, then joined his father at the roundhouse as lightup foreman, igniting the firebox so locomotives could return to duty.

He used an ax to shop down trees for a hydro right of way, and cut railway ties at a sawmill. He hauled oat sacks filled with stoker coal, building strength in his legs that helped him win a spot as quarterback for the high school team, no small feat for a young man just 5-foot-6.

As a schoolboy curler, his rink came within a few points of representing Northern Ontario at the Macdonald Brier.

Though his parents were not yet converted, he felt the calling.

“In Grade 12, I began to realize as a Christian my main mission was to follow Christ. I had trouble with that because I was having too much fun in high school. Eventually, I realized my life was to be act of obedience.”

After studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, the Baptists assigned him to a pastorage for the Rainy River District. At Emo, a town across the river from Minnesota, he met Vietta Gingrich, a nurse.

The couple married, moving to Southern Ontario in 1966, where Rev. Oshiro began his ministry at the King Street Baptist Church in Preston (now Cambridge). After a decade, he moved to the Baptist church’s headquarters in Toronto, from which he was assigned to be area minister for British Columbia, a high-ranking position he held for nearly five years.

After another six years with a Victoria congregation, Rev. Oshiro accepted the invitation to help out at Mustard Seed.

“I felt the pulsating experience of fellowship, of people who really wanted to get involved in people’s lives, and to serve the poor,” he said.

His wife, known as Vi, worked as lead organizer for the big Christmas banquet. She also offered nursing help from the closet-sized clinic, which she kept tidy and orderly until taking sick three months ago.

She died just before dawn on a chilly morning a fortnight ago.

At the Mustard Seed yesterday, the pastor accepted condolences from volunteers and visitors. He will be flying east today to attend a memorial service to be held Friday at the very church in which he was once the minister.

He will return in time to help organize the banquet. He would not miss it for the world.

As Rev. Oshiro likes to say, the first Christmas was the picture of poverty.

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