I spent a few days in Canada’s largest city this week, and even though it was a business trip I was able to glean much from the experience that I can apply to my personal life. Skyscraper after skyscraper, building after building, the city of Toronto is home to millions. I did more than my fair share of walking around taking in the sights, sounds and smells of downtown T.O. One of the things that struck me was how everyone walked, everywhere. The streets and sidewalks were crowded day and night with walkers, all going in different directions. Which is a good thing, walking is healthy after all. In the middle of those crowds however, hiding in plain sight, unseen by the vast majority of those walkers live the forgotten, former walkers – Toronto’s homeless.
On one of my walks I came upon a man sleeping on top of a sewer grate. It kept him warm you see, and since nobody cared if he smelled a little unsavory, he welcomed the warm air escaping the city’s underbelly. He looked like the homeless person you’re imagining right now – long grey beard, messy hair, tattered clothing, leathery skin that hadn’t been washed in years and not far from his reach sat the shopping cart that secured his belongings while he slept, shivering in the cold.
At first I thought it odd, the spot he picked to sleep, right in the middle of the sidewalk. I was able to put the pieces together quickly enough and realized it was the sewer warmth that invited him there, and maybe, just maybe someone who walks by will actually notice him there and take pity on him. Maybe they’ll leave a sandwich for him, a few coins in his cup or leave a blanket that smelled of home, rather than the alternative. Nobody did, not even me. I did hesitate, but only because you don’t see this in my hometown, but the pace of city life beckoned and the crowd urged me forward as they brushed past me, subtly telling me to keep moving. So the crowds moved past him, walking around him as if he were a fire hydrant or some other immovable object in their path. And the man slept.
I was early for my meeting so I ducked into a nearby Tim Hortons where I encountered two more of T.O’s homeless enjoying a cup of coffee, they must have gotten their hands on some money I thought to myself, quickly realizing how ignorant I am when it comes to homelessness. Their conversation was distasteful, at best. Ridden with cuss words and obscenities that would make a sailor blush, the two of them ranted on about racism and Donald Trump and the problems of the world. I wondered if the obviously louder than necessary conversation was more for the benefit of those around them, than for themselves. My suspicions were confirmed when a passerby held the door for them as they left the coffee shop, one of them thanked the guy for noticing that they needed help and apologized for the language. They just wanted to be noticed, that’s all. Instead, everyone (again including myself) would rather just move on than have to face someone with bigger problems than their own. And the two disappeared into the crowd and down the sidewalk.
Leaving the coffee shop I noticed that I had gotten two breakfast sandwiches instead of the one I asked for, after checking the receipt and realizing they did indeed charge me for two I decided that instead of making a fuss I’ll just give the extra sandwich to a homeless person. Walking through a park I came across said homeless person and decided that he was the one. He took the sandwich, thanked me and I carried on with my walk. Now, I know that it was a small gesture, one that happened only because Tim Hortons misunderstood my order, but that didn’t stop me from congratulating myself, patting myself on the back, and letting the feelings of superhero-dom take me over. Look at me, I’m a giver, if only everyone were like me.
Then I realized the problem (or at least part of it), me! Me, and everyone like me who walks by the guy sleeping on the sewer grate, ignores the cries for help from the cussing pair in the coffee shop, and oblivious to the fact that I would have walked by the hungry guy in the park if it weren’t for someone else’s mistake. I didn’t go out of my way to help someone, I was a tourist going for a walk, admiring the buildings and the architecture, the history and you know what I’ve come to realize? Cities today are nothing more than modern versions of the tower of Babel.
There I was, in the middle of a city, worshipping what man has done. I spent the night in a hotel room that cost more for one night than it would to feed a dozen homeless people for a week! Granted, I didn’t pay for that room but nevertheless, still true. My valet parking voucher could’ve bought a nice fur coat for the man sleeping on the sewer. My dinner voucher could’ve paid for twenty more breakfast sandwiches and my compassion could’ve soothed a couple of troubled souls and not cost anyone a cent.
