Presenting: St. Aidan’s Church and Father Stephen Kirkegaard – Charity Comes Full Circle in the Beach

In addition to volunteering for the Out of the Cold Program Matt also dedicates his time as a lacrosse coach and as a manager in the Greater Toronto Hockey League while his wife is a coach in the local soccer league. Matt added that volunteering is fun, he gets a lot out of it.

Originally he heard about the Out of the Cold Program through an article in the Beach Metro News. Then there was a community meeting at St. Aidan’s in November, and Matt added “It seemed like a no-brainer”. He felt he should be more involved in the community, and this project was just perfect for him. Now that he is thoroughly familiar with the program he feels it is a wonderful thing and great for the community.

Jennifer Baird has been a Beach resident for 15 years and was also looking to give back to the community. A friend told her about the Out of the Cold Program, and she said “Sign me up”. Once she realized that there was some initial controversy about the program she became even more determined to help. Jennifer explained that today there are so many volunteers in St. Aidan’s program (over 100) that each one only needs to come out once a month. There has been an amazing amount of neighbourhood support for this initiative.

During the daytime Jennifer works in sales, and in the evening she participates in community choirs and spends time with family and friends. She wanted to make time for community involvement, and ever since she started she enjoys the interaction with the guests of the Out of the Cold Program. Jennifer added she was quite open-minded to begin with when she went into the project, but even so she was pleasantly surprised by the nature of the program.

As far as the program is concerned, Jennifer explained that whoever gets here first gets a spot for the night. Tonight for example the 12 spots were filled up by 4:30 pm. At that point the program has to turn people away. The Out of the Cold program at St. Aidan’s is extremely popular with guests since it serves some of the best food in the city; in addition it is a small program with only twelve spaces, an aspect that many guests enjoy. The quality of the food makes a huge difference.

Jennifer herself describes her responsibilities as “hanging out and talking to people”. As the hostess, she has to direct the guests, clean up and help with organization. She also gets to play cards with the guests. One thing that is important, according to Jennifer, is to have sensitivity to be able to tell when people do and do not want to talk. Her years in sales have helped her recognize that. Jennifer feels it is important to recognize that this project is about the guests and their needs. Tonight for example she was dead tired, and thought for a moment that she did not feel like going out any more. But once she came to St. Aidan’s she enjoyed herself and felt good that she had come out.

Beautiful stained glass window in the interior of St. Aidan’s Church

Last but not least I was able to talk to Father Stephen Kirkegaard himself. He explained that he was born in Montreal in a family with a Danish background. He added he is supposedly related to Søren Aabye Kierkegaard, the 19th century Danish philosopher and theologian, who is generally recognized as the first existentialist philosopher. He was brought up in a religious home, was baptized and attended Sunday school. But during his teen years he started to find the church boring.

As a child of the 1960s he went to India and studied transcendental meditation under Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. In his youth he travelled to Kenya and Zambia and also set up transcendental meditation centres. Today he is excited about Christian meditation, one of the great loves in his life. He enjoys teaching people how to be still and centered, an important skill in this hectic and frenetic life of ours. He adds “The heart is restless until it finds its rest in God”.

Interestingly, Father Stephen Kirkegaard was not always a man of God. For an entire decade of his life he was actually a businessman. He sold automated data processing services and was a sales training manager and a national training manager. Father Stephen values having been part of the business world since it is the compass of our culture of how we interpret the world. It certainly makes him understand his parishioners better.

After a prolonged absence from the Church, Father Steven’s interest in religion was rekindled in the 1980s. His fast-paced corporate life was based on a philosophy of working hard and playing hard, and he entered a serious life crisis: although he enjoyed a lot of outer success he was experiencing a deep spiritual poverty, even bankruptcy. He added his heart was “parched territory”. While he was on a vacation with his wife he heard a voice “Go to Church, you’ll find me there.”

