A creative takeout service has helped keep the poor fed in a Toronto neighbourhood. CNS photo/Kathleen Flynn, Reuters

Robert Kinghorn: Taking care of the poor is an essential service

  • April 8, 2020

It was a different time and a different crisis, but in the small village of Bronte, Ont., work was hard to come by in the early 1950s.

New immigrant Bill Kosterman entered the grocery store with his family in tow and was met by the owner of the village store who came up to him and whispered, “I know things are tough for you these days, take what you need and you can settle up when times get better.”

Some would call this is a slick marketing ploy, but as my friend Mr. Kosterman recounted this story years later, he said that he was by no means the only one that received this act of kindness.

That this story seems cute and folksy to us now gives the truth to what Mother Teresa said of society, “We have simply forgotten that we belong to one another.”

When we are in crisis, we often forget that we belong to one another and the first reaction is, “How do I support myself and my immediate family?” But who are the family of the poor, the homeless and the ostracized?

The message of Jesus that we celebrate at Easter was always one of an expansive family and He railed against anyone who tried to put boundaries on it. He even had the temerity to perfect the golden rule — “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” — by saying, “A new commandment I give you, love one another as I have loved you.”

Pope Francis spoke of this recently when he again called us to a “universal kinship” and reminded us that the journey of Lent is one of charity towards the weakest.

The question which begs to be answered by all faith communities, and indeed by all people at this time of crisis, is: “What would you want others to do if you were homeless, poor and ostracized by a society that is afraid of catching something?” Pope Francis in a Mass streamed from Rome gave his answer when he said, “Let us pray during this crisis for creativity.”

He has in the past reminded us that though the doors of churches may be closed, we are walking tabernacles carrying the presence of Jesus to the world. We are the Church on the street, carrying on the tradition that if someone in need can reach a church they will be sheltered and protected.

This is our call as the Church on the street, to shelter, to protect and to pray for those who are vulnerable.

The parish community of Sacré-Coeur in the heart of downtown Toronto, together with the Dominican friars, has been providing regular meals on Saturdays to those on the street. They pulled together a coalition involving the Sikh community, the Vietnamese community, various Christian groups and a variety of volunteers from all walks of life.

As  COVID-19 spread its tentacles on the world, it became clear that we could not continue with the indoor meals that often fed 150 each Saturday and provided a place where relationships and friendships could flourish and be renewed. Fortunately, within the community there were those who believed that feeding the poor is an essential service and were willing to creatively design a way of continuing the ministry while working within the guidelines of the city and the Archdiocese of Toronto.

Under the supervision of a parishioner who is a chef certified in food-handling management, a group of volunteers assisted in preparing the soup and sandwiches in the parish kitchen. The food was then packaged in containers and brought by a separate group of volunteers to a table on the front steps of Sacré-Coeur where guests lined up to receive them as take-away.

There is a saying that on the journey through life we are united by a common vision or a common enemy. The common enemy today is the virus, but Jesus has given us a common vision of a community on a pilgrimage that can transcend all evil, all misfortune.

It is the journey to our hearts, and the rhythm of the pilgrimage calls us to put out into the deep darkness of unknown lands where we meet God and become more like Jesus the Son. In this time of social distancing, let it not be a time of social isolation.

As Lent turns into Easter, perhaps we can pledge acts of mercy so that as the resurrection from this crisis arrives we will be able to say, “This was a difficult time, but it was a mercy-filled time.”

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

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