I consider myself a generalist, that is, I know a little about a lot of things and then there are things I know next to nothing about; namely the workings of a Protestant church and baking (the latter, in spite of watching hours of Food Network programs). If you’re wondering how these two things are related, then read on to my crash course in learning a bit more about both.
Gai is the third ordained minister I’ve interviewed as part of this series “Having Chickens Is A Great Way To Meet Your Neighbours”. The other ministers were Thomas and Elizabeth. Small world, he and Gai met when they both lived in Ontario back in the mid-‘80s. He was also a United Church minister and in the same church circles as Gai. They both ended up on Gabriola Island and live within a kilometre of each other.
We squeezed in some time in our busy schedules to chat. Gai invited me into the house and, seeing her kitchen table covered in baking pans, I suggested that if she was able to multitask she should carry on while I sat and took notes. For the next two hours she juggled dealing with a pile of ingredients, mixing, microwaving and baking and whomping up batches of fudge to sell from her home-based shop and at the Saturday Farmer’s Market.
Gai grew up in North York, at a time when it was a suburb of Toronto and now Canada’s fourth largest city. She’s a tad older than me, but we spent our teen years in the same area and I recognized the landmarks of her youth. Inspired by her love of sewing, Gai studied Fashion Design at Ryerson University then went on to work as a visual merchandiser for Sears, designing the floor plans and layouts of the fashion departments for their stores and arranging the fixtures and goods for sale. Sometimes she’d be sent to a new store to start that work from scratch which took almost three months to complete; or created guides for staff in stores across the country on how to replicate her work.
Hoping to become a merchandise buyer Gai moved into the retail side of things and ended up managing a fabric store. That led to opening her own fashion design store in Yorkville in the mid-1970s.
In 1978, she married Bill, moved to Orillia and had a son – all in one year. She described their rental house as “the most magical place in the woods, surrounded by trees and a babbling brook, which took 52 stairs to reach”. The couple later bought a small hobby farm with two milk goats and chickens for meat and eggs.
As a nine-year old she had attended a summer bible camp, but her mother thought religion was for the birds. Gai, on the other hand, was smitten by the concept and set up her own backyard camp. She divided her yard into activity areas for stories, singing and crafts, charging neighbourhood kids five cents to attend. She explored various churches with friends, while her mother shook her head simply not understanding her interest, as she left on Sunday mornings.
Gai had serious questions and thought the answers should be found in church. As a teenager she got turned off organized religion while attending a large evangelical church. Her journey then took her into an exploration of mindfulness, yoga and meditation. It wasn’t until some years later before she revisited her childhood quest.
In her mid-twenties Gai decided to give bible study a whirl. She enjoyed it so much that Bill decided to join her and a year later they started attending church services. After a series of workshops and weekend retreats they were asked if they’d considered going into the ministry. Of course, in those days, that translated to mean that she would be the minister’s wife, making cookies for the flock.
While Bill was studying, Gai taught marketing, retailing and fashion at the local college. As it turns out, he dropped out of theological college after one year and it was Gai who was interested in following it through. She loved to speak at the church women’s group, to visit shut ins; attend bible study and the prayer life, all the things that form ministry.
(I had to ask a few questions to decipher the difference between a chaplain and a minister. If you need some tutoring like I did, chaplains usually work in community institutions (i.e. hospitals, prisons) to meet the spiritual needs of individuals and staff, whereas ministers have a church as their base and deliver sermons to their congregation each week.)
Over the next five years she studied towards a B.A. in World Religions and worked between classes as a chaplain with developmentally challenged adults. It sounded like a bit of a full plate to me, but to her it represented the balance between theory and praxis, school and work. To complicate matters, the five month old baby girl they had been waiting to adopt arrived just at exam time. As you can imagine, the stresses of a busy life and competing directions meant something had to give; in this case, Gai’s marriage.
