Photo by Anatoly Ramonov on Unsplash

Robert Kinghorn: Encounters on a warm summer evening

  • September 5, 2021

Warm weather can bring out the best and the worst in the parishioners of the church on the street. It can lull them into a state of lassitude that can only be equalled by a homily that has lost sight of its destination, or else stir them into frenetic anger fuelled by an assortment of illicit stimulants.

Never being one to shy away from either extreme, I ventured onto the street on the warmest evening of the summer.

I saw in the distance a woman in a middle eastern outfit sitting on the curb of the road. I crossed over to say hello and her face brightened as she spoke in a confused combination of English and what turned out to be Somali, most of which was indecipherable. I did, however, detect what sounded like “Abba” which I took to be a reference to the fact that she was respecting me as a priest.

The parts of her story which I could grasp told an unimaginable tale of violence as to how she had arrived in Canada as a refugee. Leaving her father, she and her mother, who had been held hostage, escaped by boat to finally make their way to Canada. She showed me her wounds where she had been beaten throughout the journey. I walked back with her to her shelter and as we parted, she said, “God will bless us Abba.” I was once again impressed by the faith of many of the Muslim people I meet on the street.

I soon walked past a man sitting on a park bench who had tattoos in places where I do not even have places. I said “Good evening,” and he did a double-take when he saw my collar and said, “So you’re a priest.” Not inclined to explain the distinction between a priest and a deacon, I asked him how he was doing. This simple question opened up his witness to a life of redemption.

“I was on drugs for 24 years, and now I am clean. I was born in Italy and then we moved to U.S. and Canada. I am not proud of my life and I have hurt a lot of people because I would do anything for the drug money. I have asked for forgiveness from all of them and even my girlfriend and my mother have forgiven me. My mother said, ‘It was the drugs that did it son, not you.’ I have had some relapses, but I have always started over. I’ve spent a lot of time in jail, but I always pled guilty if I did it. I’m not a liar.”

“What made you turn your life around?” I asked.

“My mother said it was an angel that came to me,” he said. “I was walking down Spadina Avenue thinking about my children and how I had hurt them. Suddenly I started crying, I could not stop. It had never happened to me before. A woman came over and asked if I was OK, and then she just listened to my story. At the end she said, ‘You are a good man.’

“Can you imagine? She said I was a good man. Since that time many years ago we have talked every Friday. I’m moving back soon to work in construction in Elliot Lake where my family is. I will do Cocaine Anonymous online from there. My friend that meets me on Fridays said that if I do not keep in touch, she’s coming up to get me.”

I gave him my deacon business card and told him if he needs me to let me know.

It seems to me that we all have this secret fear in our hearts that there is part of us that is unforgivable. So we hide it for fear that Jesus will see it, and yet it is only when we realize that Jesus always meets us with the greeting “Peace be with you” that we can sense His mercy and forgiveness. It is then that we can stop being stingy in passing on Christ’s mercy to others.

Towards the end of the evening, I met a lady I have known for as long as I have been on the street. Despite her promises to get off the streets, she is still part of what is becoming an ever more dangerous landscape.

“Are you still out here?” I asked, and with a twinkle in her eye, she said, “Of course, like wine I get better with age. You know, my granddaughter called me ‘grandma’ for the first time today. I called her and asked why she had not called me. I told her I could have been dead. She said, ‘Grandma, I would have felt it.’ She’s so cute.”

As I drove home that evening, I thought to myself, “Isn’t this the most beautiful ministry in the world on a warm summer’s evening?”

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

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