I told him I come downtown every week to walk around and chat with the people on the street. He wished me a good evening and took off.
The question is haunting. Not in its simplicity, but in its challenge. What am I doing in the bad part of the city? Why are people surprised to see the Church in the “bad part of the city?” Where else should we be?
As Scottish clergyman George MacLeod wrote: “I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles, but on a cross between two thieves. On the town garbage dump. At a crossroads so cosmopolitan that they had to write his title in Hebrew, Latin and Greek. At the kind of place where cynics talk smut, and thieves curse, and soldiers gamble.”
My ministry as a deacon is to be a presence on the streets of downtown Toronto. Thursday nights I can be found on streets that some consider bad parts of the downtown core. Even there, miracles abound and are just awaiting discovery.
It started about 12 years ago. I was driving in the downtown area at 1 a.m. to take someone home. The streets were wet and under a dim light shadowy figures were negotiating a prostitution deal. As I surveyed the street, people were scurrying to and fro, some disposing of garbage while others were rummaging through it looking for food and clothes. Still others were clearly on drugs as they purposefully walked and waved their arms as if swatting at imaginary flies.
“The people of the night,” I thought to myself, “this is their existence.”
So where is the Church? I knew the Church was in the drop-in centres such as Good Shepherd Refuge, St. Francis Table and Yonge Street Mission, caring for those who could find shelter, but where is the Church on the street?
It was this simple thought that found me two years later asking permission, first from my wife and then from the cardinal archbishop of Toronto, to walk these streets at night as my diaconal ministry. My plan was simple — walk the streets each week at the same time and in the same area. Not as a social worker to hand out money, clothing or food, but as a friend who would listen to the cares, dreams and hopes of the “people of the night,” and perhaps help them believe that God indeed loves them just as they are.
Through the years there have been hundreds of meetings. These columns are about those encounters: in Mr. Tasty’s Homeburgers, a less than high-class hamburger joint where prostitutes gather from the cold, a woman asks if she can receive communion; on the steps of a church on Jarvis Street a prostitute cries for her deceased father; on Gerrard Street a man who gave his life to Jesus when he was five is wrestling with that decision and his schizophrenia and wants to pray with me; on Sherbourne Street a prostitute on crack cocaine says she knows there is a God who answered her prayer to let her two-pound baby live and grow up healthy; on Dundas Street a young lady asks me to pray with her that she can stay off crack long enough that her baby will not be born addicted.
Don’t let anyone say the Church is not respected on the streets. The clerical collar is a magnet for people who want to talk of their pain and their experience of God.
Pope Francis wrote: “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.”
What am I doing in the “bad part of the city”? I am there to meet Jesus. I go to find Him among the people of the night, and to once again find Him in my own heart where His light is too often dimmed.
(Robert Kinghorn is a deacon of the Archdiocese of Toronto: email@example.com)