How Out Of the Cold Started

How we, at Blythwood, got started with the Out of the Cold Program

We are entering our 25th season with the Out of the Cold program. It’s incredible how time flies.  It seems like only yesterday that, with much trepidation, we opened the doors of our church on a Saturday night to a few homeless people.  We didn’t know what to expect.  What would our guests be like?  What would we say after we said hello?  How would we cope with those who might be mentally ill, or drug addicted, or aggressive?  What if we were faced with a crisis in the middle of the night?  

These and other worries filled our minds as we open the front doors and let in anywhere from 100 to 185 for dinner and offer a place to sleep for the night to 65 homeless people.  We learned a great deal since that first night.  One of the things we’ve learned is how much we need the participation of our neighbours and other churches.  Without them, we would have closed our doors years ago. The compassion and concern that has been demonstrated by others has been an inspiration for us at Blythwood. 
The organization we put in place. 
It takes a lot of organizing to put on the program.  We need at least 32 volunteers from 5 pm Saturday to 8 am Sunday, every week, week in, week out, from the first Saturday in November to the last one in March.  We need them to be committed to the program and turn up when asked, be diligent in their tasks and smile a lot.
 

The organizational details are all covered in a little manual we hand out to our volunteers. 
(You can download a pdf copy of the Out of the Cold manual click here)
(Requires Adobe Reader)

 

While our volunteers come from a number of churches, many do not have a church affiliation and just come out of the kindness of their own hearts.  And they have contributed mightily with hard work and compassion. 
But, primarily, this is a church initiative and every now and then we have to step back and remind ourselves, as a community of faith, of our primary motivation.
The prime reason for our involvement.


 

This is a woodcut of a line of homeless men and women. 
Standing with them, unnoticed, is Jesus.  This is significant because the people are not lining up to see Jesus.  In fact, we can’t see what they’re lining up for.  But we can confidently assume it is for food and shelter.  
And Jesus is patiently lining up with them. 
His head is slightly bowed.  He has the same needs as they.  And he too is looking for room in the shelter.  Will he find it or be turned away and told again that there is no room for him?

 

Mother Teresa once said, that when we minister to the poor, we minister to “Christ in distressing disguise.”  
Now here we approach a mystery, one that I have difficulty getting my head around, one that has occupied the thoughts of Christians through the centuries.  When I serve the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters, I am serving him.  I don’t claim to understand it and there are moments when I’m being cussed out by an angry guest that I find it extremely difficult to believe.  But there it is.  Said Mother Teresa:
“Clothing the naked Christ
Visiting the sick Christ
Giving shelter to the homeless Christ”

 

Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement and the Houses of Hospitality in the United States during the 20s and 30s, writes, “It is no use saying we were born 2000 years too late to give room to Christ.  Nor will those who live at the end of the world have been born too late.  Christ is always with us, always asking for room in our hearts.”

 

The truth is we may not recognize him.  He may come to us in distressing disguise. 
Can it be that Christ comes into our midst every Saturday evening disguised as our guest?
That ragged man with a hacking cough.  Is he Jesus?  That woman lugging all her worldly goods in two large green garbage bags.  Is she Jesus?

 

I admit it is very hard to believe that the guest who is drunk, drug addicted, schizophrenic or just plain aggressive is Christ.  And I must confess that I struggle with the concept.  Yet, as Dorothy Day said, “If we hadn’t got Christ’s own words for it, it would seem like raving lunacy to believe that if I offer a bed and food and hospitality to some man or woman…that my guest is Christ.  “For I was hungry and you gave me food.  I was thirsty and you gave me drink…”  
It is here that we come to the limits of reason and enter a mystery.  Many theologians have struggled with what this means.  Blaise Pascal said that, “If we submit everything to reason, our religion will be left with nothing mysterious or supernatural.”  
The idea is this.  In a way that we cannot fathom, Christ incarnates himself in the poor and the destitute and gives us the opportunity of serving him again, of ministering to him in his pain and suffering.

