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Robert Kinghorn: Timely phone calls re-focus our mission

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  • October 24, 2020

If “The Church on the Street” were a weekly contribution to The Catholic Register, then I would frequently have the wrath of the editor on my shoulders as I submit, “Walked around downtown; nothing happened. The end.” Especially in these COVID-ridden times the streets are devoid of much of the activity that unfortunately led one journalist to write-off the area as “plagued by crack addicts, drug dealers and low-rent sex trade workers.”

I was feeling sorry for myself a couple of weeks ago as I walked the streets saying “Hello” to those I met, and the most vociferous response came from a man in a bus shelter who shouted at me threateningly, “If you don’t know me don’t say hello to me.” I have to say this barrage was punctuated by a few expletives that would not get past the editor’s electronic red pen. I did, however, find a warmer reception when I passed a downtown mosque and stopped as I usually do to acknowledge the stream of believers entering for their evening prayers.

My general discouragement was lightened a few days later when I received a couple of phone calls that reinforced the spiritual needs of those on the street and the importance of walking around while not concerning myself with results.

The first was from a lady I had journeyed with for 13 years before she finally found sobriety three years ago. Our first meeting was memorable in that she wanted to talk about Scripture and her faith in God, even though she was deep into prostitution and drug dependency.

Listening to her life story in the years to come, I was always astounded by her faith in a loving God despite the trauma that she had endured. However, there were times of doubt when her guilt began to crush her and she needed someone who still believed in that spark of divinity within her.

In her sobriety she gave birth to a son and called upon me to bless him the morning after. She then set about completing her high school diploma and entered college to become an addictions counsellor. The joyful call was to tell me she had been offered a job and to ask me to be a reference for her.

The next day I received another call from a lady who tracked me down through my parish. Her request was simple: “What can we do about the spiritual life of those on the street?”

She had met a young man in a shelter who was homeless and desperately wanted spiritual support. She was familiar with the shelter system, but as she said, unless the shelter is run by a faith-based group, then qualified spiritual support is not given any priority. The lady on the other end of the line knew intimately of the need because she herself is homeless and currently lives out of her car.

I had encountered this lack of spiritual support within shelters early in my street ministry when I was working with a women’s shelter for three years, but when a new executive director took over, the spiritual support group was abandoned like jetsam, not wanted on board. I thanked her for her concern for those whose spiritual life is too often neglected and for invigorating my search for ways the churches can provide more spiritual support in shelters. 

There is an adage that to get off the street you need a home, a job and a friend. As Christians and people of faith, we are in the friend “business,” not just any friendship, but one that is willing, as Pope Francis reminds us “… to run the risk of a face-to-face encounter with others, with their physical presence which challenges us, with their pain and their pleas, with their joy which infects us in our close and continuous interaction.” This is a spiritual friend, one who is willing to be infected, not by the coronavirus but by pain, pleas and joy.

As I write this on Thanksgiving day, I am reminded of the thanksgiving of Eucharist and the words of Fr. Ed Farrell in his book Free To Be Nothing: “Eucharist remains incomplete when we do not go and give of ourselves to those who are most in need of His presence. Yet only you, only I, can make the choice to offer ourselves freely to Him so that He can break us open.”

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

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