A Christmas to Remember
by Dan Cyr
I have been a Roman Catholic Priest for the past 13 years. Prior to that I trained for 8 years. At 40 years of age, this means I've been "in the business of ministry" for half my lifetime! Through those years I've laughed and cried, suffered and triumphed. I have had the honour of walking with countless souls at peak moments of their lives. I've also journeyed at their darkest ones. God has blessed me with many good gifts...beyond measure, flowing over, always beyond my wildest imaginings! The things I feared most were the greatest blessings in my ministry. The things I told myself I could never do, I managed to accomplish quite successfully. The situations I never ever believed I'd face, I've had to look square in the eye. I've weathered many a storm and have come out enriched by it all. At this point I must honestly admit I wouldn't change a single bit of it! I often ponder at what God could possibly have in store for me next. It sort of scares me at times. But once the hand is on the plow, one cannot look back. We forge ahead into the unknown. The Master bids us "come and see".
God has been good to me. I am a dynamic priest and hospital chaplain: popular with all age groups, fun-loving, down-to-earth. God has given me the ability to reach people: to cut through systems, barriers, stereotypes. I believe I speak the truth: this does not always make one popular. At times I've raised eyebrows. But hey, weren't prophets and sages faced with the same difficulties as recorded in the sacred writings? I can deliver "The Message" with vitality because I break through. Currently, I minister in a Community Hospital as chaplain. I know they love me there as much as I love them. I suppose my openness, sense of humour and vitality are the primary needs of these desperately ill folks, their loved ones, and our dedicated staff.
Little did I know where these three qualities would take me, a few Christmases ago...
Little did I know what God had yet in store for me once again...
Little did I know that God had yet the greatest lesson He would offer...
Little did I know that Christmas '98 would be THE Christmas that would forever change how I would interact with others, particularly the most vulnerable among us: the poor.
I've never truly been much of a "trend-setter". I've always lived my life very very cautiously. I never went anywhere without having some idea of what I would encounter at the other end. But as one matures and grows, there is a natural tendency to want to cut those "safety nets", to stretch the boundaries and limits, to live a little bit more on the edge, with ambiguity and some calculated risk.
The setting is Christmas. I was on the phone with my sister-in-law, discussing our proposed family Christmas gift exchange. We are a small family and we've never been in want of anything. Mom and Dad have always been excellent providers for my brother and I. Christmas is always a big thing, and what always made it "big" in my memory were the many expensive gifts we would give to one another. Sometimes the load of gifts towered almost as high as the Christmas tree! As a kid, this was heaven. But as an adult who has worked with the poor and who sees the plight of many... something inside of me was craving to keep it much simpler this year. I was so over the Christmas Shopping thing. "Let's keep it simple", I pleaded. The real question in my mind was: "how do the poor, and particularly, those who live on the streets of Toronto celebrate Christmas?" This led me to the Manger scene. If Christ had to become one of us in order to discover what it essentially means to be human, then perhaps I needed to become poor in order to discover what true poverty was really all about. Not a "poverty of spirit", but "real poverty". I then got a fabulous idea.
I went home to celebrate Christmas with my family. I told them I had to leave on December 27th, that I was going to "be with the poor". No one suspected a thing, since they knew I had been a volunteer with the "Out of the Cold Program" in both Toronto and Hamilton: cooking meals and offering overnight shelter for the City's poor in winter. But for once, I wanted to stretch my own limits and see for myself what it was like to be on the other side of the serving counter... to be the one who had to go out and beg and fend for oneself.
Prior to my departure, I confided in a close friend about my plans. She gave me good counsel and suggested I get a warm winter coat from a 2nd hand shop and wear old beat-up clothes in order to "look the part." Excitedly I set out, with just enough money for my bus fare. Among a few little things, I brought a pen and a small black book, for I knew I would want to journal my thoughts. Following are my memoirs from this spectacular journey.