He says it may sound crazy, but God had spoken to him. He had not been to Church for about 15 years. And the little voice in his head started a complete renaissance of his spiritual life. The young man who had always had an interest in meditation was the same man who rediscovered God; he was brought there by the same life currents. His time in the business world was “a creative and necessary detour”.

When Father Stephen decided to go back to university for a Master of Divinity degree he could not figure out how he was going to pay for a four-year full-time university program. But as if through divine intervention, his last year in business was formidable, and he said “it just rained dollars”, and “the spirit was at work”. All of a sudden there was this abundance that was so overflowing it could not be accounted for by human effort and intention.

St. Aidan’s unique architectural style

In addition to Father Stephen’s personal background we started talking about how the Out of the Cold Program at St. Aidan’s came about. Father Stephen explained that a local parishioner, Dr. Michael Chambers, a physician residing in the Beach but practicing in Mississauga, had always had a real heart for those in need. He has been volunteering one afternoon a week at the Yonge Street Mission and wanted to do something similar in the Beach. Dr. Chambers and Father Stephen took a walk along the Boardwalk and figured they had a big building that they were heating anyways, and they were seeing homeless people in various different locations. The question came “Why don’t we just provide shelter for 12 men and women for 12 nights a year during the winter months?”

Around Christmas of 2006 the congregation at St. Aidan’s unanimously decided in favour of this initiative. Father Stephen likens it to the Virgin Mary, who was homeless when she was pregnant with Jesus and she was in need of shelter. He wanted to give the gift of shelter to these 12 men and women and adds that Christ said “As you treat the homeless so you are treating me.” Father Stephen’s philosophy is that everyone should be treated with dignity and respect, since all human beings are interrelated.

But he wanted the program to be compassionate not just to the homeless, but also to the neighbours as he understood their concerns about their children and their properties. He strongly felt “the more people know the less they fear”. So he went ahead to hold two open houses to introduce the community to the Church and the proposed Out of the Cold Program. Father Stephen mentioned that Maria Minna, the federal MP for the Beaches-East York was instrumental in getting this program up and running. Local City Councillor Sandra Bussin’s help was critical in bringing in external consultants called “Urban Intelligence” who are community and government facilitators. They donated their time free of charge and helped the community work through all the important issues and concerns that surrounded the Out of the Cold Program. Father Stephen added that he even got letters from a variety of law firms who were volunteering their services pro bono.

From a historical point of view there is an interesting connection between St. Aidan’s Church and an earlier church that was operating in this area about 120 years ago. This tent church, which became St. Aidan’s, was founded by a man named H. Dixon who was a life-long supporter of the homeless and the needy. After his death in 1929 a soup kitchen was opened and named after Canon Dixon: today, Dixon Hall is a downtown Toronto community centre whose programs and services help people make major changes and improvements in their lives and ultimately a better future for themselves.

The baptismal font at St. Aidan’s Church

Part of Dixon Hall’s mission statement today is to help homeless women and men find temporary shelter and employment opportunities as they try to regain self-sufficiency. Dixon Hall has been instrumental in helping St. Aidan’s Church create the Out of the Cold Program. So ironically, Canon Dixon’s spirit of charity and his commitment to the homeless, all of which started right here in the Beach more than 100 years ago, has returned to the Beach in the form of the Out of the Cold Program at St. Aidan’s Church. In his eloquent way, Father Stephen mentioned that churches have personalities, and that they undergo renewal. He is particularly happy about the resurrection of the homeless program and Canon Dixon’s legacy, especially considering the Church is approaching its 100th anniversary in the fall.

As far as the practicalities of the Out of the Cold Program are concerned, meals are generally provided by volunteers, but two local restaurants have also pitched in their culinary services: Quigley’s Pub and Bistro and the Beacher Café both regularly contribute meals to the homeless, and the gastronomic reviews have been nothing but outstanding. The coffee for the morning breakfast is donated by the local Tim Horton’s down the road, evidence of the collaborative effort put together by residents and local businesses alike.

