Friday, June 29, 2012

Who is my Neighbour?

Dear Theophilus,

Earlier this week, as a part of my Religious Education course, I had the unique experience of taking a walk through downtown Toronto with Patrick Sullivan, who works out of the Sanctuary Mission. The point of the evening was to become more aware of life on the streets; what brings people to the street; and what they have to do to survive. Although I already had a naïve awareness of homelessness and prostitution in the big city, it was something I’ve preferred to let the more courageous deal with.

Having grown-up, lived and taught solely within the bubble that is called suburbia, I was really uneasy about how the evening would unfold. I knew I was going to be way out of my comfort zone, but I also knew it was going to be good for my spiritual growth – two things that I expressed to my course director a few days before the trip. He assured me I wasn’t going to be disappointed. And I wasn’t

As I approached the Sanctuary Mission doors there were two shirtless homeless men, obvious drunk or high or both, trying to hold each other up on the front steps. Sitting on the front steps my course director (and friend) was taking great delight in watching my discomfort in trying to figure out how to get in the door. As I put my foot on the bottom step, one of the two men swayed in my direction and threw his arms around me in a big hug. My course director was laughing too hard to take a picture, but I wish he had, because I’m sure the look on my face was priceless.

This was the beginning of an evening that would sow the seeds of transformation in my understanding of the humanity in homelessness.

Before walking the streets, we gathered as a group in the Sanctuary basement where Patrick asked us a profound question: “Who is my neighbour?” He reminded us of our calling in Christ’s commandments:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. (Mt 22:37-39)

Once again Patrick asked us, “Who is my neighbour?” He then reiterated his point with the story of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:25-37)

As I began to see the homeless not only as co-inhabitants of the city, but rather as my neighbour, the transformation of my understanding of their humanity continued.

Patrick then led the 50 or so of us through the streets of Toronto, stopping in various parks to explain how youth end up on the street at the age of as young as 11 years-old. He talked about their lives in abusive homes and their tales of survival through prostitution. As shocking as Patrick’s stories were, it was even sadder to realize that they were the truth. Not only was he telling the stories of friends he ministers to, he was also telling his own story.

My greatest revelation came towards the end of our walk when, standing in a park behind the “Y”, Patrick pointed at a luxury condo tower and ranted: “What really pisses me off is that the people who live in these $750,000 condos sit on their balconies and watch teenaged boys sell themselves for $10.” He was pointing right at the building my brother-in-law had lived in for 3 years and had just moved out of months ago. My son had played in the park where we were standing.

I realized then just how blind I can be to the misery around me.

Having met Patrick and heard his story and those of his friends transformed the way I perceive homelessness. These people are no longer shadows in a doorway or a lump in the bushes. They are people. People who are someone’s child, and another’s friend.

Does this mean I can give hugs freely to everyone I meet the next time I leave my bubble in suburbia. Probably not. It does mean that when I do see them I’ll see them for the person they are, and that I’ll pray that God gives them the strength and courage to be the best human they possibly can.

I will continue to ask myself: “Who is my neighbour?”

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