Church on the Street: A reminder that ‘we are all one of them’

  • June 19, 2018

It is wonderful the theology we learn in coffee shops.

Several weeks ago I was sitting minding my own business in a coffee shop when three “regulars” walked in. I could tell they were “regulars” because the three of them occupied four tables and shouted their conversation across the room. 

One of them put down his phone and announced, “That was my son on the phone and I was just telling him about all my aches and pains. When I was his age I thought it was only old people who had aches and pains, but now I am one of them.”

His friend from two tables away prophetically shouted, “We are all one of them.” This phrase struck me as deeply defining the nature of who we are called to be by our baptism. 

We see homeless marching for affordable housing, refugees pleading for protection and workers groaning against servitude and we say, “I feel sorry for them.” But we are called to be people who are able to look at those the world calls “them” and to feel the kinship of the Lord’s Prayer that says, “We are all one of them.” 

I was on the streets recently on one of those warm, sultry summer evenings that reminded me how fortunate I was to have a ministry of walking around. As I neared an intersection in a district known for drugs and violence, I was approached by a gentleman who looked a little out of place. He was middle-aged and although dressed casually he gave the appearance of being a working man who did not belong in this neck of the downtown woods. 

“Where are you heading?” he asked, and when I pointed vaguely into the distance towards the next major intersection he asked if he could walk with me. He lost no time in getting to the point, “Do you pray for people?” 

“Sure,” I said. “Do you have something specific you would like me to pray for?” 

“My father is dead, but I have two sisters. I want you to pray for them. Please pray for them. I have caused them so much harm. Don’t pray for me. I don’t deserve prayers. Look at me. Look. Do I look old and ugly?” 

I assured him that apart from a little loss of hair he did not look old and certainly did not look ugly. “I am ugly,” he continued. “I have hurt everyone who has come near to me. Please pray for my sisters. They don’t deserve to have a brother like me. I have not hurt them physically or sexually, but I have taken advantage of them by stealing money constantly. I told you, I am a disgrace. Please pray for them. Do you know where I am going right now? I am going to that phone booth over there to order drugs.” 

With that he stared at me waiting for a look of condemnation as he pulled a wad of bills from his pocket and said, “There is $160 here, it will be gone soon.” As we reached the intersection, he went to leave and I handed him my “Church on the Street” card with my phone number and asked him to call me anytime. 

He looked at the card as if to return it and said, “Don’t befriend me, I will hurt you like I have hurt everyone. Please, if I ever ask for money, please don’t give it to me. I have tried everything to stop; therapy, 12-step programs, counselling. It’s no use, don’t waste prayers on me, but please promise you will pray for my sisters.”

Only after asking him three times did he consent to allow me to pray for him as well as his sisters, then he was off, swallowed up in the darkness of the night, a soul carrying the weight of the guilt of addiction and its consequences, a soul trapped within memories which torment and accuse. 

Fr. Greg Boyle in his book Tattoos on the Heart wrote, “The principal suffering of the poor is shame and disgrace. It is a toxic shame, a global sense of failure of the whole self.” 

As my eyes followed this unknown stranger into the night, my mind recalled moments in my life when I felt the despondence of hopelessness and I thought to myself, “We are all one of them.”

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

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