Register file photo by Michael Swan

Robert Kinghorn: A time of lament on streets of suffering

  • February 7, 2021

One of my favourite authors is George Mackay Brown, who rarely left his native Orkney, a remote island off the coast of Scotland.

Reflecting upon his own life and death he said, “We move from silence into silence, and there is a brief stir between — every person’s attempt to make a meaning of life and time.” Much of the ministry of The Church on the Street, and indeed of any pastoral ministry, is to walk with others on their journey of finding meaning in life and time.

The temperature had dipped below freezing as I headed towards a small cluster of tents that had been set up by some of the homeless in the city. I had always found the residents of these pop-up “villages” to be sociable and welcoming since they did not want any problems with the police.

I introduced myself to Robin, who had been living in the tent for many weeks, and he smiled as he said, “Yes I know you, I have seen you out around here a lot.” When I asked him about how he survived the cold evenings and what his hopes were for finding permanent shelter, he said that he has lots of sleeping bags to keep him warm, and that social workers check on him and are looking for housing. As I walked away, he shouted after me, “Thanks for doing this, we get lonely out here.”

I made my way to the intersection that is the most volatile in the downtown area, and as usual it was awash with swearing and shouting. In the distance I saw Robert, who always chases after me asking for money. He is often angry and aggressive as the whites of his eyes shine in the streetlights.

Momentarily I thought of taking a different route, but as I passed a doorway, I saw a young lady sitting on the ground, crack pipe in hand. I asked how she was doing and she said she was missing her companion of four years who is no longer with her.

“He was different religion from me,” she said. “I go to church to pray, any church really. I am a bit of everything, but I believe there is only one God. God bless you for the work you are doing.” We talked for a while about her companion, and as I left, she said that she would pray for me that I would be safe from COVID and the streets.

One of the changes that COVID has brought about is that many of the girls involved in street prostitution have moved indoors, leaving only those who are most desperate, and drug addicted, to walk the streets. It was not long until I passed a couple of these girls, and one came over and asked if she could talk.

Many of the women I have met in the past have since given up the work and so I am always willing to walk and talk with them. I pointed vaguely into the distance and said, “Sure we can talk, I am going up that way.”

As we walked along, she suggested we take a different street, which raised my defence antennae, having learned that if someone really wants to talk they will be content to walk with me in the direction I am going. I told her I really was going in the other direction whereupon she stopped and said, “You remember me, don’t you? I’m Joanne.”

I told her I really can’t recall her, but she insisted, “Sure you know me, we had sex last week!” I assured her that she must be mistaking me for some other good-looking man, but it certainly was not me.

I pulled my winter jacket aside so that she could see my collar more clearly and she immediately crossed the road, fleeing into the darkness of the night. I wished I had time to encourage her to get out of this business before it ruins her life like it has for so many others I know, but all I can do is to pray that Joanne may be willing at some point to have a deeper conversation.

In his recent book, God and the Pandemic, Scripture scholar N.T. Wright said that our response to the pandemic should be one of lamentation. As we walk with others on their journey of finding meaning in life and time, often we can only lament for the suffering of the world, and as Professor Wright says, “Reflect upon how helpless we are, and that God is still in charge.”

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

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