Photo by Jeffrey Zeldman/Creative Commons

Robert Kinghorn: Young evangelists heed cries of the poor

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  • March 20, 2018

Recently I found myself in the basement of a downtown church surrounded by a confirmation class of children, teachers and parents. The church sits in an area where the outreach of the Church on the Street is most challenging, and the class had responded to the call of Pope Francis in The Joy of the Gospel: “We cannot passively and calmly wait in our church buildings; we need to move from a passive ministry of mere conservation to a decidedly missionary pastoral mission.” 

Surrounded as they are by poverty, social isolation and homelessness, the children decided to reach out to those on the streets and in homeless shelters. These young evangelists had just returned from the local park where they had invited those they met to a feast of soup and cookies served with friendship and warmth.

The parish of Sacré-Coeur was established in 1887 at the request of French Canadian workers in Toronto who felt liturgically isolated and who longed for a parish where they could worship and minister in their native language. 

It has since stood as a silent witness to the Catholic faith in an area of the city which has been transformed from elegant Victorian dwellings to inadequate shelter for the poor. It is now administered by the Order of Preachers, or Dominicans as they are known, who with the parishioners have been moved by the cries of the lonely poor on the streets.

When I arrived in the basement, the ministry was in full swing. Pots of soup were on the boil, clothing was being distributed, but more importantly there were groups of people intermingling and chatting quietly. 

Apart from the teenagers helping, it was hard to tell who was from the street and who was the parishioner. I grabbed a bowl of soup and sat with one of the teenagers who was talking with a man who lived nearby. His apartment building was one that I knew well since it had become one of the more dangerous in the area where I walk, and many of the units are drug dens. 

He described what it feels like to live in his unit and his description confirmed our fears. Nightly there are fights in the hallways, not with residents, but with those who have come to the units looking for drugs. He said he has taken to jamming his door closed every night so that no one can force their way in to rob him as they did at Christmas. 

One of the rules of such an outreach is that no one is left alone unless they want to be, and so when I saw a man come in and sit alone I excused myself and moved over to his table. It was not long until we realized that we knew each other. 

He and a group of friends frequented the adjacent park, and on my evening walks in the neighbourhood I had often seen them.

I had to admit to him that as I walked by, I usually kept my distance since the beer flowed freely and I really did not feel I would be welcomed. To be honest, I thought that was a more diplomatic way of conveying my true feelings which were that I was scared to approach them. 

He laughed and said, “Yes, we are always a little loud I guess, but come over any time. Don’t worry, we are harmless.” 

After the guests left, the group gathered together with Friar Thong, the pastor, and Friar Anthony to reflect upon what had happened during this new outreach for the parish. It was no surprise that it was the young evangelists who evangelized all of us. 

Naturally there had been trepidation, even with parents present, to talk to strangers in the park. However, their excitement at seeing people respond to the invitation was a reward which brought smiles of excitement to their faces. 

In a different environment they would have walked by the strangers, but meeting them at the drop-in revealed a person with a human story hidden behind the mask of poverty. As one of the evangelists reminded us, “We are all made in the image and likeness of God.”

I have to say that over the years walking in this neighbourhood I have wept many tears of sadness for those on the street, but at that moment it was tears of joy that welled up in my eyes. I was so proud of this parish and its young evangelists.

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

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