Robert Kinghorn

Robert Kinghorn

Robert Kinghorn is a deacon of the Archdiocese of Toronto.

You can read his column, "The Church on the Street" in The Catholic Register.

You can contact him at robert.kinghorn@ekinghorn.com

I teach it and I preach it, but every so often I am reminded how difficult it is to live it. I am talking about laying our expectations on others.

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.)

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.”

The statistics are chilling even though they are imperfect. CBC reported that in December 2021, 35 names were added to the Toronto Homeless Memorial list of those who died while homeless in Toronto. The actual number of deaths could be higher. 

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.

There is an old saying, “Every saint has a past, every sinner has a future.” The truth is that we are all a complex blend of saint and sinner whose scales of sanctity teeter on a delicate balance throughout life.

I am often asked to speak to groups about my experiences on the streets of the city, and what it means for each of us to be the Church on the Street. Recently at the end of one of these talks I was asked, “What do those on the street need the most?” I could do no better than to quote one of my heroes, Fr. Greg Boyle who works with the gang members in Los Angeles and who said, “Gang members need hope. They live with a lethal absence of hope.”

It was one of these soft evenings when a gentle snowfall enveloped the drabness of the streets, and with no breeze to speak of, the chill had been taken from the air. As I walked the downtown streets the ancient hymn came to my mind, “See Amid the Winter’s Snow.”

There is a freedom in walking the streets, following my instincts and seeing where the Spirit will lead. On this particular evening I was unexpectedly led back 14 years to a cold evening on Jan. 11, 2007, but I was taken there by a circuitous route.

She was only 16, a child by all accounts, and she had been sent to the big city from her home in northern Canada for treatment at a mental health clinic.

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