A visitor to the “pop-up” restaurant in downtown Toronto adds some flute music to the festivities. Photo courtesy Robert Kinghorn

Church on the Street: In this ‘pop-up’ community, all are one

  • November 12, 2018

A Catholic, a Baptist and a Mennonite walked into a bar and the barman said, “What’s this, some kind of a joke?” 

Well, in this case it was not a joke, although the joy and laughter of the meeting would have said otherwise to those around. I was meeting with Rick Tobias and Harry Nigh, two of my mentors who had supported me from the first days of the Church on the Street. 

The only one missing from this triad was Dion Oxford, executive director of Salvation Army Gateway who was struggling with multiple sclerosis and was unable to join us. It was to these three wise men I turned for advice when I first thought of venturing into the Church on the Street, and we were meeting for one of our irregular get-togethers for mutual support. 

In The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis said: “Commitment to ecumenism responds to the prayer of the Lord Jesus that ‘they all may be one.’ ”

Nowhere have I found such unity as I have working with those who help the “poor” of our city — those disenfranchised by reason of addiction, homelessness, financial poverty, mental illness or lifestyle. 

There is a myriad of reasons we push others to the margins of society, none of them good and none of them justified, but the response from the Christian churches and beyond has always been heroic. The question has never been, “Whose theology is correct?” but, “What is best for the person in front of me at this moment?” 

Beyond our differences, we are united in the love for those bearing the sins of the world on their all-too-human shoulders as Jesus awaits us in His many disguises of poverty.

An example of this occurred recently at Sacre-Coeur Parish in Toronto. Several months ago, its Confirmation class handed out flyers in the downtown neighbourhood inviting those on the streets to come for soup, sandwiches and, more importantly, friendship. The success of this led to a project throughout October when the grounds of the parish were opened at 5:30 on Wednesday evenings to the people of the street, to provide them with food and friendship. 

Spearheaded by Friars Thong and Prakash OP, the project brought together a remarkable coalition of volunteers, faiths, denominations and community groups. David Walsh, who has been at the forefront of social justice issues in the city for four decades, introduced David Lockett who is the founder of PACT (Participation, Acknowledgement, Commitment and Transformation) which builds peace and hope in our urban and rural communities. He said simply that he believes in kindness, which will ripple out to the community, and so the project had a name, “Ripples of Kindness.” 

PACT promised to bring food and volunteers each week from their community gardens. A volunteer from Sacre Coeur who had been a cook for many years stepped forward and agreed to supplement the PACT food with homemade spaghetti, chili and cupcakes for dessert.

In this four-week downtown “pop-up” restaurant, a man from the Chess Institute set up chess boards and the logistical battles commenced. Across the lawn, a visitor played haunting melodies on the Aboriginal wooden flute whose sounds caressed and soothed our spirits. 

This downtown church had been transformed into a restaurant where all were invited to share in the meal, much to the surprise of the stressed as they hurried home from working for their daily bread. A young man with a guitar showed up and promised he would be back each week to help set up the tables and tents. Suddenly within the “pop-up” restaurant, a “pop-up” community was born in which wounds were eased as we broke bread and shared stories of broken lives. 

Unsurprisingly, this community oasis in the midst of the arid streets did not go unnoticed by the neighbouring institutions. The housing director for Dixon Hall came over to talk of future possibilities as did the minister from St. Luke’s United Church, both of whom remarked on the joy of seeing this community gathered as a witness to the inclusivity of the Church. The Sikh community of the city also offered to join in seva (selfless service) by providing meals for future celebrations. 

All of this because young people preparing for Confirmation responded to a call to go out to the crossroads of the city and invite all to the feast, and an ecumenical and interfaith community responded with a great “Amen.” 

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

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