A spiritual shelter from life’s storms

  • June 6, 2019

One of the great joys of the Church on the Street has been the memory of a spiritual group that used to meet at a women’s shelter. 

I had been invited into the shelter to meet with the ladies and, along with Joyce, a woman from my parish with a beautiful talent for singing and writing hymns that could touch the heart, we initiated the weekly meeting of the group. Now, I am not sure what comes to people’s minds when they imagine this spiritual group, but I have to say this group certainly had its unique character. The circle comprised women from many faiths and none, each with a history of street violence, but all willing to stop long enough to reflect upon their life. 

We opened with a minute of silent reflection which was usually 45 seconds longer than some of the “parishioners” could endure. Joyce would then sing one of her plaintive hymns which evoked memories to be shared both by those sitting in the circle and others lying on tables apparently asleep. Often the distance between some women betrayed the fact that on the street they were enemies who were able to overcome their divisions long enough to attend as sisters.

The sharing of the group was always profound, coming as it did from lives of brokenness, pain and fleeting moments of joy. One lady would share her poetry, including this verse in her psalm of lament:

Eternally I will feel a captive of fury, of rage!

Yet also of newborn Joy, for the day.

My heart leaps for the Lamb of Heaven

I lift up my eyes to stare at the sky

For Him to free me of my cage.

Yet another lady tentatively joined us one evening. I had previously met her on the street and invited her along, but laughingly she said that her fear was that if ever she came to the spiritual group then lightning would strike her. This particular evening, however, she had risked the lightning bolt because it was the anniversary of her daughter’s death at the age of eight, a daughter she had never really come to know because of addiction. Her sharing with the group could not heal her wound entirely, but being held and accepted by her peers and the Church perhaps put her on that path. 

Such deep encounters and painful memories were shared by the “parishioners” for over three years until this group of creative spiritual chaos unfortunately had to be abandoned when a new executive director was appointed to the shelter, and the healing dimension of the spiritual life was less appreciated. However, the experience reinforced my belief that people of faith have much to offer in the way of friendship to the many shelters of our cities, and I have looked for ways that it can endure and grow. 

The opportunity came when I gave a talk to the Catholic Women’s League (CWL) at Blessed Trinity Parish in Toronto. At the end, when I was asked what they could do to help, for some reason the phrase “Adopt a Shelter” came to my mind. This follows a model already established in the parish by another group who visit a women’s shelter close to the parish. My friend Tracey Ferguson, a veteran of the streets herself and now 12 years clean, was with me and she took it upon herself to initiate meetings between the CWL and the executive director of a shelter for women aged 55 and over in the downtown core. Plans are now being set in place for visits to the shelter through which ongoing relationships will be formed and the lives of the women in the shelter and those visiting will be changed forever.

Pope Francis, speaking to Caritas International, said that to stay close to Jesus “we will be helped by staying before the tabernacle and before the many living tabernacles who are the poor. The Eucharist and the poor, the fixed tabernacle and the mobile tabernacles: It is there that we remain in love and absorb the mentality of bread broken.” 

This “staying before the tabernacle” that Pope Francis talks about does not mean to preach but to listen, allowing ourselves to be converted by the presence of Jesus and the poor. As I learned at the spiritual group and through the years walking the aisles of the Church on the Street, those we would rather avoid are often the means of our own sanctification and are the prophets of our salvation. 

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

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