Toronto deacon walks mean streets with pushers, pimps

Deacon Robert Kinghorn with Tracey Ferguson, whom Kinghorn helped leave the streets.

CATHOLIC REGISTER PHOTO | SHEILA DABU NONATO

Deacon Robert Kinghorn with Tracey Ferguson, whom Kinghorn helped leave the streets.

November 28, 2011
SHEILA DABU NONATO
THE CATHOLIC REGISTER

It's a cool autumn night, and Robert Kinghorn begins his downtown ministry as night falls on Jarvis Street in downtown Toronto. Amid the hustle and bustle of night life near a local hamburger joint, Kinghorn stands out sporting a white Roman collar.

But here on these streets, Kinghorn, the deacon with a background in prison ministry, seems at ease.

Toronto's unofficial red light district isn't where you'd expect to find hope and a prayer. But "the track" is where Kinghorn has been ministering to people once a week for the past six years.

Kinghorn lends a sympathetic ear and offers prayers for the women and men who seek his counsel, the prostitutes and drug dealers, many of whom are wrestling with broken childhoods and drug addictions.

"It's showing the presence of Jesus and the presence of the Church on the streets," said Kinghorn of his street ministry.

In Ontario, the Supreme Court is considering an appeal by a group of former sex trade workers to decriminalize prostitution.

A BIT OF HOPE

Yet Tracey Ferguson, a survivor of these mean streets, says ministries like Kinghorn's do more to promote the human dignity of street workers than any legislation ever could.

"It's stuff like that that gives people a little bit of hope," Ferguson said.

Ferguson has joined Kinghorn for this evening's walkabout. After a dozen years in the sex trade, she left the cycle of addiction and abuse. She has been clean for the past five years and has a new job.

She has dealt with the ghosts of her past, reunited with her family and summoned the courage to forgive those who have hurt her while she was on these streets, including a man whom she considered a friend who raped her.

Ferguson credits God for helping her deal with her struggles. She thanks Kinghorn for "empowering" her and helping her reconnect with her faith.

LISTENING TO THE HURTS

Kinghorn said the heart of his ministry is about accepting others and "listening to the hurts that have happened in people's lives and to let them know that if we can accept them, God can."

"Jesus had talked about, when two or three are gathered, he's right in the midst of them," he said.

How did this ministry begin? Kinghorn, 65, recalls being downtown one evening six years ago and sensing a great need for the Church's presence there.

"We have to be a light in the darkness," he said.

His weekly walkabouts start around 9 p.m. and end at midnight or 1 a.m.

Kinghorn's quiet, compassionate approach and dedication to his grassroots street ministry has earned him "street cred" on these tough streets. So far, he hasn't met with violence or had any close calls.

There was the time, however, when a drug dealer told Kinghorn he needed something.

"Yes?" Kinghorn replied.

"Can you say a prayer for me?" the man asked.

A SPECIAL PRAYER

"Sure, what would you like to pray for?" Kinghorn asked.

"Forgiveness," the dealer said.

Then, out of the corner of his eye, Kinghorn noticed three other dealers making their way towards them. Kinghorn waited. They asked what was going on and he told them. They also requested the same thing.

Kinghorn breathed a sigh of relief.