We also touched on human cultures and that fact that we are truly blessed in
Canada. Father Stephen recently ministered at the funeral of a woman, a
former ESL teacher, who died in her eighties. She remembered growing up in Berlin during and after WWII, begging for bread as she and her sister were starving. In Canada she connected with an Afghani woman who was a war refugee and extended her help to his New Canadian. She had never forgotten her own experience of what it was like to survive a war and treated this Afghani woman like her sister – evidence that we are all interrelated.

Father Stephen added that the Church believes in a communion of saints, and that all humans, living or dead, are interconnected. According to him, science is finally catching up with spirituality and proving the interdependence and interrelationship between all matter. In our modern world many people have lost contact with this fundamental truth of connectedness, and in the shadow of our developed societies there is a lot of shallowness and poverty in the midst of all our affluence.

For Father Stephen life as a priest is not a job, it is a gift and a vocation. He does not consider himself to be an extraordinary human being, he admits to having all the human faults that anyone else might have. “Clergy are just like other people. They just have a passion for the spiritual”. He added that living a spiritual life does not require a human being to be ordained. “You can live your love of God from the inside out and do not need to be a cleric to do that.”

His “job” does not have hours, but he also tries to live a reasonable life and not burn himself out. Today, as an example, was his day off, but he still came to the church to help with the Out of the Cold Program.

Tapestry depicting St. Aidan, by Doris McCarthy

I also asked Father Stephen Kirkegaard about his congregation and he said it consists of about 400 people, 130 of whom are regularly here on Sundays. The parish is multi-generational, and he loves having children here. He refers to St. Aidan’s as a “village church in the middle of a big city”. Although his family has only lived here for about three years, he has fallen in love with the Beach and calls it “a wonderful community”. Before St. Aidan’s Father Stephen was the priest of the Anglican Church in Cookstown, a real village. As far as his congregation in the Beach is concerned, about half of his parishioners are long-term Beach residents, and the other half moved here fairly recently. What they share in common is a search for the spiritual.

On a personal level, Father Stephen has been married for 20 years to his wife Sandy, and they have two adult children. He speaks very fondly of his wife with whom he shares a strong emotional and spiritual connection. What he enjoys about the Anglican Church is that it treats men and women equally, and women have the right to be ordained.

One thing in the public’s response to the Out of the Cold Program at St. Aidan’s surprised Father Stephen: the immense sense of pride that local residents expressed, even when they were not parishioners. They were genuinely delighted that a faith community would walk the talk and start a significant charitable initiative to help the less fortunate. His Church has received a lot of goodwill from the community and the media for living out its spiritual message.

Just before our interview ended, Father Stephen took me into the actual Church which features a beautiful vaulted ceiling and exquisite stained glass windows. A baptismal font is located right in the centre of the Church. Father Stephen took me into a side chapel that features a gigantic tapestry by renowned Canadian artist Doris McCarthy which pictures the historical backdrop of St. Aidan’s, even Canon Dixon’s tent church is depicted. A diverse kaleidoscope of parishioners adorns the left side of the tapestry. Father Stephen’s favourite part is the rose-coloured church in the centre, the way Doris McCarthy envisioned a church: warm, joyful and welcoming. He also showed me a second tapestry by the same artist in the main part of the Church, depicting St. Aidan of Lindisfarne, the Apostle of Northumbria who was the founder and first bishop of the monastery on the island of Lindisfarne in England. Around 650 A.D. St. Aidan travelled all over England on foot so he would easily be able to talk to those he met. To make his job easier King Oswin gave him a horse. St. Aidan immediately gave the horse away to a beggar which made King Oswin upset. The king’s ire dissipated when St. Aidan asked him if the son of a mare was more precious than a son of God.

Tapestry by Doris McCarthy

With these wise words I bid adieu to Father Stephen who had welcomed me so openly and cordially to his Church and the Out of the Cold drop-in project. His friendly, engaging nature; the great new initiative that is touching guests and volunteers alike; and the wisdom he shared with me made me smile all the way home.

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