 

Who are our guests?
They are often referred to in the media as “the homeless”.  They are all clumped together as an anonymous underclass.  The term, “the homeless” is an abstract, dehumanizing term.  If you’re one of the homeless, you really don’t exist as an individual.  You’re not normal.  You’re just one of a group of shadowy, insubstantial figures that shuffle around the city, ignored, treated with disdain, suspicion and contempt.  If anyone spares you a thought at all, it is usually, “There but for the grace of God go I.”  
Elie Weisel, the author and a survivor of Auschwitz once said that the opposite of love is not hate but indifference. 

It's so easy to stereotype homeless people, to see them as shiftless, lazy, undeserving, the authors of their own misfortunes, as beings apart.  But we got to know many of them over the years as individuals, with individual stories, personalities, hopes, dreams, hurts and fears.
Each one is somebody's son or daughter, mother or father, brother or sister who, through illness, an abused childhood, bad luck or whatever has become destitute and in need of help.

About 30 to 40 percent of our guests struggle with varying degrees of mental illness.  Some of them so severe that we are at loss as to know how to deal with them.  They need professional help.  
At first it is almost impossible to engage them in conversation, they withdraw into themselves and shut you out.  Or they become abusive and shout and threaten.  

Then there are those who are slaves to alcohol or drugs.  Some are sad, lonely people who have never known the meaning of love.  Who can blame them for their addictions?  Who can blame them for moments of escape into a bottle from the despair of lives blasted with pain and rejection.  

One of the great lessons I have learned in the Out of the Cold Program is not to judge but to accept them and accord them the respect that is their due as human beings made in the image of God, albeit a flawed image.

We have also had our share of trouble-makers over the years.  Guys who came to disrupt the program and drink and fight.  Before the City of Toronto supplied us with security people, we had to deal with conflicts ourselves.  Many’s the time we’ve had to step in and stop fights from breaking out.  I can still see my wife, who is a no-nonsense Scot, standing between two large men who were bent on doing each other serious damage, telling them off as if they were naughty teenagers.  “But he started it”, one would shout.  “I don’t care who started it”, my wife would reply, “I’m finishing it.” 
We’ve agonized about how to deal with trouble-makers.  If we turn them away, what will become of them?  If we, as the church, won’t accept them, what does that say about our faith in God?  And how does God feel about it?   Sadly, I’ve come to the conclusion that we have to ban certain individuals in the interests of the majority.  I tell them, if you come in peace you are welcome.  But if you come to cause trouble we have to ask you to leave and not come back.  Since we have taken that decision, our evenings have been much more peaceful and as one guest put it, “I can now sleep with both eyes closed.”
One would think that given the dysfunctional backgrounds of most of our guests, the atmosphere in our church basement would be a real downer.  But while there are moments of sadness and pain, there are also moments of humour and good will.
 

 

I was sitting one night swapping jokes with some volunteers and guests.  One guest named Danny, who’s been a regular from day one, piped up and said, “I have a joke”.  All eyes fastened on him.  For a moment he hesitated, unsure and nervous about being in the spotlight.  “A Priest, a Rabbi and a Salvation Army officer arrive at the gates of heaven”, began Danny.  
“St. Peter looked at them and said, ‘Why should I let you in?’  
“Well”, said the priest, “I have served the Lord in our parish for many years.  And the work has grown to include a large school and a hospital.  And, in all modesty, I have to say that I have personally guided and directed the work, with God’s help, of course.”  “OK”, said St Peter, “You may come in.”  
St. Peter turned to the Rabbi.  “And why should I let you in”, he asked.  “Well”, said the Rabbi, “I too have been faithful to God all these many years.  We are the people of the book and I have spent a lifetime in the Law and the prophets.  I have taught thousands the Torah and raised millions for our work in the Holy Land.  I…”  “Come on in”, said St Peter.  And turning to the Salvation Army officer, he said, “And why should I let you in?”  The Salvation Army officer took a deep breath and knowing that his eternal destiny relied on his answer, replied, “I have spent years working among the homeless in downtown Toronto.  I was personally responsible for providing them with food and a warm place to sleep for the night.  You have no idea how bitterly cold it can get during that city’s winters.  We saved many from perishing on the streets.”  St Peter, stroked his beard and thought hard.  “OK, you can come in”, he said, “but you must be out by 8 am.”
 

By Dennis Bruce, Co-Chairman Blythwood Out of the Cold Program