Truth is a story written in chalk

  • January 5, 2024

I have written before of my respect for folk singers who look at the world and give voice to truths that are often hidden from our view. Many years ago, I heard such a phrase that has haunted me, and in some ways has shaped the ministry of the Church on the Street: “Truth is a story scribbled in chalk, an hour before the flood.”

When we meet someone, we do not see the dreams that have been worn away by the storms and floods of life, and so it takes gentle and patient listening to begin to hear these dreams, and to help enkindle them again in their hearts.

I was joined on the street by Andrew, a young man who has a street ministry in his hometown. Toronto had a cold welcome for him with minus five-degree temperature and an Arctic wind gusting in the darkness of the night. As we walked, he shared much of his own youthful experience of the unholy trinity: homelessness, addiction and mental health issues, experiences that gave him an insight I have never experienced.

We walked on a deserted street, which on other evenings is filled with men from the local shelter, each in stages of anger and distress. We passed what appeared to be a tarpaulin, then realized there was a person inside lighting up his drug of choice, too busy to notice us. An intersection, usually occupied by addicts and dealers, was also eerily deserted.

Close by, a man was exercising his dog outside an apartment building, which has a well-earned reputation for harbouring addicts. He poured out his own life story. “I’m 72 years old now,” he said, “and I’ve used every drug going. I was 60 years an addict, and I could fight with the best of them. I was in jail and out of jail many times, and I now tell people on the street, ‘If I can get clean, then you can do it.’ But I couldn’t have done it without God.”

Despite the deep chill of the evening, a few men were on the street outside a restaurant. I recognized one man and asked how the owner was doing. His face darkened. “His mother is dying in hospital. Give him a call. He needs you now.”

I thanked them and promised to call, and to pray for her. The owner had often talked of the incurable disease that would eventually take her life, and of his love for her. 

Towards the end of the evening, we went looking for Anna, whom I have mentioned in previous columns and who lives in a doorway. Struggling to kick her drug habit, and pining for a son who was taken from her, she is always grateful for our meetings to remind her that she is still loved. When we saw her on this freezing evening, I was shocked. She was wearing a light T-shirt, and all she had to protect herself from the elements was a tattered cardboard box. “Where’s my candle?” she said, “Someone has stolen my candle that keeps me warm.”

I reached out to embrace her, and as I did so, Andrew offered a hat and a scarf to keep her warm.

“I’ll be OK,” she said, “I’ve got the box.”

I started to tell Andrew of the beautiful connection that Anna has with the spiritual world.

“Oh, don’t say that you are making me embarrassed” she said.

I was going to say a prayer for her, but I thought it would be better if the prayer came from Anna herself. I pointed to the wall of the doorway, and there, scribbled in chalk, was Anna’s spiritual reflection which she showed me the first time we met many months before. Andrew read aloud Anna’s prayer: “Seven angels know my name, six angels show me another way, five angels protect me day by day, four angels teach me how to laugh and play, three angels support me all the way, two angels guide me every day, one angel loves me in all my ways, today they all told me I am the angel that got away.”

Yes, it takes patient and gentle listening to hear the truth of the story scribbled in chalk on Anna’s wall, but Anna is slowly beginning to believe that maybe, just maybe, these past dreams will be her future reality.

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

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