Patrick Nixon is a leader in delivering compassionate and effective programs for the poor and the homeless. Pat’s innovative work at Calgary’s Mustard Seed Street Ministry has transformed lives and encouraged thousands within Alberta and across Canada to join him in building stronger and more engaged communities.
Pat Nixon was born in Vancouver on November 24, 1960 and raised in a troubled home. His tumultuous home life led him to act out, which led to trouble at school and with the authorities. His step father kicked Pat out of the house at the age of 12. When he hit the streets, Pat was functionally illiterate and utterly alone.
Pat drifted around British Columbia, reaching lows that almost led him to end his life. Eventually, the police put him on a bus headed east. Pat arrived in Calgary at 15 and began panhandling to stay alive. One day, he was approached by four men from the First Baptist Church. Pat asked for money but they offered him a meal and a place to stay. One of the men, Rod Derry, cared for Pat for a year before he slipped back into old patterns. By age 16, Pat was in provincial jail.
Two years later, Pat returned to Calgary to find that the same church community was ready to give him another chance. Pat reconnected with Lise, a young girl he had fallen in love with during his year living with Rod, and they were married in 1979. After a few false starts, Pat was ready to change his life for good. He found a job and began volunteering with Lise at the church’s Burning Bush Coffee House. When he was laid off from his job as a construction worker, the church approached Pat about starting a street ministry. He was reluctant but soon began developing an approach that drew on his experiences with homelessness, fear and addiction. Pat was licensed as a pastor and, in 1984, the Mustard Seed Street Ministry was born.
The mission started modestly, with 12 volunteers providing emergency food and shelter to 50 people per day. Pat understood how to mobilize volunteers, learning that the key to making the mission work was to give them the ownership of, and responsibility for, their volunteer duties. Pat also spent time counseling the broken people he found on the streets. The scope of the Mustard Seed’s work has changed since those early years. The same sense of ownership that he hands to his volunteers Pat extends to the people who stay at the mission. They are encouraged and expected to move beyond emergency food and shelter services to the Step Up program, which involves education and counseling supports that lead to employment. They also find both encouragement and celebration as they pass each milestone. With Pat’s vision and leadership, and with the dedication of the Mustard Seed board members, the mission has grown from an office in the basement of the First Baptist Church to a collection of downtown Calgary facilities that offer emergency care, training, job search services and transitional and affordable housing. It also includes Mountain Aire Lodge, which provides work experience and healing opportunities. In 2006, the mission saw more than 11,000 volunteers serve over 365,000 people.
In addition to programs for the poor and homeless, the Mustard Seed offers a public education component that ranges from primary school groups to post-secondary students in sociology, social work and nursing. People who take part are encouraged to look at their community differently and to consider the issues of poverty and homelessness from a broader perspective.
Pat Nixon’s influence is not limited to his work in Calgary. He serves as a mentor and trainer for poverty and street workers across Canada, coaching them on building strong volunteer organizations and developing programs and resources. Pat has also been involved in advocating for social change at the national level as a member of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada Council of Presidents and board member of the Canadian Roundtable on Poverty and Homelessness. Working with Rick Tobias from Toronto’s Young Street Mission, Pat developed Street Level which is a national coalition offering training, networking and support for street and poverty workers across Canada. In 2001, Pat was invited to share his expertise with churches, universities and cultural centres in Poland and Latvia.
Pat has received many honours for his work. In 2001, he was named Calgary’s Citizen of the Year and, in 2005 he became a member of the Order of Canada.
Pat never forgets that his path in life was shaped by people who reached out to offer him help and who stood by him in his struggle to change. He faces the harsh reality that some of the people he tries to help may never escape the streets and yet he never falters in his commitment. He is willing to offer people in need as many chances as they are willing to accept. Pat Nixon’s mission in life is clear, as he says, “I’ll keep trying…I never give up on people.”
Executive Director, The Alberta Order of Excellence