Sunday December 27, 1998. 10:30 a.m. I'm on a bus headed for Toronto, to be one with the poor and homeless. I kinda look the part: torn blue jeans, old shirts, baseball cap, boots, torn gloves and dark sunglasses. (I smeared wet dirt from one of my house plants onto my clean baseball cap... had a good laugh when I did that because I remember washing that same cap a little while ago.) I haven't shaved for 5 days. (No shower this morning either... I even "smell the part".) I really need to do this, for I've always had "too much" materially, but "never enough" spiritually.
I bought a return bus ticket, and I brought some pocket change, an apple, the clothes on my back, and finally my Health Card (you can take the chaplain out of the Hospital, but you can't take the Hospital out of the chaplain). I had just enough change to buy a small coffee. It is very freeing so far - sorta like going on a spiritual retreat - we take very little with us. Oops, the coffee just spilt on me... oh well. It'll blend right in, and I'll look the part all the more!
Well, today is Sunday, the Day of the Lord. I suppose as a catholic I should go to Church. When we arrive at the bus terminal I'll head straight towards St. Michael's Cathedral. I think there's a noon Mass. I know this neighborhood well since I interned as a Chaplain at St. Michael's Hospital across the street. So often I had gone to Mass at the Cathedral when I was on-call at the Hospital. I knew there were beggars near the entrances to the church... now I would find out for myself what it was like to be the one begging for "spare change". I used the same coffee cup I had drank out of earlier, and stood at the entrance of St. Michael's Cathedral on the sidewalk. It felt so uncomfortable. I thought: "my first experience panhandling... what if someone recognizes me? Ah, sunglasses will help". One of the other beggars tried to shoo me away. I pretended I hadn't seen him. He yelled: "security will get you to move."
I went in to Mass. The place feels so very extravagant. I stand out. I wanted to be invisible. I quietly slipped into a pew at the back. As I tried to make my way into the pew, people sorta glared at me. I was late. An interesting thing happened. People made little effort to let me get into the pew, in fact they hung on to their parcels and purses as I struggled to climb overtop them. They gravitated away from me and I found myself alone, in the centre of the long pew. ("Good, I can stretch out. Maybe I should have showered after all? Perhaps they'll use incense this morning.") I felt so lonely, as if I didn't fit it. What a change from last Christmas! As the Liturgy began, I stood around looking at all the glitter and gold. What message does that convey? Beautiful children's choir, pipe organ blasting, long procession... everyone here wears a robe. All I could think of was: "is this what Jesus intended?" I wept quietly, because I had given my whole life to this. Not to knock what people believe they should do - but what sign value does all this give to an impoverished world?
Today is the feast of the Holy Family. The Liturgy of the Word speaks of honouring one's parents. I had preached on this Sunday many times before. The priest said: "I must admit I take my family for granted". I thought: "I do too." I offered up my sin of pride. I've built up a lot over the years. And you know, I've done well in and through the priesthood! Somehow that calling seems to be changing. I feel a call to go deeper. Scary. Somehow the lives of Mother Teresa and St. Francis come to mind. All the trappings of the Church - gold vessels, incensers, the garb, gilded altars, paintings, gold candelabras, crystal vases, majestic pipe organ, a cardinal's hat dangling high in the nave ... and then, just to the left of the sanctuary, is a stark reminder of why I am here today. The manger scene. How does all this fit in with a little baby atop a bail of hay surrounded by a few poor people, a cow, a donkey, and some sheep? Again I cried tears of silence: "I've given my whole life to this, Lord." In that moment, I felt I was changing.
At the end of Mass I needed to use the washroom badly. Not sure if they have one. I asked the usher for directions. He led me to the front porch of the church. He pointed down some eerie alley: "you see that alleyway there.... You go there". I guess I do look the part after all." It looked shady. I can hold it. I later found out there was a public washroom in the Church. Maybe the usher was afraid I would steal the toilet paper.
