Almost twenty years ago I began spending time with people who live outside on the street. I grew up living in the north end of Toronto, where I rarely came face-to-face with the reality of homelessness. I don’t claim it didn’t exist there, just that it wasn’t entirely visible. However, living in the city certainly meant that I had the opportunity to occasionally witness a person lying on a hot air grate, covered with a sleeping bag or panhandling for money or selling their body for sex.
While studying for a music degree I encountered a fellow student named Joe Elkerton. With his big presence, an incredible story of his own, a passion for people and street smarts he introduced me to street ministry. I will forever be grateful. He helped me to get to know the names of the people who I noticed as a child.
With a team of people (including my now husband Dion) I would spend countless hours roaming the downtown to talk with people and provide a bagged lunch. We would go out into the wee hours, often ending the night at Fran’s- the only restaurant open as late as we were up. I loved sitting in the Royal Bank Plaza parking lot with my friends camped out in their cardboard boxes; hanging out on the benches in Allan Gardens hearing people’s stories; sharing a quick cup of hot chocolate with the women working on Jarvis Street. It was in these unexpected places that I discovered how present Jesus is with His broken people.
I also learned how people are just PEOPLE. While these friends wore their brokenness very close to the surface, I was just as broken, having learned all too well how to shove it down. On the street I was taught (and continue to learn) about being vulnerable about my own weakness and accepted as I am. I was given the opportunity to extend that same kind of welcome.
The Jesus I believe in made a point of hanging out with “the least of these”, the people the Pharisees felt He shouldn’t. Jesus welcomed people. It’s no wonder really that His fingerprints are all over every part of the city, particularly the parts that appear dingy and dark on the exterior.
I continue to love being outside with people, though I don’t often hand out bagged lunches anymore. Over time I have discovered that the bagged lunch was actually a tool for me to initiate conversation. I don’t wish to diminish the obvious need for food- I just seek to provide it in a venue like the PNC Drop-In. While I’m outside I am on the turf of my friends, a place where I get fed a different kind of food.