Recipient of the 2010 Leadership Victoria Lifetime Achievement Award, which honours outstanding long-term service in community leadership roles such as philanthropy, innovation, mentoring and career achievement, executive director and pastor of the Mustard Seed Food Bank, Tom Oshiro, says he answered a calling.
After retirement from the ministry, Tom joined the Mustard Seed as counsellor in 1991, planning to stay for two or three years. Eighteen years later, Reverend Tom is still looking for ways of improving life for the poor. “The reason I’m still here,” says Tom, “is because I was so challenged by the responsibilities and so encouraged by the task. It was counselling to help the poor people and to help the organization to grow spiritually.”
Tom’s family roots originated in Okinawa, Japan. In the early 1900s, Tom’s father came to Canada to work on the Canadian Pacific Railway. When the job was finished, Tom’s mother, who was a promised wife, joined her future husband and they settled in Kenora, Ontario, where Tom and his brothers and sisters were born and raised.
Tom was 12 when the Second World War broke out. Two of his older brothers enlisted; one fought on the front lines in Italy; another graduated with his wings near the end of the war. To show his own patriotism, Tom joined the army and air cadets in high school. Despite their patriotism, however, Tom’s family faced a degree of racial prejudice. Feeling alienated and angry, Tom took his hostility out in sports as a winger in hockey and a quarterback in football.
Eventually, Tom felt there was something wrong with his anger and he decided to become a Christian. “As the years passed by,” says Tom, “there was this beginning of a longing to love people, so the people who at one time I hated, it was all melted in this compassion that Christ gave me in my heart, so I changed.”
A graduate of McMaster University, Tom’s first church was in Emo, a small town on the Rainy River in northern Ontario. “It was a new venture learning new things and discovering new things in the ministry.” The job was exciting. In Emo, Tom met his wife, Vietta, a Red Cross nurse. The couple married in Kenora, and moved to Brantford, where their three children were born.
Active in the communities where he worked, Tom ran clubs for young people, coached football and hockey, directed community plays, took charge of summer camps for children and teens and was involved in curling.
As his career grew, the Baptist Convention of Ontario and Quebec called him to become a denominational executive to oversee the development of new churches and the work of evangelism.
By 1980, because of his exposure to churches everywhere, Tom was offered a position by the Baptist Union of Western Canada to work as pastor of pastors and general overseer of 50 churches in British Columbia, a responsibility that required him to travel throughout the province, checking on the welfare of churches and pastors. Travelling by car and plane from New Westminster was tiring and Tom missed his family. After four-and-a-half years, he decided to go back to church ministry and took the job of pastor at Royal Oak Baptist Church in Victoria. “I had a great time,” says Tom. The church was brand new and was in the process of growing and after six years, Tom thought it was time to retire. “I decided I would resign and retire, but I visited the Mustard Seed - an interesting mistake.”
There have been success stories, says Tom. “I always think of a lady who came to the Mustard Seed at Christmastime and she came with a tiny little baby and she was weeping and struggling with her situation. We discovered that the marriage had broken up and she didn’t know what to do except to come to us, so from that point on, we provided enough groceries for her to keep going. On that occasion, I loaned her some money and it was five years later that she came to us and said, ‘Tom, I just came to pay back a debt.’ I couldn’t remember her at all and she said, ‘Now the good news is that I was able to go back to university and I graduated in law and I’m now in a firm.’ She was visionary and energetic and completely committed to a future for her child.”
But not all stories are successful, says the grandfather of 10. From looking after 400-500 people each week when Tom began working as counsellor, the food bank now feeds 7,200 people a month; 1,700 are children. Tom is further challenged when he sees that “We are not being honest with ourselves if we believe that we are helping them by simply giving them food and clothing. In some cases, we are entering into a third generation of people, so we have literally watched the parents here; we watched their children; we saw their children grow up, marry and now we’re seeing their children. And we can see that those children are going to end up on the receiving end of the food line.”
To change the situation, Tom proposes building a family centre to organize programs that would educate the less fortunate in general living skills such as the ability to budget, to cook and to raise children. But the proposal cannot be completed without financial help for real estate and qualified volunteers to run the program.
Tom, whose wife died in 2008, says, “Everybody who comes to the Mustard Seed has a major problem. It seems as if it’s a financial one, but it’s much more emotional and spiritual.” Instead of retiring, Tom continues to look for ways to restore honour and dignity to the lives of the poor.
To learn how you can help, call Tom Oshiro at 250-953-1575 or email RevTom@mustardseed.ca
APRIL 2010 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE VANCOUVER ISLAND
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