Robert Kinghorn: Violence and grief grip the night

  • July 3, 2020

At school I was told that before the advent of radio and television, the great novelists such as Charles Dickens would write their books to be read around the fireplace in the evening. In so doing they would make their chapters short enough for an evening’s read and closed with a cliff-hanger.

I am not claiming to be in the orbit of such writers, but in my previous article, “The Noble Journey Can Be Tortuous,” I did leave the readers with the text message from my friend, “I have tested positive for the coronavirus.” I am pleased to say that after three weeks in hospital she has been released in good health and commented, “Of course, I had a lot of people praying for me.”

I have often been asked if I was ever close to the gun violence of the street, and one thing I have learned from the novelists is that the answer to a question such as that is, “It all depends on how you tell the story.”

This was the situation. Often, I would drive downtown straight from work and before going on the street I would park in the expansive parking lot of a beer store to have a rest.

One evening I fell asleep in the car and woke up to find the lot filled with police cars, gawkers and TV cameras from local stations. Fifty feet to my right there was yellow police tape cordoning off the entrance to a street.

While I slept, there had been an incident there involving the police and a man with a gun, and everyone was waiting for the ambulance to arrive. I slowly pulled out of the parking lot before one of the TV stations wanted to interview me and ask, “I see you are a street chaplain, did you see anything?” and I would have to admit I managed to sleep through it. So yes, it all depends on how you tell the story.

However, violence and death seemed to be the theme that particular evening starting off at the spiritual group I ran in the basement of a drop-in centre. We were in the midst of our time of reflection and meditation when I asked if anyone had a prayer they would like to say.

One of the ladies prayed that there would be more housing for the poor, and immediately one of the other elderly ladies stood up brandishing her walking cane and swinging it wildly like a woman possessed as she shouted obscenities at everyone in the room. Fortunately, we managed to talk her down and shepherd her out of the room to allow the staff of the centre to talk with her.

When I finally hit the streets, the darkness was closing in and I was approached by a shadowy figure who loomed large over me. He asked if he could talk to me about “things” and immediately added that he was not asking for, or needing, money. He just wanted to talk.

The story that unfolded was one of loss and violence, and the grief that he carried in his life was palpable. He had been badly abused and beaten as a child by his father and later became a biker, serving 10 years in prison for murder.

When his father died, no one had bothered to tell him, so he had not managed to get home for the funeral. The guilt of this hung heavy on his heart and the family poured more venom on the wound by rejecting him.

Divorced, and now on the streets, he was still proud of helping to raise his three children and guiding them into good jobs. All I could do was to listen to his grief and pray with him that the Lord understands his pain and hears his cry of repentance.

Close by I saw Rena, one of the prostitutes who was at her usual spot, and she beckoned me over. Her eyes were moist as she told me that her favourite uncle had just died in B.C. but she could not get to the funeral.

Once more the story that poured out was one of grief and loss; one that needed a listening ear to a voice which revealed the tenderness in the midst of her harsh, perilous world.

There is much violence and grief on the streets, but as Pope Francis reminded us in The Joy of the Gospel, “Everyone needs to be touched by the comfort and attraction of God’s saving love, which is mysteriously at work in each person, above and beyond their faults and failings.”

(Kinghorn is a deacon in the Archdiocese of Toronto.)

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