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Robert Kinghorn: The lethal absence of hope

  • February 5, 2022

I am often asked to speak to groups about my experiences on the streets of the city, and what it means for each of us to be the Church on the Street. Recently at the end of one of these talks I was asked, “What do those on the street need the most?” I could do no better than to quote one of my heroes, Fr. Greg Boyle who works with the gang members in Los Angeles and who said, “Gang members need hope. They live with a lethal absence of hope.”

Hope may have at one time been in the lives of the people I meet, but the daily grind of surviving on the streets, and feeling the shame and disgrace of being unable to escape an addiction that has a hold of their very spirit, has a way of sapping the hope out of their lives. Yes, people are looking for hope that tomorrow can be a better day, and a new start in their life. As one lady asked me many years ago, and I will never forget it, “Pray for clarity in my life. Yes, just pray for clarity. I used to see clearly what my future would be, but now I have lost that vision, lost my hope.”

It is the memory of this plea that once again found me wearing four layers of clothing against a cold January wind that had lowered the temperature to minus 20 degrees Celsius and cut into exposed skin like shards of ice. It is nights such as these when only those who experience extreme hopelessness inhabit the streets.

I made my way down the street that is usually one of the hangouts of the drug dealers and their clients, but this evening was deserted apart from a few loiterers from the local men’s shelter. As I passed a couple, I nodded and asked how they were doing. “Are you still out here?” one replied. “We met in the park up there over two years ago. I never forget a face I have not seen you for a while. Of course, I’ve been in federal jail for over two years since we last met.”

“Obviously I made an impact on you” I quipped.

He laughed and added, “No it was, well you know, I had women problems.”

I nodded sagely as if I knew what he was talking about, but the reality was that I thought it better to let the conversation veer off in another direction as he continued, “You know, the two of us have met Christ, and once you have met Him you never forget. He hits you like a ton of bricks, wham!” They both went on to witness to their experiences before saying, “We are off inside now, so thanks for coming downtown and talking with us.”

I then made my way to the area where the prostitutes gather along the sidewalk, and I hoped to meet two in particular. One has ignored me every week for about four months. When I first met her she asked if I wanted “a date”,,and when I explained I was not on the streets for that reason or to give out money, she quickly turned around and walked away. I am used to being ignored in this fashion for many months and even years. Then suddenly something happens in their life, and they want to talk.

Usually it’s some trauma: “My friend died today,” or “My mother just died,” or “I have just had my daughter taken from me because of my addiction.” Each of these, and many more, has turned into a lasting friendship that continues to this day. The other person I hoped to meet was a lady that I had given my “business card” to just a couple of weeks previously, and who had shared her hope that after 21 years of prostitution she could get off the street.

I did not see her, and so I continued on my way looking for the other lady and preparing myself for another rejection. Finally, I saw her emerge from a side street behind me, and so I took a long circuitous route to again walk past her. On my detour, like a miraculous “coincidence,” there was “business card” lady getting out of someone’s car. We had a pleasant conversation catching up on how she was, and then I continued on my way. I finally passed the other lady, and “yes”,,she ignored me again!

My friend Rick Tobias once said, “People say that poverty is a personal sin, and we have a social responsibility. Scripture says that poverty is a social sin, and we have personal responsibility.”

Perhaps this is what it means for each of us to be the Church on the Street answering the despairing cry for hope.

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

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