It's lunchtime and I'm hungry. No money. No lunch date. So, I did what any self-respecting hungry person would do: I begged. So many times, I had passed street people in Toronto and other cities and faced the hungry pleas of the poor: "excuse me, can you spare some change?" I stood outside with my beggars cup. Again, the other beggars were trying to get me to move out of their territory. I didn't understand the culture. One man, well dressed in a dark suit, about my height came up and dropped 60 cents in my cup! Elated, I thanked him. I couldn't believe it. After all, I didn't deserve it. I hadn't earned it, yet he gave it to me freely, as a gift. I was so happy. Lost in my own thoughts I watched as all sorts of people passed right by me. I would
sheepishly smile and say: "excuse me, would you have any spare change?" Some would just cut me off mid-sentence. "...Get away from here!" Begging is so humiliating. People just filed out of the Church, one after another. No one talked to me. No one would even look at me. I wonder if they would have stopped if I was dressed in a roman collar. For sure. All of a sudden, without my having to ask, a short little lady who was lugging a big black purse, stood before me and reached deeply inside her oversized bag. She pulled out a tooney and without saying a word, dropped the $2. coin into my cup. Behind her a man dropped $2.25. I was on a roll! My total so far: $4.85.
But that old woman looked so poor herself. I'm sure it was a bit of a sacrifice for her. I thought of the Biblical story about the "Widow's Mite", the woman who gave all she had. Shortly afterward a plain-clothed well dressed gentleman came to me and said: "You can't stand here. You see him over there (he pointed to the man begging at the corner across the street who had been trying to discourage me)... that's his corner". "See that guy over there? That's his corner. You have to find your own corner or you'll get beat up. I have to ask you to leave". I was grateful for his warning and complied. I learned something I had never known: there is a definite sub-culture even amongst street people. You see, I was "working someone's corner"... taking some of "his business" away from him. This is not Hollywood. This is real life. Cold. Hard. Tough. We must respect "cultural rules" or suffer grave consequences. Not bad after all....I made a quick $4.85 and was uninjured in the process.
I went to St. Michael's Rectory. I wanted to do what others had done to me so many times when I lived in Rectories. I wanted to ring the bell at mealtime ask the priest for a handout. Dark shades in place, baseball cap lowered slightly... I walked up to the huge door to ring the bell. I searched: there is no doorbell. "No button? How do people get in? It was definitely the main door", I thought. Determined, I banged on the heavy wooden door. It was so thick, I doubt anyone heard me. I banged on the glass. No response. A small sign pointed to an Office Door to the right. I wondered if anyone would be working there on a Sunday afternoon. There was only one way to find out. Presto! I was buzzed into a small foyer. A woman behind heavy glass stood up and asked if she could help. "I'm hungry. Have you anything here to eat? Through a small opening in the glass she muttered: "we have no vouchers". She gave me a slip of paper with an address on it for "Good Shepherd". They didn't serve the next meal for yet another 2 hours. But I was hungry now: very hungry. "Excuse me, is this place within walking distance?" "Yes", she answered. Little did I know that I would be walking for 1 hour and 45 minutes. I did have money, but what on earth could I possibly get for $4.85? I was fed up with begging for now. Welcome to Toronto! To each their own. This is not Hollywood. This is real life. Cold. Hard. Tough.
I started to head down Queen Street. I was tired. My feet were getting sore. It was so bitterly cold today. I'm not used to this at all. My jacket was doing a good job keeping me warm. I never did find the "Good Shepherd". Instead I ended up at another Hostel. The guy at the desk charged me $4. to a have a meal. (I later found out I had been ripped off. They never charge for meals. I guess I looked new to him..... a bit green.) I ate in silence surrounded by guys of all ages who made no effort at conversation. One man at my table had mental problems. Everyone just shovels it all in as fast as they can and then they move on. (Reminds me of how we used to kid about the "trough mentality" in the Seminary.) I think I ate veal or chicken... very hard meat. When you eat at these soup kitchens, you take what they slap on your tray....and you can't ask for low-fat or margarine: you take what you get and you are grateful for that.
