Robert Kinghorn is a deacon in the Archdiocese of Toronto. In his new book, The Church on the Street, he invites readers to walk with him as he ministers in a Toronto neighbourhood known for drugs, prostitution and homelessness. Below, he provides insights on his street ministry.
1. How did you come to start your street ministry?
It all started in 2003 when I was driving through downtown Toronto at 1 a.m. to drop off someone at their home. It was a wet night and the lighting was much too dim to properly see the street corners where shadowy figures stood negotiating a prostitution deal. Others were clearly on drugs as they purposefully walked while waving their arms as if to swat away imaginary flies.
"The people of the night," I thought to myself. "This is their existence. So where is the Church?"
I knew that 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 there. But where was the Church on the street at 1 a.m.?
It was this simple thought that found me two years later asking permission — first from my wife and then from Cardinal Thomas Collins — to walk these streets at night as my diaconal ministry.
My plan was as simple as that; to walk the streets each week at the same time and in the same area. Not as a social worker distributing 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 through this, help them believe that God indeed loves them just as they are.
2. What are the greatest challenges you face while ministering on the street?
Ministry on the street is the same as all ministries of presence. The rules are simple: Show up, listen, don't judge, don't fix.
One of the greatest challenges is continually reminding myself that the only "success" in this ministry is for me to continue showing up. That's it! If I start having an agenda, then I have lost the script that was laid down by Jesus many years ago and I will quickly burn out. If my agenda is to get people to stop doing drugs, to give up prostitution or to "come to Jesus" (whatever that means), then I will burn out quickly.
I have never heard anyone on the street say, "I am sure glad I am on drugs" or "I always wanted to grow up to be a prostitute." They don't want to be there and don't need me to tell them that. But for sure they need and want someone who will listen to them and accept them so they can see hope in their lives and one day leave this all behind.
Part of the "showing up" is committing to the ministry regardless of whether the temperature is plus 20 degrees or minus 20 degrees, since those on the street on these nights often have few other options.
I have often been surprised by the times I have met someone that I have no recollection of meeting, but they say, "I know you. I have seen you out there."
3. What is the most rewarding part of working with those on the streets?
The rewarding part of this ministry is finding that people will accept me, share with me and allow me to be their friend.
One night, I was concerned about the way a man who was under the influence of drugs was coming towards me. But a drug dealer from the area intervened, telling me, "Don't worry, we will look after you and will not let anything happen." With that, in a flurry of expletives, my protector told the man in no uncertain terms that he was not wanted there.
On another occasion, a lady who often chatted with me on the streets, asked me what was wrong since I did not seem like myself that evening. She was a well-known addict and we had previously had many good conversations about her life. I told her I had just got off the phone with a friend who was dying of cancer and he said it was probably our last talk as he felt his end was very near. She said, "I keep forgetting that you are human too and need my support at times."
4. How has your perception of people on the street changed after your years of ministry?
After coming to know the life stories of the people I am with, I find it surprising that they still believe in God. Perhaps they hold onto a faith because they can no longer believe in people who have let them down so often.
In Matthew 25:40, Jesus said, "Whatever you did for one of the least of these sisters or brothers of mine, you did it for me." Although I cannot always do it, I have come to see in my quieter moments the face of Jesus in some of these people on the street. I have a deep admiration for the way they can rise again and still believe when they have been beaten them down so often by childhood trauma or mental illness.
Fr. Greg Boyle, who has worked with gangs in Los Angeles for over 25 years, put it best, "Here is what we seek: A compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it."
5. Can you suggest ways that our readers could be of assistance to those living on the street?
So often we meet people begging on the street and we wonder what we can do to help them. I would call your readers back to the simple ministry of presence, "Show up, listen, don't judge, don't fix."
Giving money or not is up to you. I don't, because that is not why I am on the street (in fact, it could be dangerous for me if I became known for giving out money). I always say that you can get anything on the street — drugs, a woman, a man, a knife, probably a gun if you asked around — but what people cannot get on the street is someone to listen to them. I would suggest that if there is someone you pass, then just look them in the eye and say "Hello, my name is ____. How are you today?" If you pass them regularly and do this each time, then there is a chance that a friendship will evolve.
Alternatively, if you have time, volunteer at a shelter such as the Good Shepherd. There you will start to meet people on a regular basis and start to understand their life through their stories.
There you will meet Jesus in his many disguises.
To purchase a copy of, The Church on the Street, please visit: https://www.catholicregister.org/item/30763.