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Robert Kinghorn: Finding light in frontline darkness

  • January 9, 2021

A few weeks ago, I was on an intimate online call with one of our political leaders. Well, when I say it was an intimate call, it was intimate in the way a private audience with the Pope is intimate, namely there were as many people on the call as the bandwidth could support.

The meeting was to enable the politician to listen to faith and religious leaders in Canada report on their response to COVID-19, and how the various levels of government could assist. One of the leaders concluded her report with the well-known aphorism, “This too shall pass,” and online heads were seen to be nodding in agreement. I was surprised by the response from the politician. “Yes,” he said, “this too shall pass, but not in the same way for everyone.”

We often forget the human drama that is being lived out uniquely in the lives of each of us and the unique presence that we are called to be for one another. This has been brought into sharp focus by the stories of frontline workers who have been that unique presence for others during the pandemic. One group of frontline workers we tend to hear less of are housing support workers for those who often have mental health issues or a history of addiction.

I was talking with Jen, a lady I got to know first when she was an addict and a prostitute on the street, and who is now a housing support worker in Toronto. I asked her what difference she is seeing on the streets these days, and she said there is a loneliness and seclusion which is leading to despair in many.

One thing they looked forward to each year was the Christmas parties put on by the agencies, or the 24-hour drop-in centre with a Christmas meal. These are either cancelled or, if there is a meal, there is no personal contact. The traditional personalized “shoe boxes” of toiletries, socks and gloves are being replaced by coffee or grocery cards. However, out of her own pocket Jen said that she is going to make “shoe boxes” to give to her clients when she goes for their home visit.

She talked of an elderly client she takes out to a local store to buy pill organizers, cookies and personal items to make up for the little gifts that she would normally receive at Christmas. “It is a personal choice,” Jen explains. “I do it out of my own pocket because when I was on the street using drugs it was these little gifts of kindness that I remember to this day, and which kept my hope alive in the compassion of others and in my own humanity.

“Another of my clients is often verbally abusive when I go to visit him in his home,” she said, “but he always apologizes. He is an alcoholic and I understand him because of my own history. His whole family has given up on him, his children and grandchildren no longer talk to him, but I am not giving up on him. Even workmen who come to fix his apartment are abused. My goal is not to let him become homeless again, because that means he is back in a shelter and at the bottom of the housing list.”

When I asked Jen how she is coping with the stress of being a housing support worker in a pandemic world, her face darkened. “Well, I have my own memories to deal with as well, especially at Christmas. Many years ago, while I was out on the streets smoking crack, my young handicapped son passed away while in care. I have managed to come to terms with this because through my faith I am fully aware that there is always light in the darkness. Isn’t this the message of Christmas and of the New Year?

“I keep myself busy around the apartment and my neighbours have been good to me when I have needed them. I know I have $200-$300 in gifts under my Christmas tree at home, and surely I can afford $100 of that for others who are still out there. I think COVID has brought out the best in people and if we do just one kind act for someone, then it will bring a light of hope in the darkness of our streets.”

Yes, “this too shall pass, but not in the same way for everyone,” and frontline workers like Jen are the saints in the darkness of so many.

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

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