I set out in search of St. Patrick's Church. It was here that I would spend the night - the "Out of the Cold Program". I walked and walked. I knew the address. Stopped in at the Eaton Centre. Not much point going shopping when you have no money. When I finally arrived at St. Pat's, it all felt so strange. I hate to say it, but you can "smell poverty". And I was in the middle of it all. I was part of it. I was "poor". It is very cold. No one to talk to. The doors opened. Warm soup was served. Much like when I had worked in Hamilton at "Out of the Cold" except here we go up and get our own food....in Hamilton the guests are served at their place. We sat around. The dinner meal was excellent: pasta with beef, big chunks of beef in a nice tangy sauce. Lots of
bread. I talked to a few guys at table... not much 'real' conversation. Street people all seem to know each other. They call each other by name and interact with one another. I guess I must stand out in their crowd. After supper I had nothing else to do, so I went to the 5 o'clock Mass upstairs. The little old priest seemed nice, gentle. I thought: "he sits down in the pulpit to preach.... cute". Actually, he was standing to preach: he was that short. Funny. Afterwards I went up Town.
I walked into "Evergreen", a Youth Drop-in Centre on Yonge Street. Some kid offered me weed: I guess I do look the part after all. This life is lonesome and empty. There is no depth. No meaning; no real tomorrow to anticipate and look forward to. I passed by some people sleeping on the sidewalk.... it is so bitterly cold tonight. And to think that warm St. Patrick's is just around the corner! I can't understand why they choose to sleep in the cold. I could never figure that out when I lived and worked here in Toronto. I've heard the argument that they do this in order to "claim their independence". Some are afraid of being robbed at the shelters. What a hellish life.
Back in St. Patrick's Parish Hall. I was given a small thin gym mat, a clean flannel blanket and a pillow. I am grateful. This is "my bed" and my space, over there by the wall, is my "room" for the night. Yes, I am grateful. It's cold out, and I'm out of there and in here. Hence the name. It's 10:30 p.m. and everyone is settling in for the night. Chick fight in the girl's dorm. It's a tough crowd here, I tell you. They're so mouthy. Must be tired. We're all basically the same. We all experience the same frustrations, fears, inadequacies and shortcomings. There sure is a lot of snoring around me already. I'll blend right in, just as soon as I fall asleep and start talking in my sleep! Good night Toronto. I should sleep very well -- I'm so tired.
2 hours later. Who the F-!&@#$ can sleep here? All the groaning, awful smells, farts and snorts! F!@#, I just have to move my stuff. I don't know if it's going to be much better elsewhere: my new neighbour smells so bad and he took off his socks! I never thought a human being could smell so terribly awful. Pardon me Lord. It could always be worse I suppose. I could be sharing a jail cell with a burly butchy fellow named Bubba. My God this is so awful. So many of these people are sick.... terrible coughs, not to mention the mental illnesses! In "our world" we would admit these sick people to Hospital...
Monday December 28, 1998. 6 a.m. Well, I made it through the night: I survived. I did it! I really did it! And I'm not too sore. I always wanted to do this - and I did! Life for these people is so very simple - not complex like we "sophisticated" people make it. To think this all started when my sister-in-law Becky said: "Dan, think about what you want to make of this Christmas". Who would have dreamt it would have brought me to this? I needed to be humbled, to find Christ again: and I did, through these poor ones. I'm sure the fruits of this experience are still to come.
6 a.m. sure comes quickly. And they don't warn you: they just throw all the lights on, and everyone jumps up at once. Yet, I am so grateful this morning. The volunteers who work here are obviously very dedicated. They stayed up all night. I look at them, the way they treat us with respect and dignity. They have breakfast ready for all of us. You know, when you have nothing, a hard muffin and a warm coffee is something to be grateful for. I was never very fussy about food. Thank God. Mom and Dad taught us well: you ate what was set before you and you ate it all. I feel compelled to write a thank you note to these volunteers..... just to affirm them in their ministry. Thank you notes are rare in ministry, but they sure are a wonderful thing when one receives them....especially when they come unexpectedly and anonymously. It puts a smile on one's face.
