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Robert Kinghorn: Return to the streets like coming home

  • September 26, 2020

We all want to be known for something. In moments of self-doubt and weakness we look back on our lives and ask ourselves, “Did my life have meaning to anyone? What will people remember me for?” Pastoral care is the ability to walk with others and to assist them in uncovering within themselves the Gospel that they have written through their lives.

For years my claim to fame has been that I am the only deacon in the world referred to in a rock song. One of our parishioners was a member of a band who told me he had included me in a recent song. I was anxious to hear it and after a cacophony of an introduction, came the immortal line, “My name is Reagan and I was baptized by a deacon.” I basked in glory for a brief moment.

The Church on the Street challenges our expectation of what value the work has, and if in fact the work has been meaningful. Fr. Greg Boyle in his ministry with gangs in Los Angeles recounts how he burned out in the early days of the ministry and had to walk away from it for a while. He said his agenda going in was to help gangs to be reconciled, but week after week he failed in that agenda until he realized the only reason he was there was to walk with the gang members as individuals. 

I have to constantly remind myself that I am only called to show up, listen, don’t judge, don’t fix and leave the rest to grace. For 15 years I had faithfully adhered to this sacred path, seldom missing a weekly walk on the streets. However, the coronavirus this year raised a human and spiritual crisis which I had to deal with.

My daughter had given birth to twins in January, and my wife and I were visiting her and helping with the care of the family which had instantly doubled in size. My family has always been supportive of the work on the streets, but early in the virus my daughter asked if I would reconsider going downtown each week for fear that I would succumb to the virus.

In my heart I knew it was what I had to do, and yet it was an immensely emotional decision to take a few months off, since I felt I was abandoning those on the street.

My first night back on the streets felt like coming home as I walked around the familiar neighbourhood. Passing a pizza shop that has been a staple on the street for decades, I stopped to chat with the owner who in the course of the conversation furtively said, “There’s a lot of excitement in your neighbourhood recently,” before he popped back inside to serve a customer.

It did not take long for me to come across the source of his anxiety. A pop-up shrine with candles and flowers had been erected at an intersection with the simple message, “Joan RIP.” I stopped and prayed at the shrine for the young lady who had been stabbed the previous day, and for the neighbourhood that was still in mourning and disquiet.

Later in the evening I met a young restaurant owner I had known for four years who was always verging on bankruptcy. His restaurant was in another area with a violent reputation, but one that was undergoing a transition to up-scale condominiums and office suites.

Over the years I had known him he told me there was pressure on him to sell his business and give it up to redevelopment. However, much of his life savings were invested and he was not about to let profiteers take it from him.

Although I had not seen him for two years, I had maintained phone contact with him ever since his restaurant eventually closed. He was a Christian man who tried to understand the workings of the God he believes in, and yet the whole experience with those who have the power and the money had left him disillusioned and angry.

He looked at me and said, “I wish I could learn to forgive.” Once again, I was reminded of the difficulty of pastoral care where we come to bring hope and we seldom have the answers. All I could say to him was, “Forgiveness will come, and I will walk with you along the journey.”

It was good to be back with the Church on the Street.

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

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