The holy threads of who we are

  • January 27, 2023

It’s hard to get rid of labels. I don’t mean from jam jars before we throw them in the garbage, but from people. Labels such as, “addict,” “homeless” or “dangerous offender” stick as if permanently attached to the forehead, and often they tempt others to mentally throw the person into the garbage of life. Even worse, the person may become the label, and at that point it requires extraordinary acts of love to call them back to who they really are. 

I am sitting in a restaurant having lunch with John, and beside us is a person John met in 2008 who is a volunteer with the Dismas Fellowship ministry to ex-prisoners, and over these past 15 years these two have become, and remain, friends.  

John knows about labels. He wore many within the prison system: “repeat offender,” “psychopath with a deteriorating attitude” and “man with no values.” Yes, over the years he was a repeat offender. Yes, his attitude deteriorated throughout his years of incarceration. But he was a man with values. The reports from the psychiatrists attested to this: “He is not a threat to society.” He held on to this truth to defend himself against the labels that others attached to him. 

During his last release to a community correctional facility, it became apparent John needed permanent housing in the community to move on with his life. The Dismas Fellowship and a Catholic agency worked together to get John an apartment, and he was released from the halfway house. His Dismas friend asked him how he could help to get him started with this new phase of his life, and John said, “Help me with my kitchen.” The two of them ordered a complete set of kitchen utensils, topped off with a “Henkel” set of pots and pans. John always had a gift for cooking, and set about serving meals throughout the apartment building, each accompanied by a beautifully presented bouquet of flowers. 

“These pots and pans became my source of income, and my creative outlet as I cooked literally thousands of meals. They saved my life.” he said, “Giving is life-giving.”

When he moved into the new apartment, John immediately connected with a kind man in the building, an addict who was dying. One night he went out into the courtyard and found his friend lying on the ground, trying to drag himself to his wheelchair. Lifting his friend onto the wheelchair, he offered to call an ambulance. His friend replied, “If you call an ambulance, then you are no longer my friend. I want to die.” John decided to let him have his wish and took him back to his apartment. The next day he went to see how he was, and when his friend saw him he smiled, and soon afterwards passed away. 

“I helped him carry out his wishes,” said John, “and this encounter was another life-changing moment. I knew my role in life was always to be on the side of the helpless.”

An elderly Anglican couple who welcomed John into their home also became a significant part of John’s journey of healing. Soon he was helping them around the house with tasks that age had made difficult for them. It was through them that John was introduced to “The Priory of the Cross,” the home of a religious community of monks called the Order of the Holy Cross. The first time he walked in the door of the Priory he saw an old monk sitting looking at him who said, “Well, you never know what awaits you when you open the door.” Not quite the greeting that John expected, and it stopped him in his tracks, but it was prophetic as John and the monk became close friends. Through the years they walked countless kilometers together, and the monk was unfailingly encouraging. 

“He was my father in a spiritual way,” said John. “I went from living with the label, ‘Dangerous Offender’ to having this mind-boggling responsibility for someone’s life. I had come to realize that my tapestry of dysfunction had hidden the threads of who I really am.” 

We never know what awaits us when we open the door, but it’s important we open the door. It’s important that we are part of the little moments of encouragement in someone’s life that help them to see the holy threads of who they really are. 

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

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