"Dear Friends: Thanks for giving me a warm friendly place to spend the night. It was my first time here. This Program is wonderful - serving the needs of the poor - offering the basics of life: food, shelter, clothing. You are living out Matthew 25. Thank you. 'There is more joy in giving' - I'm sure you know that. Thanks for what you have given me. Besides food, shelter and clothing, a restored faith in the goodness of humanity, helping me to see Christ in action: in people. For Christmas this year, I had decided to keep things simpler, to return to the basics of my faith. I made up my mind to come to Toronto, to live on the streets, to find a simpler life: to learn, to grow, to be humbled, and to appreciate more. Thank you so much for helping me to find that. It was humbling to be one of those being served, the ones Jesus spoke about in Matthew 25. Indeed, in living out Matthew 25, you do serve Christ. Bless you, Father Dan"
I folded up my note and passed it to one of the volunteers. The woman said: "who is this for?" "All of you", I responded as I hastily made my way to the exit.
So, what do homeless people do at 7 a.m. when everything is still closed and the City is barely awake? Ride the Subway! I entered the station and noticed that other "fellow street people" got the same idea that I did. I had money to buy a coffee. Another beggar came up to me and asked if I could buy him a coffee too. I did. He never thanked me, he just walked away stirring the contents, then turned around as a kind of afterthought, and asked if I could give him two bucks! His ingratitude angered me. Anyway, I did my good deed.
One could ride the Subway all day and all night and no one would say a civil word to you. I'm certain some do just that. What a sad existence. What thoughts go through their minds I wonder? As I wonder about their thoughts, I'm lost in my own.
When all is said and done, I'm glad I'm educated, have a job, family and friends. It's a cold, lonely world out there. Life is what we make of it. No one owes us a thing. We have to work hard for everything. Workers are starting to get on the subway - rush hour. No one talks. No smiles. No "good mornings". Lots of Tim Horton's coffee being sipped. I wonder what the volunteers at St. Pat's thought of my thank you note. I hope it made their day. They really are dedicated for all they do. Some of these street people are addicts: I can tell. I've suffered through my own addictions. It has been said that "all addiction leads to death." Then there's the story about a guy falling out of the window of a tall building, and bystanders hear him saying: "so far so good, so far so good." It's not the fall that's the problem. It's the sudden stop. It has also been said that Resurrection means "restored to useful life and purpose." Where is the Resurrection for these folks, Lord?
My journey on the Subway ended up at the Scarborough Town Centre. I see STC everywhere: reminded me of Sr. Teresa Carmel at the Hospital where I used to work. I'm hungry.... Planning to go for lunch at the Good Shepherd. I overheard a man say last evening: "This is Canada, you won't starve here." I guess not, I've been here 2 days, and haven't yet.
I don't feel like panhandling. It's too humiliating. Makes me uncomfortable. I should leave that money for the really poor. I'll be glad to get showered and shaved once I get home. I smell like a sewer, and kinda look like one. "Humility". (Gosh, I wonder what Jesus smelt like when he was born in that stable). I don't need to go there.
There are so many immigrants in Toronto. I was thinking, maybe I should do this again next Christmas, but stay a lot longer. I had invited a couple of friends to join me here in Toronto this year, but something came up for each of them. Just as well. Come to think, one of them could not have slept through the symphony of snores and farts last night!
Well, all good things must come to an end. I have to go back to work tomorrow. I'm heading back to the bus terminal. Two wonderful days - cheap holiday!
The bus trip home. What have I learned in doing this? Below are a number of 'lessons'. And this is essentially what life is all about: learning our lessons well. Surely I will discover more learnings as time goes on because of my experiences. But for now, this is what I have learned...
