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

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.”

I did not expect a marching band, or a ticker tape parade, but the evening was a significant one for the ministry of the Church on the Street. It was 17 years to the day that I first walked these streets. I looked up at the sky and thanked Mother Nature for looking kindly on the anniversary by providing a warm evening which bade farewell to an extremely harsh winter.

It’s easy to ignore what we do not see. For many, homelessness, poverty and addiction are hidden in someone else’s town or in a part of our own town that we shun. It’s only when we have the courage to “put out into the deep” that we can strip back people’s addictions and their current choices, to find that they too feel pain, hunger and loneliness, and only want to be treated as humans.

I was born and raised in Glasgow and it does not take long for those who hear my Scottish accent to know I am not a native-born Canadian. However, it does cause confusion at times, as I found out when I came upon a man standing outside a downtown shelter. The shelter is in the heart of the drug area, and so I am always prepared for many and varied conversations.  

There is an adage that to get off the streets you need a home, a job and a friend. The reality is that there are not enough affordable homes, few jobs open to those who are homeless and even fewer friends who are willing to walk the harsh streets to sustain hope in the darkness. 

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. 

The weather had suddenly turned cold. What had promised to be a pleasant walk on the street had slowly but consistently chilled throughout the day until several layers of clothing were required to repel the harsh winter wind. It was certainly no evening for a man to be shuffling along George Street agonizingly slowly. 

There are times in our lives when we feel sorry for ourselves and we cry out, “Why me?” Unfortunately for many it is followed by imagining that they hear God saying, “Why you? It’s because I don’t like you, that’s why.” They feel that if they had not sinned or made bad choices, then God would have loved them more and it would have all turned out differently.

I have often prayed for others to join the ministry of “The Church on the Street.” However, even though many have come to look and see, none has chosen to follow. My offer of “franchises available” has failed to convince. Unfortunately, the front-page news this week of two murders in the area dampened any enthusiasm there might have been.