Church on the street: Secrets of street reveal pain… and joy

  • October 9, 2018

The summer had been warm and humid, and unlike many churches that can afford air conditioning, the church on the street had to find its own way of surviving the muggy evenings. 

The oppressive heat only added to the anxiety that comes from life with an uncertain present and an unpredictable future. As I started on the street it seemed that on this night more than others, people were in corners of lethargic isolation, harbouring the secrets of their hearts.

Frederick Buechner, in his beautiful book Telling Secrets, sayss: “The law of families who are unhealthy is, don’t talk, don’t trust and don’t feel. (Secrets) tell us that we hunger to be known in our full humanness, and yet we fear that most of all.” In the dysfunctional family of the street, trust must be won and secrets must be kept. 

Abruptly, my attention was assaulted by the sound of screaming from a nearby corner that had gained the unenviable reputation as the epicentre for downtown violence. It was difficult to know what was happening, but all I could see was a lady, who was often in the middle of drug-induced disturbances, grabbing a man by the collar and marching him up the road to the nearby apartment building where she was going to exact some revenge. 

They were followed by a posse of hangers-on who were alternatively shouting advice to her and the young man. Clearly, she felt that she had been wronged and my first guess was that it was in the course of a drug deal.

I followed the angry horde up the street in case there was something I could do, although getting involved in street justice is not always the most advisable course of action. As she approached the apartment building three special constables approached, but they were intercepted by one of the posse who put his arm around the constable’s shoulder and said, “Stay out of this, we deal with these things ourselves on the street.” 

At this the constable joined me as I watched from a short distance. The shouting continued between the two of them, and then the woman abruptly started dragging the young man, again by the collar, to a corner where they continued their discussion in relative silence. Soon it calmed down and they seemed to reach some sort of uneasy settlement.

I turned to leave and had only walked a few steps when a man stopped me. My first instinct was that he was quite elderly, but as I looked closer it seemed that his face was lined with experiences and not with age. 

“I see you are a street chaplain, let me sing you some songs I wrote to help people understand what it is like to be on the street down here.” 

His demeanour darkened and he launched into a song that he wrote when serving time, in an effort to express what it was like to be locked up in a system that can sometimes be as inhumane as the street. The final stanza summed up his sense of hopelessness:

“This is the story I heard, from several different guys, 

The story how an inmate died, with teardrops from his eyes.

Those teardrops they weren’t for fear of death, or of another man,

It was just the simple fact, that no one seemed to give a damn.”

It was a reminder to me of what the Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel famously said: “In a free society, some are guilty, all are responsible.”

He continued in the same vein for a few songs before his face finally brightened into a smile as he said, “I turned full circle and saw the error of my ways. Here is one I wrote about the angels we meet.” 

This song culminated in the triumphant joy he found from a stranger who had crossed his path in life:

“And now I thank my Lord above, for by this stranger I found love.

“And now perhaps I finally see, sometimes the angels are you and me.”

“The man said he was led to me by the Holy Spirit,” he said, “so that I could share my story. If you want to hear my songs you can go to my YouTube channel. Just search for ‘Grant Ellis Justify.’ ” 

With that he was gone, an angel in the night.

All we have are experiences and stories, and when we are patient enough, we realize that a street person with a story is a person with a soul. Grant had been freed by telling his secrets and, like a caged bird released, he was singing to the world of his joy. 

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

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