If you’re like me, you’re thinking a couple of things right now. A. Many homeless people are there because they did it to themselves, either by refusing to work, making bad decisions, or just plain being dumb. Or B. They’re not my problem, they could go to a shelter, family or at least try and get out of the situation. Admittedly, some might be homeless because of the decisions they made, some might be lazy, some could get a job and fend for themselves if they’d just try. However, I’m going to say something now that you’re going to hate, you might even accuse me of hypocrisy and you’d be right to do so. You might ignore it and you’ll probably think of that person who’s always thumping people on the head with a Bible, but I’m going to say it anyway…
WHAT WOULD JESUS DO?
Or better yet, what did Jesus do? When He met someone in need did He question why they were in need? No, He just helped. Did Jesus ever say that the needy weren’t our problem? Did He just walk by? Ignore them? Or worse yet, did He smite them by accusing them of being sinners?
I’m not a wealthy person, at least not in terms of money (a statement that’s debatable, but that’s another blog post), my life at home is fairly modest and I don’t blow my earnings on unnecessary luxuries like the accommodations I had in Toronto. Truth be told I loved the room I stayed in, the shower, oh my gosh, the shower! Have you ever been in a shower so big it felt like a room? The shower head was one of those rain shower heads that felt like a tropical waterfall. The floor was heated, the bed was sooo soft, there was a TV in the mirror! the curtains opened and closed at the touch of button, if I left the room and came back only minutes later the hotel cleaning ninjas (that’s what I called them cause you never saw them) cleaned up, put on some soft music, dimmed the lights and left a mint on the pillow just so that when I came back it always felt like the first time. The first morning I was there I went for a coffee at Tim’s and when I came back there was a professional’s preparation kit waiting for me, basically everything someone might need to get all dressed up in a suit and tie, complete with a shoehorn that cost more than the shirt I was wearing from Giant Tiger. A comb encrusted with diamonds (I made that up) and a warm towel for my hands just in case they got cold. All of this was completely new to me, I didn’t need it and didn’t use it. It was all a bit much and I appreciate the experience but it’s not me. I like wearing shorts and shirts I got from the store that teenagers used to shop at. I would’ve been fine at the Holiday Inn Express with a continental breakfast. And most of all, I never felt like I fit in there, nor did I have the desire to.
So my experience in Toronto was confusing to say the least. On one hand I was being wined and dined and treated like royalty. On the other hand, I was exposed to a level of poverty that shocked me, how could a city so obsessed with individual rights and freedoms allow the homeless population to remain homeless? They were like the invisible inhabitants of the city’s underworld, they would come out of hiding once in a while in hopes of being fed only to be completely ignored. I didn’t get it.
Then, it occurred to me, on all my walks, all that time spent taking in downtown Toronto, I hadn’t seen but one church. A million people live in the downtown core and there’s only one church? God has been evicted from the city, banished to live in one building and told to stay there. On top of that, God’s Word has become watered down with the waters of relativism. That one church I saw had a large poster near the front door that bragged of being inclusive and welcoming with the rainbow colors as the backdrop. I wonder if they know what the original meaning of the rainbow was?
Without God the virtues of charity and generosity and compassion have gone the way of the VCR, and chivalry, and the dodo bird. Toronto, like most major urban centers are more like the ancient cities of the Old Testament with their pantheon of gods that aren’t really gods than ever before. They may not necessarily have altars set up and places of worship to go to, but as an outsider looking in it’s clear as day. God and His church are just one of things in their mixed bag of idols, they keep Him there, at arm’s length just in case. Who knows, they might need Him someday.
Anyway, I really wasn’t trying to judge although it came out that way, it’s just that I see more churches in a town of 30,000 than I saw in Toronto’s downtown. Indicative, I think of the way culture is going. More and more towards what mankind can do, and less and less concerned about what Jesus already did.