A woman embraces her daughter during a rally at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in Kamloops, British Columbia, June 6, 2021. CNS photo/Chris Helgren, Reuters

Robert Kinghorn: Finding light in the gloom of shame

  • July 4, 2021

There are some days it is harder than others to get up the energy, and indeed the courage to make the trip downtown to the Church on the Street, and this was one of them.

For over a week, the media had been awash with reports of bones being discovered on the grounds of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C. This again resurrected the decades-old spectre of the residential school system in Canada, whereby First Nations’ children were taken from their homes to live in residential schools. The Catholic Church had been widely involved in the system, and in recent years its legacy has come under scrutiny and fire.

On a warm summer’s evening I put on my clerical shirt and collar to walk the streets with a feeling of uncertainty about my reception from the opinionated parishioners of the Church on the Street. However, it seems to me that these are the very nights we should be on the street, in the midst of the darkness of the night and the gloom of shame, still listening to the pain of the world that we share.

The evening did not start well as even before I got out of the car I heard a man shouting and swearing into the night air. When I got out I could see him across the street, mask dangling around his neck and cursing everyone who wore a mask.

“I hope you all die of COVID,” was his underlying message, that was then augmented with a variety of curses which testified to his strong command of language, if not of self-control. Now, I know that Jesus was approached by a madman who lived among the tombs, but at this moment I was not quite ready to take on this man, who fortunately ignored me.

I have two friends from First Nations’ communities who I have become close to over the years. They are both off the street now and I wanted to apologize personally to them for the news that had once again hit the headlines.

I stopped by the house of one who was home with her young son. We have had a long history together, and her view of the Catholic Church I believe has been nuanced by seeing my work on the street and what I have done for her family. I have also driven her to speak at First Nations’ meetings while I sat listening to many of the grievances of the community. She thanked me for the apology as I left to visit my other friend.

I first became friends with him about 11 years ago around the time his mother died. It was a difficult time for him and there was much grief to be heard. He is a beautiful, gentle soul who I think could be best described as a body artist, portraying himself on his Facebook page in many guises: male, female or animal. Since he was not home, I sent a message of apology to him and soon received a warm greeting of friendship.

I was still apprehensive as I walked back to the more dangerous parts of the city streets carrying some of the shame of what the media was reporting. It was at that moment that I heard a voice call out. I turned around and it was a man I had met five years previously as he was leaving a downtown mosque after evening prayers. He was a tall, distinguished gentleman and it was clear from our initial conversation that he was a man of extensive education and reading.

This evening his greeting was once again courteous and warm as he reminded me that he had been educated by the Jesuits at home in India and that he had a great respect for them. I told him that I felt some shame for the Church because of the headlines in the media.

He looked at me softly and said, “Remember what St. Paul wrote to the Church of Rome, ‘I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.’ ” Slowly he raised his arms to the heavens and with a smile of wisdom said, “But of people, sometimes we are ashamed. God looks after us.” It took a Muslim brother in faith to remind me of this truth.

There is a saying attributed to the South African apartheid leader Steve Biko, “Justice is not enough; for Christians justice must lead to reconciliation.” This, I believe, is a reconciliation which calls all to move beyond justice to mercy.

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

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