Streets of saints among the demons

  • March 31, 2022

The grip of a long, cold winter had finally been broken when I walked downtown on a warm St. Patrick’s night in Toronto. It was not long until I came across my first party. Some men were standing outside a shelter drinking and joking. I stopped and wished them a happy St. Patrick’s Day and asked if they lived in the shelter. Ray, standing next to me, said he used to live there but had moved up a step and now had his own apartment.

“I’m lucky,” he said. “Some get out and some don’t. I’m working, too, so that’s good.”

I quoted the old street saying: “Everyone needs a home, a job and a friend.”

“Well, I got two friends,” he said. “So, I am really blessed.”

With that his friend put down his beer and asked, “Hey Father, do you want a drink?”

I told him I was “on duty” so better pass.

“OK Father, but make sure you don’t go into that strip club at the end of the street. They’ll steal your money, and they’ll steal your soul.”

I thanked him for his spiritual direction.

Turning the corner into the area that’s a centre for violence and drugs, I came face to face with a man I had often seen but always avoided because his drug habit made him unpredictable. He glared at me in the dark of the streetlights and asked if I would give him money. I introduced myself and said I don’t carry money. Surprisingly, he stopped to chat and gave his name before walking away. I made a note to myself to say “hello” to him in passing.

I heard what sounded like a fight starting inside a bus shelter that had about 15 people surrounding it. I went to check the commotion, and to see if I knew any participants. Two girls seemed to be the protagonists. Another was acting as peacemaker.

Discretion being the better part of valour, I skirted the shelter and continued along the street that’s a main area for prostitution. There are a few “regulars” I have come to know, and I always walk by to see how their lives are going. I was particularly interested in meeting a lady I have mentioned in a previous column who has ignored me for about six months.

She was not at her usual corner, but I saw her getting out of a car and walking back towards me. As she passed, I said, “Hello.” I think, but am not certain, she gave a little wave and whispered, “Hello.” I thought to myself, “Be patient and celebrate small advances.”

After about an hour I returned to the bus shelter to find the group had swelled to over 20, all still milling around. Instead of skirting them, I decided to pass through the gaps. As I got near, one of the ladies recognized me and said, “Good to see you again.” She shouted to the group, “The Reverend wants to say hello to you.”

I was taken aback and wondered if I should give them a homily but instead just stammered, “Happy St. Patrick’s Day everyone.” 

A lady appeared from inside the shelter and asked me if I do baptisms.

“I want my daughter baptized,” she said.

I took her aside to talk. She said, “I am native, and I hate what you guys did in the residential schools. I am not blaming you. I know you had nothing to do with it. But it is terrible.”

I agreed much harm was done and it is indefensible.

“We have to treat one another as humans” she said. “We all have goodness in us and it does not matter what we have done, we are all still human. I had nine years sobriety, but I relapsed. I have had a drink tonight. It’s hard to get off it.”

I told her I could see she is a good person and that I have accompanied many women who have gone through it. If she wanted, I would help her.

“It’s great what you are doing,” she said, “God bless you. Maybe one person like you gives people the hope they need. Like you talked with me tonight.”

She turned and embraced me, and perhaps there was a little reconciliation in the midst of truth.

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

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