Tai Chi Society Inspires Local Volunteerism

It's nearly 3 p.m. and a long line of people snake up and down the alley behind the Taoist Tai Chi Society. Some have been waiting since noon. "There are too many people. This might be one of the busiest days I've seen in a while," says Steve Streadwick, today's volunteer cook.

            Those who are lucky enough to be at the front of the line sigh in relief as Streadwick walks out to open the gate.  Volunteers begin to portion out steaming servings of chicken, veggies and rice as they chat with the regulars.

            Community involvement is one of the most crucial aspects guiding the beliefs of the Taoist Tai Chi Society, but even with support from community and society members there is not enough money to feed everyone who attends the soup kitchen. Even with increased funding, it would not be enough to meet the needs of the neighbourhood's growing homeless population, who may turn to crime to support themselves.

          At the heart of this soup kitchen are the values taught by Master Moy, a Taoist monk from China, who immigrated to Canada in the early '70s and founded the Taoist Tai Chi Society. Since its founding Moy's brand of Taoism has made its way to almost every corner of the globe with over 500 locations in 25 different countries.

          The  chapter in the heart of Toronto's Chinatown centers around this shared sense of community involvement. Members of the neighbourhood mill around and chat with office workers as an elderly Chinese woman shuffles through the front doors. After sitting down on a chair momentarily to catch her breath, she stands up, calls the elevator that services the four story building and disappears up to the fourth floor to open the temple as she has every morning for years. 

           The temple is a brightly lit room decorated in gold and red with bright green walls. The air is thick with incense as the old woman shuffles around the main room organizing offerings of fruit left for the deities. On the wall there are photographs of Chinese men and women,at the top is a smiling portrait of Master Moy. The photos commemorate members of the community  

who have died, explains Isobel Sibbald, and are visited often by family members celebrating their ancestors afterlives with ritual offerings.

            While the Chinese community members come here to worship, other members of the neighbourhood visit the society for a different reason. The local homeless population arrive every Monday in anticipation of a hot meal, which may be the only home cooked food they eat this week. 

            Longtime member Frank Chow was the first to suggest the soup kitchen. While running a store near Jane and Bloor in 1995, a trip Chow took to the wholesale food terminal sparked the idea of  serving affordable food to homeless people around the community.

            Almost 900 weeks have passed since the soup kitchen began, and each has been privately funded by members of the society during a special weekly one hour "feed the homeless" class. Most members donate an extra 10 dollars every week on top of the 50 dollars a month already spent on membership fees.

         "It's like everyone pitching in for a 

The Taoist Tai Chi Society's D'Arcy Street location.

Photo courtesy of the Taoist Tai Chi Society.

family dinner," says Judy Millen, an international director with the society. She explains the spiritual side of the society causes most members to see the small donation as a boost in karma or  simply a good feeling.

            Yet not everything runs quite as smoothly. Data provided for CBC by the Toronto Police Service shows the Kensington-Chinatown neighbourhood has, since 2004, been consecutively rated within the top ten neighbourhoods boasting the highest occurrences of break and enters and drug related offences per capita. Hayley Buck, a social worker specializing in homelessness and drug addiction, thinks because it is harder for homeless men to receive social assistance and  find shelters, they may begin committing crimes to survive. All soup kitchens help a bit, "But without  24-7 outreach centres, most homeless people act out of desperation to feed themselves or their families," she says. "And that's when crime increases."

            But the Taoist Tai Chi Society is having a positive effect on the community. By providing a place of worship, it has drawn support from the Chinese residents and with over 100 people attending the weekly soup kitchen, they are able to provide hot meals to residents of the community who otherwise may be unable to afford one.

            Connecting with members of the community has allowed the society to spread Master Moy's compassion. Whether it was offering food to the hungry or a place for the community to worship, Millen remembers Moy's views on compassion were not about sympathy but about providing people with what they need most.

            However even with the weekly donations, purchasing enough food to feed everyone waiting in the long line is impossible. "We could only buy 95 pieces of chicken this week," says Sibbald. The volunteers try to make the chicken last as long as possible, but almost 70 people remain in line. The next 20 will get lucky and receive vegetables, but the rest will receive only rice.