A homeless man sleeps in the street. Church on the Street is an outreach program that provides a listening presence for those who have felt life's hurts. CNS Photo

The Church on the Street: Moment of grace enhances a noisy night

  • December 5, 2017
The universality of the Catholic Church is never more evident than in the sacraments and the love for the poor. These foundation stones inform its spiritual life and stand as an eternal witness to the love of Christ. 

I was reminded of this when I received an e-mail from Fr. Anthony Prakash, a Dominican friar who is now in charge of the Dominican priory in Toronto. He had read one of my columns which reminded him of Friar Pedro Mecca, who operates a similar outreach on the streets of Paris. 

And so it was that Fr. Anthony and I found ourselves walking the streets of the city one evening and experiencing the Church on the Street together. As evenings went, it started out warm, quiet, and if any evening on the street could be called uneventful then this was one such evening. 

However, it was not long until the unpredictability of the street erupted into an unnerving disquiet that reminded us that beneath its dormant exterior there was volcanic potential. A streetcar came clanging past us and presented its open doors to a waiting passenger who started out from the curb. Upon seeing a half-empty beer bottle in his hand, the driver closed the doors and sped off, provoking the would-be passenger to spit and swear loudly at the driver and to kick the departing car as it screeched on. 

Turning with a torrent of abuse and profanities, he spotted us and decided that he would accompany us while swinging the open beer bottle wildly. His “conversation” was incoherent, but the occasional word helped me to string some sense into his ramblings. This, however required an intense concentration and so I ignored the law of the street which says you should not look into another’s eyes. 

Stopping frequently, he would focus his gaze upon us and ask, “Why are you staring at me?” before again lapsing into a soliloquy of expletives. 

In the midst of the anxiety this provoked, there was a moment when we saw a spark of the humanity. Accidentally, in his wild gesticulations, he brushed against my head with his hand, and he immediately stopped and said, “I’m so sorry, I did not mean that. I would never hit a Father. I’m sorry.” 

Fortunately, after about five minutes of this threatening behaviour he disappeared into the shadows, leaving us feeling that we had experienced enough excitement for one evening.

We were soon to be reminded that even tornadoes have their points of calm. We came across a lady sitting cross-legged on the ground asking for money. I had never seen her before, although her hardened yet gentle face hinted at many years on the street. 

As I knelt beside her, I explained that I do not give out money and that I am simply on the streets to be a listening presence for those who have felt life’s hurts. She smiled and said, “That’s great work you are doing. God bless you. I try to make people happy as they pass. I look at them and wonder what is going on in their lives. It’s important that we help one another. You blessed me by stopping to talk with me tonight.” 

As we walked on, Fr. Anthony remarked on how this had been a moment of grace to uplift his soul, and we walked on feeling we had truly met Christ.

A couple of weeks later, I received this e-mail from Fr. Anthony: 

“I was walking home last Tuesday night and who did I meet sitting asking for food? Shannon, the same lady we met when we were out together. I took her to a nearby coffee shop and ordered coffee while we sat chatting. She remembered our meeting and asked me how you were. Then she recited one of her poems. I asked her if I could write it and send it to you, and she agreed. As we said goodnight to each other, she asked me, ‘Can I come to your church? I would like to come someday?’ Well, that question made my evening!”

Within the depths of her poem there was a clue as to the secret of her compassion for those who pass. As for all of us, it seemed to be born out of a life of reflection on her own pain, and on the pain of the world. She wrote:

“Watching faces pass before me of my many selves,

Pulling out the ancient bricks, once stored upon my shelves.”

Indeed, grace-filled words for each of us.

(Kinghorn is a deacon of the Archdiocese of Toronto: Robert.kinghorn@ekinghorn.com)

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