It was St. Patrick’s Day, and I walked around downtown wondering how the “parishioners” of the Church on the Street were celebrating this feast day. It was not a particularly cold evening, but the light rain seemed to dampen the festivities, both in the bars and on the street, and there were few of the “usuals” around this evening.
These are the nights when courage is required. Not courage in the face of fear, but courage in the face of a feeling of uselessness. They are evenings when my walks around the neighbourhoods seem to be “simply” a ministry of presence, a presence which is apparently unseen.
My thoughts turned to the image of Jesus carrying home a lost sheep in a painting by Fr. Sieger Koder called Celebrate! in which the joy of the rag-tag group who are welcoming the sheep home is captured in a deluge of colour. Motivated by this, I decided to go to another area of downtown that has a rightful reputation for prostitution and drug use, and the type of place where Jesus would be looking for the lost sheep.
It was not long before a lady introduced herself to me, and her appearance left no doubt that she either is, or has been, a drug user. She suddenly saw my collar and asked, “Are you a priest?” I told her that I was a deacon, and that I have been coming downtown for quite a few years to be present and available to those on the streets.
“Can I talk to you about something?” she asked.
“Sure” I said.
“Let’s walk along this way,” she said as she pointed deeper into the darkness of the dimly lit street. As we walked she talked about her housing situation and the difficulty she had in the new subsidized unit she had been given.
“I really need to talk to someone,” she said.
We reached an intersection and she said, “Let’s sit on the steps of that church over there.”
It was an old sandstone church which had once seen glory days in the heart of downtown, but now had taken on the grim appearance of its surroundings. We climbed the 10 stone steps showing the tread marks of pilgrims throughout the years, and she sat on the top step under the entrance canopy. I stood facing her, and immediately started mentally kicking myself for getting into such a vulnerable position.
I have learned to always try to have an “escape route” if the situation becomes dangerous, but here I was at the top of a flight of steps, with my back to the street, in an area that I do not know and where I am not known.
She continued to talk about her desperate financial situation and that she had slept out in the doorway for four nights and had been raped on one of the evenings. A car drove up on the street behind us and stopped, but when I looked around it moved off again. She continued her story of losing money to various agencies who cheated her, and I continued to turn and check out the street behind me.
After a while, I said, “I truly wish I was able to help you out of the desperate financial situation you are in.”
To be absolutely honest, I said this not only to bring her to the point to which I felt she was inevitably driving, but also out of fear for my vulnerability.
She stopped, paused, and said, “I am not asking for money. I have never asked for money. But that’s all right, you can go. I feel insulted.”
I apologized, but it was too late. She just said, “It’s OK. Have a good night.”
I walked down the stone steps, and as I reached the bottom she shouted after me, “Deacon. Could you do one thing for me?” “What’s that?” I asked.
“Would you pray for me on your way home?”
I assured her I would, and I walked off into the darkness of the night.
St. John says that perfect love drives out fear, but it is also true that fear drives out perfect love. I continue to pray for this young woman that the Lord will visit her again in the guise of one who is less fearful, and that she will be carried home to the great celebration portrayed in the painting by Fr. Sieger Koder.
(Kinghorn is a deacon of the Archdiocese of Toronto: email@example.com)