Sunday, 15 December 2013

Sidewalk Sister

Cold, white beauty poured down over the city, ideal snowy weather for the Christmas season. After a sweet day of family love and the fun of decorating our IKEA-bargain fir tree, we looked forward to Saturday night downtown. In a rare indulgence we planned to eat out before we would head to the concert hall. The pub was jammed with people but a server led us past two bars and a pool table to a quieter room at the back. Ahh, bliss. I ordered minimally, not wanting to feel over-full, but the food I did eat tasted delicious. The whole day had gone well. I ruefully admit that such comfort is my idol.

An hour later, with happy tummies, we slid our way through the slush on King St. In the snowy air we heard a brass band playing “O Come All Ye Faithful”; it was an idyllic Canadian Christmas moment. Five shivering members of the Salvation Army offered an outdoor musical welcome to all of us arriving for the Army’s annual concert at Roy Thompson Hall.  “Salvation Army” – what an embarrassing, out-dated name! They still wear military-esque uniforms, more than a century after their Victorian founders declared war on poverty in Jesus’ name. Despite the quaint style, their social activism is admirable and their music first-class, so I was excited to go inside.

Sure enough, it was a spectacular evening. What a soaring sound three hundred voices can make! Expert musicians accompanied the choir with brass and piano. From traditional carols to a swing arrangement of “Let it Snow”, the show was a feast. We revelled in some creative musical arrangements and the soloist’s strong, pure voice singing  “Breath of Heaven”. We tried to think kindly of the tambourine dancing girls (I kid you not) and the brief sermon. The skilled singers included Toronto Northern Lights, a men’s chorus whose exquisite harmonies in “Mary, Did You Know?” were transporting. In awe we gave thanks for God’s miraculous Christmas message of love.

After the concert we bundled up, and, full of comfort and joy, walked out into the still blowing snow. 
There, smack in the middle of the wide sidewalk, sat a woman, cross-legged, with a begging cup in her hand. It was bitterly cold and the snow was thick. She was crying, sitting there facing down all of us who were hurrying home after a beautiful evening of music. Well, now. Could you walk past a sister in tears, sitting alone on icy cement in the middle of a winter storm? 
I bent down to her, at a loss for appropriate words, said, “What are you doing?”
Close up, I could see that she was much younger than most street beggars and without their usual alcohol-creased face. She looked up, sobbing, “I need money.” 
Trying for an honest conversation, I asked gently, “Why don’t you have a job?”
She answered, “You can’t get a job when you don’t have an address.” 
Of course I have learned about the complexities of our homeless population. I know that there are many causes and mostly inadequate solutions. I’ve seen friends pay a painful price when they have risked reaching out to needy individuals. And any stranger on the street could be a scammer. But still.
“I guess you’ve tried all of the shelters?” I said, feebly. 
My husband dug through his pockets in the wild weather and tucked a bill into her cup. She twisted to see where the money had come from and thanked him. 
She went on, “I’m only forty! I have nowhere to sleep.” 
My husband and I crooned in sympathy and patted her back.  Helplessly, we said stupid, useless things:
“Oh, Honey, I wish I had a magic wand to fix your life”
“God loves you; God bless you.”

Instead of swearing at us or punching us in the face for our platitudes, she thanked us over and over again, still crying.  Heartsick, we turned away and hurried on toward the subway train station. An hour later we arrived at our merry, sparkling house with its vacant guest room in the basement.