Walking a mile in their shoes

Published January 1, 2011

Who is not broken, not challenged with overcoming pain, whether from childhood or just yesterday? Who hasn’t had hope crushed, felt the heart shatter, the knees go weak and the ground rise up? Who hasn’t sobbed with grief so overwhelming that drawing a single breath became a Herculean task? Now imagine this is how you feel 24/7, even under the gallons of cheap booze, the lines of cocaine, the pipes-full of crack. Your body is filthy, bruised from the beatings, the blackouts and the anger. What little money you have comes from people who would kill you if they could. And who would care? You have nowhere to go, nothing to do except risk life and limb for any respite. Everywhere you look, there are others just like you. You don’t remember what it feels like to be safe. Every decision you make is based on fear. You gave up on yourself a long time ago. So did everybody else. Welcome to life at the corner of Dundas and Sherbourne streets in downtown Toronto. The Rev. David W. Opheim, priest-director at All Saints Church Community Centre, calls this place “the epicentre of homelessness and intransigency.” During a recent visit, he tells me that, “Things on this corner would astound, shock and frighten you. But in the midst of it all, Christ is present, God is present, in a very intense way.”No stranger to ministering to the indigent, Opheim took up the challenge at All Saints last August after three years as the incumbent at Saint Saviour’s in Victoria, the homelessness capital of Canada. There, he managed the Rainbow Kitchen, which served hot meals to street people five days a week. He also helped parishioners grieve during dis-establishment. Now, running this outreach ministry of the diocese of Toronto-for yet another dis-established parish-seems a job for which he is particularly well-suited. Opheim’s conflict resolution training is being put to good use, as he must change gears frequently and still maintain his composure and focus. He readily admits it’s impossible to predict what he’ll be called upon to do in any given day. Opheim’s office is lined with nine videocamera screens that give him a bird’s eye view of the building’s perimeter. There’s also a two-way glass mirror through which a glance often confirms worst fears. Whether it’s sending drug dealers on their way or dealing with trespassing and involving the police, “nobody’s going to be doing that but me,” says Opheim, who has a zero tolerance policy for drug and alcohol use or distribution on church property. The drop-in centre at All Saints is where people on the outside come to get inside. There are no pews, just a hardwood floor with marks where the pews used to be and some chairs. Street people who come here are looking for something to dull the pain: a cup of coffee, food, someone to talk to, a chance to worship. Most have mental health issues; many are functionally illiterate. According to Opheim, scores are survivors of traumatic brain injury, some through gang-related beatings. “Where would Jesus be in all this?” he asks me. “That’s the question. This is the real messy church.”The outreach at All Saints continues to grow. There’s a legal clinic that helps people prepare for court hearings and fill out forms, often to replace lost identification. Plans are underway for University of Toronto students in the rehabilitation sciences program to provide life skills training. There’s an art therapy program. Every Tuesday, a street health clinic called “The Works” sets up shop. Public health nurses hand out clean needles and crack kits and provide health care. Opheim talks about an injection site “with the church represented.” There’s a program for sex trade workers. Those who call All Saints home are invited to discuss ideas about what sacred scripture means to them and to attend worship. The Bible study groups are the liveliest and most thought-provoking Opheim has experienced in his 28 years as a priest. All Saints outreach extends to the nearby Dan Harrison Housing Complex, which has a population of 700. There, an advocacy expert helps tenants feel safe in a building where even the security guards refuse to patrol the unlit halls at night. A coffee spot inside the complex provides tenants with a safe place to visit and play chess during the day. It also acts as a tiny drop-in church. The Rev. Susan Haig is the associate priest at All Saints. Formerly a lawyer, she finds her new calling so strong that “when my feet hit the floor in the morning, I can’t wait to get to work.” Out of the chaos and brokenness, Haig says she sees many miracles. “I meet incredible people who are more Christian, more saintly or more spiritually insightful than I am and I just think, ‘Wow! They’re ministering to me!’ I come here to learn, to be fed.”Haig offers a celebration of the eucharist every Wednesday. The altar is a table and people sit in chairs set in a semi-circle in front of it. She tells me the story of one particular service at which a man confided, “I’m not worthy.” When Haig responded, “I’m not either,” he asked: “Were you a prostitute, too?” For a sex trade worker sitting next to him, the clock was ticking. She piped up: “And I’m going to be a priest. Take the bread, buddy!” Opheim and Haig are passionate about extending radical hospitality beyond the four walls of the church. “God is present in the church and the worshipping community,” says Opheim. “But if the marginalized community can’t find their way to us, we will go out to them.” Every Tuesday, Opheim and Haig walk the talk, literally. They head out onto the mean streets, looking for the poorest of the poor, many of them living in crack houses and shelters. They follow where the spirit leads on the God Walk. “I feel part of the neighbourhood,” says Opheim, who at six feet two inches stands more than a foot taller than Haig. “It’s about seeing Christ in the most unlikely of people,” adds Haig. All Saints is funded by FaithWorks, the outreach ministry of the diocese of Toronto. Opheim invites other parish outreach committees and faith communities to see what their donations are doing. “Come and see this activity at the margins,” he says. “Come and see everyone being brought to the feast.” When guests from St. Aidan’s and All Saints Kingsway attended Sunday service and brought lunch, Opheim was deeply moved when they sat down and ate with his parishioners. “This was even more beautiful than the food they brought,” he tells me. “It said to me, ‘I can learn something from this person. I can be with them and not be afraid.’ ” Empathizing is the first step, he adds. “The only thing that brings down that fear is love.” Getting to know street people, who come to Toronto from every corner of Canada, restores their humanity as well as yours, Opheim insists. Then I am introduced to a Somalian man who has a PhD from Cornell. “He blows to smithereens our middle-class notions about street people,” says Opheim. Articulate and well-dressed, this man has a long history of trauma and torture and lives in a shelter. Yet he gives poetry instruction to 19 high school students from St. Teresa’s in Richmond Hill who volunteer each week. Opheim wears his collar every day now. So does Haig. Wherever they go, people from the ‘hood- shopkeepers, sex trade workers, pimps, crack addicts and drunks-wave and call out, “Good morning, Father. Good morning, Mother.” It’s easy to get lost in an insulated life, says Opheim, his gaze earnest, direct. “There’s no insulation here. It’s on fire and we’re up to our eyeballs. We love it!” ΩDonations can be made to All Saints at www.allsaintstoronto.com or by mail to
315 Dundas St. E., Toronto, Ont. M5A 2A2.
Kristin Jenkins is editor of the Anglican Journal.


Related Posts

Keep on reading

Skip to content