A homeless tent encampment has sprung up near St. Paul’s Basilica (in the background) in downtown Toronto. Photo by Michael Swan

Robert Kinghorn: See amid the winter’s snow

  • January 10, 2022

See amid the winter’s snow
Born for us on earth below
See the tender Lamb appears
Promised from eternal years

It was one of these soft evenings when a gentle snowfall enveloped the drabness of the streets, and with no breeze to speak of, the chill had been taken from the air. As I walked the downtown streets the ancient hymn came to my mind, “See Amid the Winter’s Snow.”

I was willing to suspend my judgment that it was highly unlikely there was snow on the night of the birth of Jesus, to imagine what it would be like if Jesus was born on our streets today. Born among the tents of those who have been evicted from low-rent housing to give way for expensive high rises now dominating the skyline.

I passed the tents with the shadows of their occupants cast on the walls and walked towards the street which was once the domain of drug dealers and addicts. Recently I asked a friend who had once been a regular on this street, but is now clean, why it has been so quiet since COVID hit. She said, “It’s so sad. It’s the fentanyl. It’s a killer because you never know what is in it, but it is cheap, and people are desperate.”

With the birth of Jesus, Herod ordered the execution of children, but now there is no need, there are many dealers only too willing to accept a fee for the slow death that comes from the drugs they peddle.

In the distance I saw a group of men hanging around a men’s shelter, and so I introduced myself. There were three of them, and the self-proclaimed spokesman asked if I was a priest, and what church I belonged to. He seemed surprised that my parish was 15 kilometres away, but understood when I explained that although the church building is there, the Church is right here on the street.

“So that’s what a deacon does is it? Shouldn’t everyone be doing this?” It seemed I had come across the wise men of the Christmas story.

As the darkness of the evening drew in, I moved to the area where the girls worked the streets and was surprised to see several girls already out. One was eyeing each car as it passed in the hope that it would turn into the street beside her and they could strike up a conversation. When she saw my clerical collar, she smiled and stepped back from the edge of the road to have a conversation. I mentioned that I had not seen her before in this area, and she said that she is not out so often now.

“I came from Prince Edward Island 41 years ago. My family is back there, and I have been working the streets for 20 years. I’m getting tired of it, and I miss the slower way of life back home.”

I gave her my “Church on the Street” business card and asked her to call me when she feels ready to get off the street. She pondered it, slipped it into her bag and whispered, “I’ll pray for you and your work.”   

As I walked away, I saw another girl in the shadows of a side street. I met her six months before when she asked me if I wanted a “date.” I told her about my ministry on the streets, and since then she has turned her back to appear invisible each time I get close. I am used to being ignored like this, sometimes for several years, but often one day something happens in their life, and they are ready to talk.

One of the girls who has been clean of drugs and ready to talk for many years was waiting for me on the sidewalk as I approached her apartment building. Despite knowing her for many years she was always protective of her past, and so I was tentative as I asked her what she was doing for Christmas.

“I’ll be alone at Christmas,” she said. “I don’t have any family, only me and my sister, and she is still on drugs, so I don’t go near her. I have lived all my life in this area, never could quite escape it.”

As the night ended, I walked back to my car. I passed the shell of a magnificent old stone church, which had long since been turned into a party venue and was blasting disco music through its welcoming doors. It seemed symbolic of society with no peace on Earth tonight.

Again, the words of the ancient hymn came floating back as the snow continued to fall. Words that bring hope in the midst of the darkness:

Sacred infant, all divine
What a tender love was thine
Thus to come from highest bliss
Down to such a world as this.

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

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