Church on the Street: Searching for a home at Christmas

  • December 21, 2018

We all have a longing for a place to call “home.” For people who spend many aimless years living on the streets, “homelessness” is more than a condition of the body, it is a condition of the soul. 

I have never really understood this magnetic draw that home has for people, even those who’ve experienced a troubled childhood of hurt and neglect. Perhaps it is the same hope that prefigures the call of the soul that St. Augustine referred to when he cried out to God, “Our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

My friend Harry Nigh, a Mennonite minister who has worked extensively in reintegrating high-risk offenders into society after their release from prison, wrote the following story for the Dismas Fellowship Christmas newsletter several years ago. I will let Harry tell the tale: 

“We hadn’t even opened our gifts yet when she called that Christmas morning. 

“‘I called my father to ask if I could come home for Christmas,’ she cried, ‘and you know what he told me? I don’t have a daughter, and you’re not welcome here’.

“‘You know something, Harry,’ she sobbed, ‘if the liquor stores were open, I’d get drunk and I’d take a bus to Peterborough and kill him!’

“What could I say to her … this awful cry of anguish on this day?

“She had known so much of rejection. Even her mother, a victim of the abuse in our native boarding schools, had walked out of the hospital after the delivery and left her there. Her father came two days later to take her home. She was raised in foster homes, abusive foster homes, and eventually adopted into our prison system.

“I could hear my son stirring upstairs. We would soon have our cozy ritual of gift-giving. Even our cats, Dave and Betsy, would have gifts laced with catnip. I told her that I loved her, and how sorry I was that she had experienced this rejection again. I told her that I wished that she could have been our daughter. I prayed with her over the phone that she would sense God holding her today like an infinitely mothering-father. I invited her to come to our home for Christmas dinner, to get away from her single room on Spadina Avenue and join us around the table.

“‘No thanks, she said, ‘I’m going to stay here and take my blankets and make a space like the hole in prison and crawl in there until Christmas is over.’

“Spending time in ‘the hole,’ a place reserved for the most violent and desperate prisoners, had not been uncommon for her while she had been in prison. It was a place of isolation and punishment. 

“I wonder what Jesus would make of all the demands and expectations we have created to celebrate His birth? He didn’t seem to place a high premium on chestnuts roasting on an open fire and gifts for all — even the cats. But I think He is deeply grieved over a young woman crawling into a makeshift hole on His birthday to hide the grief of homelessness.”

When he read this story, Pierre Allard, the former Assistant Commissioner of Correctional Services, sent a message to Harry to ask him to pass it on to his friend. “Will you tell her that Christ wants to crawl into ‘the hole’ to be with her.”

I asked Harry to bring me up-to-date on this story since she had been well known in the Church on the Street, but I had not heard about her for several years. 

“She went back to prison after this, but while ‘inside’ she faced a severe health crisis during which she felt that she had a vision of Christ offering the choice of life or death,” he said. “She chose life, and upon release she became a member of the Dismas Fellowship, inspiring many to walk the difficult path of freedom. 

“Her great joy was that she was reunited with her family before her untimely death of liver failure, surrounded by family and friends.”

This Christmas, we pray that she is truly home at last. 

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

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