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I remember the first time I ever spoke to a person living on the streets. It was a Friday night and I had agreed to go with some friends to distribute sandwiches outside a homeless shelter. Instead of getting off at the closest subway station, our leader had us get off early so that we could walk part of the way, looking for anyone who might be sleeping on the streets. Our group headed into the dark overpass area under the Gardiner expressway near the Air Canada Centre.
My heart was pounding. I didn’t really know what to expect. I had never done something like this before. Since moving to Toronto, my only experiences with homeless or street involved people had been the occasional panhandler. I had always walked by, perhaps reading their cardboard sign but mostly just avoiding eye contact. It wasn’t that I didn’t care, I just didn’t know what to do.
As we quietly made our way under the overpass, we noticed that someone had set up a make shift shelter in a small opening between the walls. As we peered in, we saw that there were blankets inside and a couple bags. There was also a woman. She was living there with two other people, she told us.
I’ll never forget that night. I remember wondering how her life would have been. How did she do basic things like shower, or shave her legs? Perhaps she didn’t. Couldn’t.
We made our way to the shelter and we gave out hot chocolate and sandwiches. But we didn’t leave after that. We stayed, chatting for the next two hours or so. And we talked about the weather, the Blue Jays, and music. We also talked about broken families, addiction, pain and struggle. And we talked about hope.
“Why are you here?” people have asked me many times since that first night. “Are you getting school credit? Are you a social worker? Are you from an organization?”
“No,” we would always say. “We’re just a group of friends who come down every week to hang out. We know it’s a tough environment down here and we just want to offer friendship and positive conversation.”
You’d be surprised at what a stranger will share with someone who is willing to listen. At the end of the day we all want the same things – to be acknowledged, to be heard, to be cared about.
I have learned that you don’t have to be a miracle worker to change the world. You just have to be present and open.
Mother Teresa is quoted as saying, “We can do no great things. Just small things with great love.”
When I saw that first woman under the overpass, something changed in me. I realized that I had a great power. Maybe I couldn’t eliminate homelessness or drug addiction or mental illness, but I had a great gift to give – love.
It was on the streets that my faith came alive. It was in my conversations with people at the shelters and in the parks at night that I finally understood how powerful the gospel really was – and the deep hope that it could bring to suffering people. People who I learned were not so different from me. “You are loved. You matter to God. You can start over. You are not alone.”
I recently re-read the book of Mark all in one sitting (I encourage you to try this, as the scriptures speak differently when read as a whole). I was struck by Jesus’ deep compassion for people. He touches the untouchables, he names the nameless, he loves the unlovely. He goes out of his way to find men in graveyards and he values women who have forgotten their value.
May He give us the grace to follow Him.
1 John 3:16-18 “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.”
– Pastor Jessie Knight