It was one of those nights when I was challenged by Pope Francis’ insightful observation in The Joy of the Gospel, Kinghorn writes. Photo from Unsplash

Church on the Street: Taking a driving lesson from Natalie

By 
  • January 28, 2019

It was one of those nights when I was challenged by Pope Francis’ insightful observation in The Joy of the Gospel: “The Gospel tells us constantly to run the risk of a face-to-face encounter with others, with their physical presence which challenges us, with their pain and their pleas.”

Walking in the heart of Toronto, I saw a familiar figure in the distance. It was “Natalie” sitting in her wheelchair and I just knew that inevitably she would want something from me. 

I was on my way to another part of the downtown area and I have to confess my first instinct was to cross the road and pretend I did not see her, but it was too late. Her hawk-like vision was as keen as ever even in the dark of the night. 

I have no idea why it is that everyone on the street seems to have 20/20 vision without the aid of glasses. Perhaps it’s something to do with the survival of the fittest for I have seldom seen anyone in The Church on the Street wearing glasses. 

But as I said, I realized it was too late when I heard her voice from about 100 metres away shout, “Hey, Deacon, can you give me a push.” So rather reluctantly, I walked over and as I approached, she said, “I know you do not give out money, but I need a push down the road to George Street.” I thought to myself, “That’s just great, in the six years of knowing her I have finally graduated from being a bank machine to an Uber driver.” 

Now, George Street is one of the more volatile streets in the neighbourhood due to the number of addicts who frequent it, although there are also Georgian residences which house families who have to put up with the turmoil of the street. “I’ll tell you where the bumps are,” she said as she skillfully directed me like a backseat driver along the street, a route that she had taken many times on her own. 

We passed a young lady sitting on a doorstep smoking and Natalie asked for a cigarette. The girl looked hesitant and as I looked down I told her that she does not need to if she does not want to. She handed over two cigarettes and in doing so she revealed a $5 bill crumpled in her bag. 

Not being one to miss an opportunity, Natalie lost no time in asking for the $5 which the girl generously handed over. I thanked the girl and told her that she was very kind, but she just smiled and said, “It’s OK.”

I continued along the uneven sidewalk with Natalie, almost spilling her a couple of times, when suddenly she saw a figure crossing the road. “Wait a minute, Deacon, that’s a friend of mine. Do you want a cigarette?” she shouted to him and immediately handed over one of the cigarettes that she had just received from the girl, although the $5 was still clutched tightly in her fist. As we continued to George Street I again received the command from my passenger, “Stop quickly!” She had spotted a half-lit cigarette lying on the ground which she picked up and started smoking as she signalled me to continue.

“I feel like I’m your Uber driver tonight,” I said as we continued our journey. 

“You are funny, Deacon. Hurry up and keep pushing,” and then she added rather alarmingly, “I’m going to get a drug toke on George Street.” 

Immediate panic rattled my mind, “What does this make me, an accessory?” I thought. I had visions of my Cardinal Archbishop blanching as he reads the morning newspaper headlines, “Woman arrested for drug use. Tells the police a Catholic Deacon was her pusher.”

We turned on George Street and started up the dark sidewalk where a dealer broke off from the group he was with and made his way towards us. The discussion quickly turned into a bargaining session for the “toke” and Natalie immediately dismissed me into the darkness of the night. 

As Pope Francis cautioned us, we can all live a life of safe avoidance, but what defence will we have when we come to the realization that the very people we are avoiding are the ones who call us to life? 

Yes, perhaps even the drug user in a wheelchair who shares one of her cigarettes with a friend, or the young girl willing to give up cigarettes and $5 to a stranger. And I remembered that I tried to avoid Natalie that evening.

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

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