Jason Snyder/Creative Commons

The Church on the Street: Searching for divine power in the eyes of a stranger

  • March 27, 2018

Some nights it does not take long for the temperature to plummet. I don’t mean the thermometer, but the temperature of the street. 

I had just met Friar Prakash when we came across broken bottles sprawled across the street. The source was clearly a group milling around a bus shelter and spilling across the sidewalk as they hurled abuse at a target sitting inside. Steeling ourselves against the cold wind, we decided to walk through the group in the hope that they would part like the waters of the Red Sea. 

Looking at my clerical collar, which I try to keep prominently exposed for just such occasions, the first man stepped backwards and said, “Hello Father, how are you tonight?” I assured him with all the bravado I could muster, and added, “Pray for me, would you?” 

“Yes, Father, and you do the same for me.” 

We exhaled a combined breath of relief, which was short-lived as an alpha-male came up the street with his posse of hounds. Seeing a familiar face on the other side of the street, he chased him, hurling a string of epithets until tiring of the chase. Then he rounded up his posse and continued on his way. 

Coming to a major intersection, he ignored the stop light and walked in front of the oncoming traffic, daring them to hit him. Having reached halfway across the road, he wheeled around and headed towards us. Again, we sucked in our breath waiting for the oncoming confrontation, but the Red Sea once more parted.

However, soon the temperature transformed from violence into passivity as we came across a lady sitting on the ground, cowering in her woundedness and showing only her eyes and nose as she protected herself from the intense wind. I recognized her as someone I had seen over the past six years. She was unmistakable. 

No more than four feet tall, her gaunt, emaciated body had been ravaged by drugs and illness. The fearful look in her eyes betrayed the secrets of someone who had been used and abused on the street, and yet despite this she always responded gently to my concerned approaches. 

“Do you have any money?” she whispered.

“I’m sorry, you know I don’t carry money downtown.” 

“It’s OK then,” was her barely audible response. 

“How are you?” I asked, although such a question seemed inadequately futile.

“It’s OK then,” she repeated as she covered her face indicating that our conversation was at an end. 

In his beautiful book, Tears of an Innocent God, Br. Elias Marechal writes that the Hebrew term dabar defies translation. It is a divine, creative, transforming power coming to us from beyond. “It may arrive at any moment, as in scripture, or through the sudden appearance of a homeless stranger.” 

The sudden appearance of this young homeless stranger has always haunted and captivated me in a way that takes me by surprise. In many ways she is just one among hundreds, and yet there is something about her that touches me deeply. Perhaps it is her utter poverty, which reminds me that she is the Beatitudes personified, or her gentleness, which reminds me that she is Christ suffering. 

Later that week, in a small, quiet chapel at the back of a bookstore belonging to the Daughters of St. Paul, I sat with Marechal’s book to contemplate her appearance in silence and to listen in case she might be dabar for me. What I “heard” was both comforting and deeply humbling. Indeed, this was Christ suffering on the streets, but as I responded I wanted to say I would be willing to take the place of this young girl, to take on her sufferings, but my enthusiasm waned at this moment and I went silent. I was not able to ask for that grace. 

At that moment,  spoke of the infinite distance between the love that Christ showed for us by taking on our poverty, and the love that I have even at my best. It was a reminder that our ministry calls us to accompany the poor, but ultimately its power comes from grace won by the one who “emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of humans.”

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

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