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We All Need an Angel

We make choices not realizing they can be motivated and driven by God. Thus called, we find ourselves serving almost reluctantly but always with profound satisfaction.

It wasn't warm enough to be sitting outside for lunch and the dive masquerading as a restaurant wasn't really equipped for sidewalk dining. Yet Angel and I perched on the scuzzy plastic lawn chairs, drinks and sandwiches in hand, and acted as though this was a great outing.

Rick Tobias
Rick Tobias

We discussed aging and out-living friends, abuse and rejection, isolation and loneliness. We reviewed unfulfilled dreams and chronicled the toll that the streets and institutions had taken on her well-being. The content of the conversation is always identical–as are the set of old photos we study each time. Each visit is about loss, and each is a template for the next. And everyone who's been at Yonge Street Mission (YSM) any length of time has someone like Angel in their lives.

I always resist going. I feel too busy and the time is never right. Even if I book it well in advance, on the day of the visit I can name ten important things I should be doing instead. I may go begrudgingly. Or I may cancel and feel guilty. Or I may welcome the break from the pressures of YSM, and enjoy wandering among the shadows and ghosts of Angel's past. And I have learned that whatever my state of mind when I arrive, we will laugh and delight in each other's company.

I've also come to understand that Angel represents something important at YSM—and important to me as a human being.

When I came to YSM as Director of Evergreen in 1983 I didn't know I was making a twenty-year-plus commitment. The thought of committing my life to an "old" established Mission would have overwhelmed me. I agreed to stay for five years quietly vowing that I'd be gone in five years plus one day.

What I didn't grasp was that I would be grafted to people as much as to an organization. Had I known that, I would have been even more afraid.

My first days at the Mission were dominated by strange faces, several critical incidents, the chaos of life on the street and smells that powerfully suggested they had been a long time in the making. The cat lady hissed at me, Stump threatened me, the street preachers cursed me and an array of supporting characters worried aloud about extraterrestrials, demons, and government plots. Front and centre, meanwhile, stood the extraordinarily needy people who grabbed onto everyone emotionally and clung like leeches. After my first few shifts at Evergreen's drop-in, I was not confident that I would last even five years.

Now, more than twenty years later, I'm dreaming about the next 15 years at the Mission. But I'm also planning my next outing with Angel, who has already dictated that we're going somewhere much nicer for our coffee. When the day comes, I'll be too busy and I'll toy with excuses. But I'll go and we'll talk about old hurts and life-long losses and what it means to be elderly and alone.

Never would I have deliberately chosen to spend twenty years with Angel. So it's a good thing I didn't know I was making that choice. And it's a good thing I didn't know that five-years-plus-a-day would become more than twenty years. Because what I know now is that being grafted to people and to this organization makes me one of the most blessed and grateful people you know.

Rick Tobias is the executive director of Yonge Street Mission, Toronto, ON.

Originally published in Urban Lights, Summer 2004.




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