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God Turned Street Kid Into Ministry Leader
No dream is too big for the man who took the smallest of all seeds, the Mustard Seed, and helped it flourish into one of the largest street ministries in Canada.

A former street kid and drug dealer will soon receive the country's highest honour—the Order of Canada.

Pat Nixon
Pat Nixon

When Pat Nixon was a delinquent 15-year-old, he used to sit outside Calgary's City Hall and "bum" money from passers-by. Now, as executive director of the Mustard Seed Street Ministry, Nixon still "bums" money, but on a much larger scale.

"God was preparing me for His service in His kingdom," says Nixon, who now oversees an annual budget of $5.7 million. The ministry served more than 450,000 meals to homeless people in 2004, and put up almost 28,000 overnight stays. That's not to mention transitional housing programs, community health care, industrials arts and literacy programs, and computer and job training.

During the past 20 years, Nixon has mobilized thousands of volunteers from local churches and businesses to help street people get back on their feet. In the fall of 2005, the former street kid with a seventh-grade education who "broke every rule in the book" will be receiving the country's highest honour, the Order of Canada.

"Pat's extremely deserving," says Rick Tobias, executive director of Toronto's Yonge Street Mission. "He deserves it on the basis of what he's done for the poor in Calgary. Obviously the city recognizes his contribution by giving him the Citizen of the Year Award. Across the nation there's hardly a street ministry that hasn't benefited from Pat's learning."

Nixon joins a list that includes Canada's top scientists, artists, philanthropists, volunteers and business people. But he doesn't see the honour as marking the end of his work-he's just 44. "I'm looking at the next 20 years with more excitement than I did the first 20."

"Pat's understanding is that he is, in some way, an agent of the Church," says Tobias, who has known Nixon for 20 years. "His job is to create an environment where church and community people can connect with low-income people in meaningful ways." Nixon says that when he was a law-breaking teen, he could have never fathomed his future as a husband and father of six sons, a leader in the community, a public speaker and award recipient. "I had no concept of what I could be," he remarks. "Other people had it for me."

Dealt drugs by age 14

As a young boy growing up in Vancouver, Nixon was repeatedly beaten by his father. By the time he was 12, drinking and drugs became his escape. His father committed suicide and his mother re-married. But Nixon and his older brother, Bill, received little attention because his parents practically lived at the local bar.

…many of the events that led him off the street were a direct result of his "prayer."

Just as he was starting Grade 8, Nixon was kicked out of school for assault. His life on the street had begun. Initially dealers used Nixon as a "drug wheel" throughout the interior of British Columbia. "I would pick up drugs, get on a Greyhound bus, look cute—like I was going to Grandma's house—drop off the drugs and pick up the money," he explains. "They called me 'The Kid' and made me feel like a top-end criminal."

Yet by the time he was 15, Nixon was a drug addict and discarded by the dealers. He hit bottom and found himself thinking about suicide as he leaned over a guardrail looking into the dark waters of the river below.

Suddenly the image of a Sunday school plaque he had made, "The Lord is my Shepherd," leapt into his thoughts. Nixon turned away from the guardrail, clenched his fist at the sky, and yelled, "What kind of a shepherd are you? If you are my shepherd, come down here and prove it."

Nixon says it wasn't until much later that he realized many of the events that led him off the street were a direct result of this "prayer." Soon afterward, RCMP officers found an intoxicated Nixon passed out, once again, on a park bench in Kamloops. Fed up with constantly holding the teen in their drunk tank, the officers deposited him, semi-conscious, on a bus bound for Calgary.

A meal from weird Christians

Lonely, stinking and constantly sick from drinking cheap wine and Lysol, Nixon was begging for cash in the downtown core when four young men came by and offered to buy him a meal. When the meal came and they bowed their heads, Nixon recalls thinking, "These guys are worse than weird-they're Christians!"

The men, from Calgary's First Baptist Church, subsequently took him to their house and gave him food, clothing and his own room. "These guys are still the people I look at as the heroes of my life," Nixon says. "For me, they were the right people there at the right time. I believe this can happen for every one of these street folks."

Although Nixon wanted to change, he quickly fell back into his old drug habits. He even began stealing from the guys who had taken him in. Soon he was arrested for breaking and entering and auto theft. At 16, he was sent to a federal penitentiary and then to a wilderness prison camp in Nordegg, Alta. He finally learned things many Canadians take for granted, such as how to read and write, how to eat properly and exercise.

Second chances

Released at age 18, he went right back to his Christian friends asking for a second chance. Amazingly, they agreed.

…he became "terrified as the whole front of the stage was filled with people on their knees to accept Christ."

"I was given lots of chances," Nixon says. "Because of that I'm willing to take a second, third, fourth and fifth chance on people…That's part of what compassion is."

While in jail, Nixon had been writing to a beautiful, intelligent girl he had met at a wedding. Already a Christian, Lise's encouragement helped lead Nixon to faith. He remembers one evening in Revelstoke, where he had once again turned to selling drugs. As he watched the sun set, "there was a clear feeling I was loved by God," he recalls. "Right there I committed my life to Jesus Christ."

Pat and Lise married later that year. Nixon credits her with much of his success. "Lise had great faith in me," Nixon says. "She stood by me and said she saw something in me, things I could not see in myself. That's what I do for people today."

Nixon progressed from washing dishes at Calgary's Burning Bush coffeehouse, in the basement of First Baptist, to running the establishment. The first time he haltingly gave his testimony complete with an awkward altar call, he became "terrified as the whole front of the stage was filled with people on their knees to accept Christ."

After Nixon was sent to Victoria to observe a street church in action, he went back to Calgary on fire to see a similar vision there. In November 1984, Calgary's Mustard Seed was born in a three-storey house near First Baptist. By 1992, the facility designed to hold 80 people was regularly attracting crowds of 200. With the homeless population on the rise, new digs were desperately needed. A 27,000-square-foot, four-storey, vintage office building became available in the shadows of the Calgary Tower. The day before they were to sign the final papers for the loan, a private donor wrote a cheque for the entire amount of $375,000. "It was very, very amazing," Nixon says. It was as if a light went on in the city. Churches began to volunteer their time, energy and resources to help the poor.

Mustard Seed sprouts

When the Mustard Seed started, Nixon was the only paid staff member. Now with 65 full-time and 35 part-time staff and over 9,000 volunteers, an average of 1,268 meals are provided each day. But Nixon's vision was never just to "hand someone a sandwich."

The dining room transforms into a dorm with 82 mats for the homeless. Short- and long-term transitional housing is available for people committed to getting off the street. But Nixon wanted to see his street folk treated with dignity in the workplace as well.

Thus in 1999 the Seed purchased the two-storey building directly across the street. The ensuing Creative Centre is now a buzz of activity. Filled with computer labs, art rooms, music rooms, woodworking shops and craft rooms to make and sell products, it has provided viable employment for hundreds of street folk who would otherwise never have had a chance. People can complete their Grade 12 credits, take college-level classes or deal with emotional issues like anger management.

But Nixon's dreams don't stop there. "I want to build a town," he says, "a place where we can pull people out of the inner city and give them a new environment, a new chance, just as I was given-I believe they'll make it." Nixon will be working over the next two years to make this town a reality. It appears no dream is too big for the man who took the smallest of all seeds, the Mustard Seed, and helped it flourish into one of the largest street ministries in Canada.

Doris Fleck is a freelance writer in Calgary, Aberlta.

Originally published in Faith Today, May/June 2005.




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