Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Mission: improbable

Siloam gives a chance for a guy like me and a guy like Joe to be friends

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Siloam Mission is accepting of people of all sorts.


Siloam Mission is accepting of people of all sorts. Photo Store

I slide a brownie onto the plate, the finishing touch to the meal among the potatoes, meat, salad, and bread. I accept the ticket and hand "Joe" the plate.

"Here you go. Have a great day!"

Joe flashes a huge smile, containing half a dozen teeth at the most. They say a picture is worth a thousand words; I say a face is worth a million. Joe's face is brown and leathery, evidence of a summer spent out on the streets under the Manitoba sun. Wrinkles suggest a lifetime cigarette habit, and one of his eyes is swollen shut, doubtless from a fight of some sort. His beard would make the members of ZZ Top jealous. Long and scraggly, it's stained tobacco brown above the lip. A Winnipeg Jets cap sits sideways on his head, under which a couple locks of lank black hair stick out. His shirt is unbuttoned nearly to his waist, showing off a torso adorned with tattoos of all sorts.

He reaches up to accept the plate, and I can't help but glance at his hands. Twisted and gnarled, some of them are missing fingernails; they represent work as a physical labourer of some sort.

"Hey, thanks, man!" he exclaims cheerfully, eying the meal. "God bless, man."

In my everyday life, a person like me has no contact whatsoever with a person like Joe. We exist in different worlds. I lead a typical white, middle-class, 19-year-old life. I attend university, I hang out with friends, and I listen to music. I'm probably going to have a career one day, move to the suburbs, and raise more white, middle-class children. Joe has told me before that panhandling is his main source of income. He used to work as a roofer, but mental illness has plagued him all his life, limiting his career aspirations. Nevertheless, he remains constantly optimistic. I tell him stories about my days spent playing high school football; he tells me stories about his days spent in Stony Mountain Penitentiary. If I were to tell people that I was friends with someone like Joe, they would probably stare at me in utter disbelief.

Which is exactly what makes Siloam Mission such a magical place.

I generally do two types of work at Siloam. Kitchen work, which is pretty self-explanatory, includes cutting up vegetables, washing dishes, serving the meals. But the part I enjoy the most is being out on the floor, mingling with the patrons. Around dinner time, the thirty or so tables will be packed, the air thick with shouts, snores, expletives, laughter and anything else you can imagine. I move from table to table, trying to strike up a conversation. Some people are unresponsive, uninterested. Some people tell me, explicitly, that they aren't in the mood for conversation. Then there are others, like Joe, who open up and let me take a peek at their life, radically different from mine. They'll tell me about their troubles, their childhood, and their missed opportunities. It's nerve-wracking work, never knowing when you'll get shot down or told to take a hike. I don't pretend to know where these people are coming from; I imagine I wouldn't last a day in some of their lives. But every once in a while you'll stumble into a meaningful conversation that will change your outlook on life and make you count your blessings.

Siloam Mission accepts everyone. White or brown, young or old, male or female. Whether you were educated in a university or educated on the street. Whether you drive a Mercedes-Benz or whether you have to scrounge up bus fare. Whether you eat three times a day, or three times a week, it's a place where you can break down social stratifications and silly stereotypes, and make friends you never would have dreamed of having. It's a place where you can grow, learn, and where you can enter into one of the most unique, quirky, beautiful communities you'll ever see.

That's why Siloam Mission is my favorite spot in Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 22, 2013 A1

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