She bought a van, packed up the two kids and their rescue cat and headed to Calgary to do a chaplaincy residency year. Moving back to Ontario she ended up serving four churches doing community outreach to increase their membership, running a single parents’ group, and offering three services on Sunday. In between, she did more training on the road to being ordained.
Gai obtained her Masters degree in Divinity, and then took on the challenge of commuting one day a week for her Doctor of Ministry. It was during this time she realized the aspects of the ministry that captured her interest – healing, moving beyond the past, discovering a new way of being – weren’t going to happen in the library stacks at the University of Toronto, so she dropped out.
She opened a healing centre with 18 practitioners – reiki, yoga, massage, shiatsu, iridologist – a gym and a pampering room. After three years she handed it over to the staff to run on their own. Her next gig was doing spiritual and grief counselling for an employee assistance program, many of them nurses.
After a two year stint in Australia she landed in the Okanagan where her son Luke had lived since his tree planting days as a teenager. The area was too hot for her liking so she explored other options. An opening for a half-time minister was available here, but half-time work means half-time pay. A congregant reached out, asking her to come meet them in person. “As soon as the ferry pulled up to the island I was in love with the rocks, trees, water. I knew I had to be here.” They offered a full-time housing allowance to sweeten the pot and she accepted taking another part-time job as a hospital chaplain, which enabled her to buy her house on an acre lot.
Splitting her time between two jobs in two communities with ferry rides to get there led to burn out. Gai retired at age 60 and spent the next four years dealing with some health issues, knitting, working on her garden and reading the whole Louis L’Amour series of western novels.
Three years ago she set up a booth at the local Christmas craft fair selling her baked goods and jams, which has since morphed into a full-time endeavour. In addition to the fudge I watched her assemble, Gai bakes shortbread, brownies, tarts, pies and makes 29 varieties of jams, jellies and marmalade. She knits hats and slippers in the evening and on the ferry. She has a small chapel on her property which is open to the public that also doubles as her sales depot. If it seems a bit odd to have a store in a chapel apparently it’s not. Gai’s visited monasteries all over the world which have a long tradition of selling wine, cheese or honey.
Her impressive five day baking schedule is carefully divided into one product per day: jam; pies; fudge and shortbread; making the pie shells; and baking the pies. Most days she’s at it for four to six hours, but other times up to 11 hours. Every Saturday morning from late May till Thanksgiving she loads up her vehicle with batches of baked goods, including 40 pies, and heads to the local Farmer’s Market. The booth takes well over an hour to set up, and then she’s there for four hours before packing up for the day. Gai’s only day off is Sunday. She loves it all, especially meeting people that stop in at her chapel/shop Callings.
She’s been the appreciative recipient of much needed hand-me-downs. When someone was upgrading their kitchen appliances to stainless steel Gai got their white dishwasher, fridge and microwave. She’s also been given an industrial freezer and cupboards. As you can imagine they are stocked full each week. Gai even got a second vehicle, which was easier to load, and keeps her booth and display supplies in it ready for the weekly market.
Like lots of folks, chickens were Gai’s Covid 19 project. There were two outbuildings and a coop on the property when she bought it. The coop is situated in the very back corner on her slightly sloped lot. Hoping to bring it closer to the house she discovered it was going to cost more than it was worth. She emptied one of the sheds and had it converted into a coop, salvaging the nest boxes from the original coop and adding some roost bars.
The original flock of 13 retirement hens, some of whom have subsequently died or were rehomed, have been replaced with 14 red sex-link pullets. They had free run of the bottom end of the property until they discovered the neighbour’s yard next door. In an attempt to avert a potential issue the girls are now penned with loads of space.
Covid has prevented Gai from travelling and seeing her kids: Luke, who’s a carpenter, and Cat, a belly dancer, but has a full life here: baking, spiritual counselling, volunteer work, gardening and chickens. She’s had loads of adventures and I got the sense some interesting stories she’s keeping a lid on. With a long life to reflect on she feels no hesitation in saying “I’m happier than I’ve ever been”.