- that we don't have to schedule everything. I didn't have a watch and I didn't miss one meal. I didn't worry about bus, subway or church schedules. Sometimes it's best to go free and easy. I even went to 2 Masses (I didn't know the Mass schedule and wasn't late)
- that the world won't end if you don't shower each morning
- that most deodorants lose all effectiveness after 24 hours
- that most B.O. problems can be temporarily resolved by a trip to the fragrance counter at Eaton's
- that B.O. is sometimes a humbling thing to live with
- that generally speaking people are decent and try to help each other out
- that bad coffee is sometimes better than no coffee at all
- that there is a street person, a homeless person, a hungry person, a battered person, a misunderstood person, a mentally and physically sick person in each of us
- that becoming a street person can be a reality for each of us
- that "day old" or even "week old" baking can be made palpable by any warm liquid such as hot soup or coffee, and be a cherished delicacy on a cold winter's day
- that I can actually go two days without a car or a credit card
- that a good wholesome piece of humble pie won't hurt your diet
- that street people don't have the choice of opting for lower fat foods
- that after about an hour one can fall asleep surrounded by a dozen snorers
- that no matter how bad things can appear to be, they can always get worse, so always be grateful
- that even the most highly educated, sophisticated and proud can instantly "look the part" with a little scruff, "creative wardrobing", humility and a sense of humour
- that even when you think you pack lightly, you still bring too much: I did not require my Health Card
- that sub-cultures exist in all segments of society and should be respected
- that every once in a while we need to stop and evaluate what we're doing and ask ourselves why we're doing it and if we still need to do it - especially if we're part of established Institutions such as the Church
- that panhandling is hard work which takes courage and humility
- that coffee cups can hold more than just coffee
- that persistence is key in life: if they don't have a doorbell, try the side door
- that we can sleep through anything - even firetrucks, odours, snores, and other bodily functions. But more importantly, that when you have nowhere to go, a half inch mat is "home" and a flannel sheet can warm you and make you feel safe and cared for by God
- that sometimes one can ride Public Transit and not have anywhere in particular to go, and that's OK: just going for the ride is what makes it fun and exciting (besides, boarding early in the morning guarantees a seat during rush hour)
- that it is stereotypical to say that the rich are rude and selfish - sometimes the poor lack gratitude and do act selfishly
- that when you give something away, you always get it back in a different way
- that we have the power within to make someone else's day
- that it really doesn't get much better than this - for some, this is as good as it gets. We're always searching "out there". Perhaps the search is over. Some of us need to look deep within
- that God is all-powerful and can humble even the most stubborn and proud heart
- that the poor should be at the head of the line on the way into the Kingdom
- that it is totally astounding what we can accomplish if we set our minds to it!
- that for the most part, the poor have no way out... theirs is a life that often does not improve over time.
To live on the streets of Toronto for a few days, with no car, no money, no credit cards, no hotel reservations, no dinner reservations in the dead of winter, was one of the most freeing experiences of my life -- treasured memories and learnings I will cherish forever. But I must admit with all humility, that this was only a glimpse of what life is truly like for the poor. I admit that my experience was artificial in that I always had my "return ticket home" in my right pant pocket. Street people do not have such luxury of "a return ticket home." Surely it is far worse for them, because unlike myself, there is "no way out". Day in and day out they must fend for themselves and they often do so without hope.
After my return to my comfortable home, I thought: "I'd like to go back next summer, sleep under the stars on a park bench by night, and wander the streets as a "squeegee kid" by day! But let's not delude ourselves.... this is artificial and experiential. The poor must be brave and strong. They do not have a "return ticket home". They have no home.
Surely Jesus was right when he promised the Kingdom to the poor. Indeed, they should be at the head of the line: and perhaps someday I will have enough humility within me to let them up in front of me. In the meantime, I can only pray for humility and keep an open mind.
"Go! I am sending you out...Don't take a purse of a beggar's bag or shoes. Whenever you go into a town and are made welcome, eat what is set before you, heal the sick, and say to the people there, 'The Kingdom of God has come near to you.' [Luke 10:8-9]
Dan Cyr heads up Spiritual Care at Joseph Brant Memorial Hospital in Burlington, Ontario.
Posted by editor on December 29, 2003 10:44 AM