The impressive stone building sits on a hill surrounded by old trees, one of the few city churches that still have their own cemetery. Father Martin presides over the “highest of high” Anglican service. He and his servers bow to icons and waft enough incense to choke you.
This weeknight service is held entirely in candlelight, the sanctuary so dark that you grope cautiously to find your way to an empty pew. Out of the darkness come exquisite voices, a cappella, leading our worship mostly in Latin. One feels time–transported to a medieval monastery. The hour is a feast for the senses and a respite for the soul.
One night during Advent my husband and I drifted outside after the service, half drunk on tranquillity, and headed for our car. A voice spoke from behind us, “Excuse me. I’m sorry to bother you, but…I need help.”
We turned to see a pretty woman in her thirties, waiting in the dark. I was expecting her to say that her car wouldn’t start but instead she continued,
“I don’t have anywhere to sleep.”
She gestured to the black garbage bag on the ground beside her,
“I’ve been homeless for a year. I’m really cold and I just wondered if you might have some change.”
Sadly, in Toronto we’ve become accustomed to sidewalk beggars, briefly offering them a friendly smile or a couple of dollars before we hurry on, but this wasn’t a busy downtown street. We were in our own neighbourhood. The contrast between the lush service and a poor woman’s destitution was jarring.
We listened as Rochelle introduced herself and told us her story of a dangerous ex-husband and lost jobs. We were jolted into facing the disparity between our comfortable life and her situation.
We discussed Missions, City shelters, the Out of the Cold program, women’s shelters. Rochelle replied with all of the reasons that these programs hadn’t worked for her. We were stymied. Handing her some money, we offered to pray with her. Rochelle joined in our prayer, talking to God in a way that showed her own Christian faith.
The experts tell us that it would be naive to believe a panhandler’s story, so we were sceptical. We couldn’t trust that she was honest, so we didn’t dare invite her to come and sleep at our house. In any case, one overnight might not be a problem, but then? Did we want to take on responsibility for this woman who has no home or job? No. Was she an addict, a con artist, a thief? The risk was too high.
“What would Jesus do?” That facile question was no help at all. Jesus’ circumstances were entirely different from ours. He didn’t even have a home he could open to others. We know we want to follow His teaching of love, but how could we put love into action with someone like Rochelle? Where was God in this?
Our conversation slowed to a halt. We’d come to the end of ideas. It was time to say goodbye. It felt useless, but we promised to keep praying for Rochelle and gave her a hug. There she stood, alone in the damp, cold, dark. Aching, we had to literally turn our backs on her and walk away.
O come, Christmas Baby, God of all that is, abide with us who mourn in lonely exile here.