Robert Kinghorn: It was a benediction of an evening

  • November 24, 2019

Jesus said that we are called to be the light of the world and the salt of the Earth. But to be honest, some evenings on the street I just feel lightly salted. 

This particular warm, fall evening started out that way. I turned onto Toronto’s George Street, which has a reputation for volatility, and in the distance I saw Natalie, who is often as volatile as the street. 

She always wants me to push her wheelchair somewhere where she isn’t and two weeks previously I had done so under a barrage of expletives and insults: “Please take me to that homeless shelter up there. Faster, can’t you push a wheelchair? That door over there, not this one. Are you stupid or something, why would I want to go into this door?” 

And the diatribe continued unabated. So, when I saw her this particular evening I did what any disrespectful deacon would do: I crossed the street and tried to vanish into the darkness. 

Natalie has eyes like a hawk with instincts to match and I heard her coarse tones shout, “Hi Deacon, I don’t need anything tonight, I just wanted to say hello to my friend.” Suitably chastened, I renewed my commitment to indeed be the light of the world and the salt of the Earth and not cross over to the other side. 

A few streets away I saw a young, smiling lady approaching and as she passed I nodded and said hello. Clearly her eyesight was not as good as Natalie’s since she said, “Hi handsome. Do you want a date?” Quickly she changed course as she noticed the clerical collar, becoming friendly and respectful as we talked about her life. 

Later in the evening she walked by me and I again said hello, calling her by name this time. But she barely responded since she was clearly on a “mission.” She reached a well-known crack house and shouted at the lady on the front steps to let her in. 

That was the last I saw of her that evening. However, that moment of respect which she had shown earlier gives me hope the real person within her can overcome the call of addiction. 

There is often something about an initial conversation that unmasks a fragility and respect that belies the harshness of a street persons’ lifestyle and surroundings, and which gives me hope that given time, the grace of the Lord will finally shine through. 

Such was the case of the next lady I met, one who I had seen and spoken with a few times over the past year. She was still clearly out prostituting and as I said hello she smiled, and that was enough of an invitation for me to say as I often do, “Be careful tonight. Let’s pray for one another, OK?” 

She smiled and said, “That’s a deal. I will pray for you. But if you pray for me, make sure you get my name right. My first name means ‘God’s gift to the world.’ ” 

It’s a throwaway comment like that which betrays a sense of her mission and identity in the world which she still holds on to despite her lifestyle at that moment. Many have managed to work through this and once the drugs no longer speak for them, they have managed to emerge strong and faith-filled ladies. Once again, I walked away with a glimmer of hope flickering in my heart.   

On my way home I met Pam, who I had not seen for over a year. We talked for about 15 minutes and frequently she lapsed into Scripture commentary, “Blessed are the merciful, blessed are the kind … but many people are not kind, it’s not easy in the world. I have been hurt by unkind people, but you got to do what you got to do.” 

She is a one-woman talking machine who perpetually carries with her an enormous bag of old newspapers on her arm and the wounds of the world on her shoulders. As I walked away, I found myself singing the Gordon Lightfoot song which starts, “It’s so nice to meet an old friend and pass the time of day.” 

Despite the discouraging start to the evening, I could say as the late Presbyterian minister George MacLeod would say, “It was a benediction of an evening.”

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

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