I bid you goodnight, my brother

By 
  • June 30, 2022

He was a giant of a man who rode a Harley-Davidson. He was a giant of a man who was a high school dropout but went on to receive two Honorary Doctor of Divinity degrees, and one Honorary Doctor of Laws degree. He was a giant of a man who was CEO of Yonge Street Mission for 23 years, transforming it into one of the leading urban ministries in North America. Rick Tobias, a giant of a man, died on May 18 at the end of a protracted time living with cancer.

My friendship with Rick goes back to 2005 when I needed someone to talk to the diaconate candidates in St. Augustine’s Seminary formation program about their calling to ministry. When I asked around, the one name that consistently came up was that of Rick Tobias, usually followed by, “If you can get him, he is the best.” 

Indeed, he was. His talks on “A Compassionate Understanding and Response to Poverty” and “The Meaning of Poverty in Scripture” threw down the gauntlet to all in the room. “There are about 1,000 references in Scripture to the poor,” he said, “and another 2,000 verses that speak about justice and injustice and their impact on people. Three thousand verses is about equal in content to the whole of the gospels.” He would punctuate these facts by saying, “Justice ain’t political, it’s Biblical!” Then he would quote from Micah 6:8, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” 

Even though Rick never described himself as an academic, saying that he was a practitioner not an academic, the depth of his understanding of Scripture came from a wisdom born of contemplation and listening to the poor. As he completed his talk, he paused, and with a prophetic warning said, “The Church will never be dynamic again until it takes seriously the plight of the poor.”

His follow-up discussion question revealed both his understanding, and hope for the diaconate: “How can I employ my office as deacon to lead my Church and the community towards a better understanding of, and response to, this city’s poor?” He understood what a deacon is about; not to look divine in a dalmatic, but to prophetically lead the Church and the city to take seriously the plight of the poor. 

Rick continued to be my mentor in ministry. In 2006, when I was thinking of starting a ministry of presence on streets once described as, “A patch of inner-city Toronto plagued by crack addicts, drug-dealers and low-rent sex trade workers,” Rick was the first person I called. He was always generous with his time, and he said, “Come on over, it sounds interesting.” 

When you were in Rick’s presence, you felt you were the most important person in the world, and indeed at that moment you were. He listened carefully, sat back, and as he always did, took a moment to respond. But when he responded, he had a way of lifting a simple question or idea to a higher plane. “I think you should do it,” he said. “Everyone needs a friend, and that is the hardest thing for the addicts and the people on the street to find. Just be their friend.” 

My final meeting with Rick, three weeks before he died, was a time of grace. I met him and another giant of inner-city ministry, Dion Oxford. We sat in Dion’s back garden, sipping fine Scotch whisky which Rick had brought, and reminiscing in thanksgiving for the opportunities we have received to be blessed by the poor of our city. We shared our memories of retreating to the island of Iona off the west coast of Scotland, to be with the international ecumenical community working for justice and peace. And of course, we reflected on how our wives, each in their unique way, has lived out their own ministry of service to the poor among us. 

Rick’s vision and lifetime of service are reflected in one of his quotes in the memorial service booklette: “Embrace and inclusion, for me, represent the highest manifestation of our aspiration to be a just society. We can do many things to pursue that aspiration, but for me the acid test of justice actualized is embrace. Do we belong to each other? Are we a people together? Are we inclusive?”

Finally, I echo the words of the farewell Soweto Gospel hymn at Rick’s memorial service: “Lay down my brother, lay down and take your rest. I wanna lay your head, upon your Saviour’s breast. I love you, but Jesus loves you best. I bid you goodnight, goodnight. I bid you goodnight, my brother, goodnight.”

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

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