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

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.

At lunchtime on a beautiful summer’s day many years ago, I walked downtown in the heart of Toronto. A makeshift stage had been set up, and a woman was singing one of my favourite songs from the world of musicals, “On My Own” from Les Miserables, about romantic rejection and hopelessness. But there was something wrong. It took me a little while to figure out what the problem was, but gradually it dawned on me. She had no passion! Technically, she hit every note perfectly, yet it was as though she had never felt the pain of loneliness. There was no conviction that she had ever in her lifetime experienced being on her own, deserted, and heartbroken.

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.)