Some years ago I was asked to serve on the board of the Ottawa Mission. If you are going on the board of a homeless charity I felt you get to know the operation better if you begin by volunteering. I started in the kitchen of the mission serving soup one day a week.
We’d serve a meal starting at 11:15 am and feed 300 in forty-five minutes, then clean up the kitchen and the dining room and eat with the staff. We have a corporate description of mission people as “clients,” but really they are just men and women who want a meal. Most are street people.
Some hold minimum wage jobs but can’t make ends meet. Many are simply lonely. Besides serving 1,300 people a day, the mission sleeps 275 people a night. No one is refused; no one is ever asked to leave.
I know most of these people on a personal basis and we have become good friends. They’re as close to me as colleagues I knew in my 18 years in Parliament, or caucus members I would meet at the Weekly Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast that I attended for many years.
I call what I do working with the “book ends of society,” those who have power and status and those who have nothing. Many days I go from one group to the other in the space of hours, and do you know what I found? Those in Parliament and those at the mission are not that much different.
Many street people have more addictive personalities than MPs on Parliament Hill. I found another difference: Almost without exception my colleagues in caucus and I were spared the broken childhoods that wounded so many of my friends at the mission.
I believe we all look for and need a family. It’s where we go for friendship and respect. If your family at home is so dysfunctional you can’t stay in the house, if you have been told how useless you are, that you are a failure; then you’ll find family with a motorcycle gang or a group of young people shooting up drugs under a bridge. Family is the big difference.
To work with the homeless we have counsellors and addiction treatment personnel. To help to control anxiety and frustration, I lead a meditation group on Fridays; it’s helpful because the men can use it as a way to calm their minds and body’s.
The wounds never really heal but there are people who do break their negative habits. I have come to believe that developing a faith is a major key, much like the 12-step program in Alcoholics Anonymous. If you’re able to come to peace with yourself, then possibly you can begin to forgive others – the father who mistreated you or the mother who was continually neglectful. Lives change with forgiveness.
I also organize the weekly and the yearly national Prayer Breakfast that is held on Parliament Hill. I am fortunate that I am not political anymore and that enables me to interact with members from all parties in the House of Commons. After all, MP’s are just people with the same wants and needs as anyone else. I left Parliament in 1988 and have been out a long time but I understand the pressures of political life.
In my private life, before returning to Ottawa, I ran a conglomerate, Canadian Agra Corporation. I was also chairman of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. I did senior work with Hudson’s Bay Company, Ford Motors and a public relations firm with a number of offices across Ontario.
I had a gnawing sense there had to be more to life than what I was doing in the private sector. And I was right. Being on Parliament Hill in a different role is very rewarding, but seldom do I leave the Ottawa Mission without having felt better for giving to others.
(Editor’s Note: the author served six terms as MP for Lisgar, Man. and was president of the Ottawa Mission for the homeless. Mr. Murta’s commentary was originally published June 14, 2013)