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Harriet’s spirit wins out in the long run

  • October 29, 2015

The brutality of life on the streets could not defeat this ‘I used to be famous’ woman

There are evenings when I am walking the streets that deep theological insights come abruptly to my mind. This was one such evening.

People have asked why Jesus was born in the Middle East and not, for example, in Toronto. Well, it suddenly hit me. With the temperature a bone-chilling minus-14 degrees and a wind-chill that blew through my leather jacket and hoodie as if they were tissue paper, I realized that when Jesus told His apostles, “I will make you fishers of men and women,” He would have had to teach them ice fishing.

I wrapped my hoodie tighter around my neck, leaving only my clerical colour exposed, as I approached the downtown Toronto intersection of Gerrard and Sherbourne. It was there I met Harriet for the first time.

It is fair to say once you have met Harriet you never forget her. She had the gift of her Cape Breton heritage in being able to describe life in all its brutality, and yet end with a joke which left you realizing that such a life had not won the battle for her spirit.

She told me of her life on the street and that her daughter Lena only gives her a living allowance each day so that she never has enough for drugs. Therefore she still risks the elements to supplement her income by a life of prostitution. It was a full two years later that Harriet told me she also remembered our first meeting.

“I remember the first night we met on the street,” she said.

“I had to stop looking for a date, and I went home and I went to pieces because of your acceptance of me.”

I met Harriet many times over the next five years, usually at the same corner, and she was usually there for the same reason. She talked of her daughter Lena, who she said was making a movie of their relationship called Mom and Me.

“There’s quite a story to tell,” she said. “I used to be famous. I worked for the CBC on the Fifth Estate. You can look me up on the Internet and you will see pictures of me there. But there are also pictures I am not proud of since they show me in the midst of my drug use.”

At each meeting she also gave me a deeper insight into her struggle with her faith in God. Perhaps the most profound meeting was when I was with my friend Harry Nigh, a chaplain who works with those released from prison. He listened intently to her story and asked her, “Why do you not go to the spiritual group that Deacon Rob runs at Street Haven?”

Her answer exposed the real reason for her apparent lack of faith.

“God would not want someone like me at the spiritual group,” she replied. “I am ashamed of the things I have done and the lifestyle I am leading.”

It is seldom that you hear such honesty on the street, and yet I was not surprised to hear it from Harriet.

Here was a lady who blamed no one but herself for her struggles, and in fact talked with pride of her family and the support they were giving to her.

So I was pleasantly surprised when I walked into Street Haven the following week. There, large as life and twice as beautiful, was Harriet. I could not believe it when she greeted me with the words, “I would like to go to the spiritual group.”

She shared her struggles to regain her fragile faith that once was strong but which was unable to support the storms that life had brought her way. I sat in awe of her honesty and humility in being able to share this deep struggle with the other ladies in the group.

As we listened to the mesmerizing voice of Joyce Aldrich singing, I looked at the expression on Harriet’s face and I felt a grace-filled moment of thanksgiving. At the end of the meeting Harriet sat in tears and said how much she enjoyed the evening.

A few weeks later as I walked into Street Haven I was handed a letter which simply read, “God has answered my prayers and I leave today for Grant House rehabilitation centre. Thank you for coming into my life and for helping me to find my way back to our mutual friend, God. Love Harriet.”

(Robert Kinghorn is a deacon of the Archdiocese of Toronto: robert.

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