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

I never knew the lady’s real name. When I met her she said, “Just call me Chilli, that’s my street name.”

Readers of this column will know her as “The woman who lives in a doorway downtown.” It has been 10 months since we first met. At that time, she gave me some money to go and buy clothes for her from a nearby shop. When I returned, we sat on the step together as she poured out her grief for her son who was taken from her at nine years old.

There is a saying that the law of relationships that are unhealthy is, “Don’t trust, Don’t talk, and Don’t feel.” The ministry of the Church on the street, and all ministry in fact, is to reach out with the law of healing relationships, “Show up, Listen, Don’t judge, and Don’t fix.”

In his beautiful Apostolic Exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis reminds us that as pastoral people we have to accept tension between fullness and limitation, and not be concerned with immediate results.

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.”

It all started with a call from a friend. “Would you be able to meet with a relative of mine who is sleeping rough on the streets and into drugs?” I said that if he was willing, I would meet with him. We arranged to meet at “Ripples of Kindness,” the outreach program run out of Sacre Coeur Parish in downtown Toronto. Little did I know that the meeting would lead me deep into the Rock ’n’ Roll scene of the ’80s and ’90s.

Before I leave the house, I always check outside to see how many layers of clothes I need on the colder evenings. It did not feel too cold, and so I dressed lightly with only three layers, which were topped off with a hoodie and my omnipresent leather jacket. However, as I approached the downtown area the heavens opened, and I found myself driving through a deluge of rain.

Some weeks, violence raises its ugly head to remind us that it is always lurking, shrouded by the darkness of the night.

My mother was a hospital nurse for many years, and she would often regale us with her nursing experiences during the Second World War and beyond. I vividly remember her saying that she dreaded a full moon, since despite scientific evidence to the contrary, it seemed to stir up something within the patients in the psychiatric ward.

One of my memories of childhood was seeing men downtown walking around wearing what we called sandwich boards. They were two boards, one in front and one at the back, held together with pieces of string, and advertising some product or other. I also remember that every so often some Christian entrepreneur would walk around with a board that said, “Repent, the end is nigh.”

It used to worry me because more often than not these men looked as though they were at least as old as God, and I was sure that they would know what they were talking about. It was only when I looked behind them that I doubted their prophetic message which on the back read, “Buy your life insurance now.” They would also accost passersby with the question, “Have you found Jesus?” to which I would invariably answer, “I did not know He was lost mate, but if I see Him, I will let you know.”

My other memory was of the Salvation Army walking in and out of pubs selling their newspaper The War Cry. Not a great read, from what I recall, but everyone respected them for the work they did with the poor on the streets, and so would reach into their pocket to drop a donation into their bag. “Whatever floats your evangelical boat,” as they say, but to be honest I have taken my cue from an approach I heard many years ago: “Make a friend, be a friend, bring your friend to Christ.”

It takes time and patience, and so many people instead go for the quick hit of trying to bring their new-found stranger to Christ through theological haranguing. It’s the equivalent of walking across a carpeted floor and zapping the first person you meet with a handshake of electrical charge. It takes time for a heart to change, and we have to be patient.

Readers of this column may recall a young lady I have mentioned a few times during the past year. She was new to the area of prostitution where I walk, and the first time she met me she enquired if I wanted a “date.” When I explained my reason for being downtown, she abruptly turned her back and walked away.

For the next nine months, when she saw me coming, she would turn her back and look in the opposite direction. Then one evening, when I smiled across the road to her, she smiled back. This has slowly progressed from a smile, to a wave, to a “good evening,” to the point at which she has entrusted me with her name and asked for prayers. This approach has often resulted in true friendships being established with those I meet, and the presence of Jesus has been reawakened in their lives.

I experienced a different approach to street ministry recently. I was accompanied on the street by someone who had been involved in street ministry elsewhere and who wanted to walk with me and see how I approached people that I met. At one point towards the end of the evening, we met a young man who was hanging out in an area rife with drugs and addicts. We stopped to talk with him, and when he saw my clerical collar, he said that he was a Muslim.

The person I was with then asked him what he thought about Jesus, and he explained his theological reason for rejecting Jesus as son of God. Thirty minutes later, the two of them were still going around the same theological circle for the fourth time, but neither seemed to be listening to the other. The young man finally walked away saying, “I think you should read the Koran.”

There are many approaches to ministry, but each challenges us to be careful that we are not just trying to get a notch on our ministerial belts, especially when we are with the people of the beatitudes; those who have been hurt by life.

Jean Vanier reminded us of this in a story that has influenced me tremendously. “A man had a ministry on the streets of a city, and one lady he knew well died in his arms. Before she died, she said, ‘You always wanted to change me, but you never met me.’

“We want to change people” Vanier said, “but often we don’t want to listen to them. The essential thing in every meeting is trust. How long does that take? — seconds, minutes, years? It depends on how deep their wounds are.”

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

There is a quotation which has been on the Internet for years, attributed to many people, but the one I saw had Jacob Waldron’s name attached to it. It is entitled, “Church is Hard.” In it he says, “Church is hard for the person walking through the doors, afraid of judgment. Church is hard for the prodigal soul returning home, broken and battered by the world. Church is hard for the teenage girl, ashamed of her mistakes.”