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Robert Kinghorn: Everyone has a ‘once upon a time’

By 
  • March 5, 2022

There is an old saying, “Every saint has a past, every sinner has a future.” The truth is that we are all a complex blend of saint and sinner whose scales of sanctity teeter on a delicate balance throughout life.

Fr. Henri Nouwen defined ministry by simply asking the question, “Can you receive people?” Can we receive people believing that, despite all appearances to the contrary, the one I am with is loved and redeemed by God? Our call is to listen gently, so that in the listening they come to realize that in our hearts, and the heart of God, they are still a “somebody.”

The city was still very much in the grip of winter as I started on the streets and waded through mounds of snow in the downtown park. It was not long until I saw a man seated alone on one of the benches, warming up with sips of beer from his drink of choice.

I made my way over to him, and when I introduced myself, he said, “I’m from The Rock, you know, Newfoundland. Been here over 40 years now. I’m just sitting here thinking of my father. He died recently; 91 he was. He was a good man, a carpenter all his life. I called him every week, but towards the end he had a stroke and I could no longer have a conversation with him. My mother died a few years before, so he was in a nursing home. I followed in his footsteps, 40 years a carpenter in this city. I have one more carpentry job to do in Alberta, and then I hang up my tools. It’s been a good life.”

“You’ve had a hard time of it recently, haven’t you?” I asked. “How has your famous ‘Newfie’ faith survived all of this?”

“You got to have faith,” he said. “It’s what keeps us going, isn’t it?” With that he looked up from his bench, saw my collar in the streetlight and said, “Oh, I see you’re a reverend.” I told him what I do on the streets, and that I was on my way to George Street.

“Be careful, that street’s not safe,” he said. I thanked him, and as I left I told him I would pray for his holy family; his mother, his father and him.

As I walked, I saw the shape of a lady sitting on the ground. I knelt down and introduced myself, asking, “How are you tonight?”

“I’m recovering,” she said. “I got beaten up two nights ago, but I refused medication and just got a blood transfusion. I would have given them what they beat me up for. You know what I mean?”

“I’m so sorry, no one deserves that” was all I could say, for in reality I cannot say I really know because I have never experienced such abject brutality. “Thanks,” she whispered. “Bye Robert.”

When I reached George Street, there was a familiar sight outside the men’s shelter; two police cars and a fire truck. All that was needed was an ambulance and I would have had the trifecta. I said hello to one of the bystanders, who turned to me with one of the broadest smiles I have seen. “Hello,” he said. “How are you?”

His accent was strong and his words sparse, so I had some difficulty understanding him. “Do you live in the shelter?” I asked. Instead of a direct reply he said, “NFL, you know NFL?” I nodded, and he continued, “I play New York, Washington. I play Canada too.”

Again came the smile that lit up the darkness as I said, “Wow, you certainly have the build for the NFL. I am going to tell people I met an NFL superstar.” He smiled. “So, you are staying here now?” I asked, pointing to the shelter. “What happened?” “You know,” he said, “things happen, now I am in shelter. I look for something.”

When I walked away, I wondered if he had ever been an NFL player. But then again, does it really matter? Here was a man with a story, a story which true or not allows him to have dignity and respect; a dignity and respect which should not have to be earned.

It is a recurring theme among those who are on the streets, in prison, or in nursing homes, that they silently cry out “I once was a somebody.” Everyone has a “once upon a time” in their life, and in our hearts, and the heart of God, they are still a “somebody.”

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

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