Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

A kiss on the cheek to share grief

  • June 3, 2022

It was 15 years to the day that I started the ministry of the Church on the Street, walking late each Thursday night in an area of the city described by a local newspaper as “a patch of inner-city Toronto plagued by crack addicts, drug-dealers and low-rent sex trade workers.”

I thought back to giving the homily in my parish of St. Margaret of Scotland and asking the parishioners to pray for the new ministry that the Cardinal, and my wife Ria, had approved for a year trial

“See what happens,” the Cardinal said.

I remember my first encounter that evening, a young man who was risking his life by dashing into the street to panhandle from passing cars. When he saw me, he ran over to talk and to ask me to pray for his mental health problems.

After many years of diaconal ministry in hospitals, it became apparent at that moment that ministry is ministry is ministry. Only the location changes. The ministry of presence, no matter where we are, is to show up, listen, don’t judge and don’t fix. 

Perhaps to celebrate the anniversary, the long cold winter had finally given way to a tentative spring. It felt good to walk slowly through the streets without having to bundle up against the chill of rain or snow. In the evening gloom, I saw a motionless figure sitting on the street, slumped against a shopfront. Her sunken eyes slowly raised up to meet mine, but her face was expressionless.

Bright red lipstick was haphazardly applied covering much of her mouth and chin, giving an almost clownish effect. I bent closer and asked, “How are you tonight?” A half-smile creased her lips as she said: “I’m okay.”

It was clearly the automatic response we all give when we mean: “I’m not okay but I don’t want to talk about it.”

I realized I had seen her many years before on the streets as a prostitute, young and beautiful with a self-confident attitude. Now all that had vanished behind the vacant mask of addiction. I told her I would pray for her. Once again, a smile tried to escape.

A little later, I saw a lady I had briefly talked with a few weeks before. She smiled and said, “Something strange has just happened. I just left a ‘date’. I just couldn’t do it tonight. I got this strange feeling. I was not afraid, just had to get out.”

I thought perhaps this was her conscience speaking, and so delved deeper into her life. I asked how she got into the business. She said she did it on a dare from a friend years before in Montreal. It cost her a daughter, who was taken by Children’s Aid.

“I’m also schizophrenic so I doubt I will ever see her again,” she said.

As we parted, she asked me to pray for her and her daughter. I told her I would look out for her each week when I am on the streets.

Darkness had descended when I made my way to the more dangerous part of the city. As usual, a large group had commandeered a bus shelter to use as a meeting place. I looked over and saw a familiar face I hadn’t seen for a couple of years. He walked over smiling and said: “Hey, Deacon. How are you? It’s been a while.”

“I hardly recognized you without your friendly python around your shoulders,” I said. “And how is mama? I haven’t seen her for a while, either. I miss seeing you getting a ride on her motorized scooter. You know she loved you. She used to worry about you. She once said to me, ‘Once a mama, always a mama. You can’t help worrying.’ ”

His face darkened.

“Mama passed on not long ago.”

“I’m so sorry,” I said.

I put my hand on his shoulder. We shared memories for a while and then he said, “Thank you.”

At the most dangerous corner of the city, with his friends looking on, he leaned forward and kissed me on the cheek. It was a kiss that said: “We are one in grief.” All our seminary formation should prepare us for the moment when we are approached by the poor with a kiss on the cheek that says, “We are equals.”

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

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