Ben White,

Patient friendship leads the heart to conversion

  • July 13, 2023

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.)

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.