“A bunch of us are going downtown on Saturday night to hand out tracts? Wanna join us?”
The invitation seems so straight forward. I was a Christian youth leader and I should really not try to avoid these evangelistic opportunities. It was the 1980s and tracts were still considered a viable form of outreach. Plus, it was downtown Toronto and I was committed to urban ministry. I’d also been spending a lot of time preaching to the choir; it would be good to do some genuine outreach.
And so, on Saturday night at 10:00 PM, there I was, one of two lone figures standing on the corner of Yonge (pronounced young) and Dundas in the bitter cold. Looking several blocks north, the time/temperature sign flashed minus 20° and that was -20 Celsius, not -20 Fahrenheit. And yet somehow it was snowing. Usually in weather that cold you don’t get snowfall. Furthermore, it was downtown, so when the snow stopped falling from the sky it would start blowing from the office tower roofs.
Probably well over half of the passersby refused to take a tract. Some would take one and drop it a few feet up or down the street, but others, including those who had refused, would see the bright colors on the front and bend down to pick them up.
When it got too cold one of us would go to the Yonge Street Mission to warm up and someone else would take their place. Rob was a young Christian with zeal for Christ and a desire to get into conversations with people. Craig knew his Bible well, but was distracted by the prostitutes who used Ford Drugs as a base. (I think we were standing on their corner.) “I have a ministry to beautiful women;” was how he described it.
They weren’t that beautiful. They were career hookers; a plight made more pathetic by attempts to wear something skimpy on a freezing cold night. It was the only time in my life I really had direct contact with people who ply that trade, and they looked like the years of working the sex industry and doing drugs had taken its toll.
I should not have been out there.
I’m not saying that because of the weather, although this was a stage in my life when simply looking at the ice cube in a soda would mean catching a cold. I mean that I wish I knew then what I know now. (And will say that someday about what I’m writing now.)
I didn’t know the basics of apologetics. There’s no training course or prerequisite for buying some packages of tracts and launching out into the downtown core of a major city. I didn’t consider that you reason differently with a pseudo-intellectual than you do with a guy working on his doctorate in philosophy. I didn’t know the basic objections people have to Christianity and how to respond to each. For that matter, I didn’t know my Bible all that well.
We also weren’t trained in the dynamics of people who frequent urban centers. The runaways. The psychotics. The addicts. The homeless. The wounded. We didn’t know what to say or what not to say. How to diffuse an argument. What to do when people asked us for money.
We also had no follow-up plan. I do remember some of the tracts being rubber-stamped with a phone number, or maybe it was an address. But I can’t remember — and this totally embarrassing to admit — who it was we claimed to represent, aside from Jesus. I know in one case it was a church, but one night the tracts were stamped with a different church, and we also encouraged people to go to the Yonge Street Mission to warm up or continue a conversation.
If someone had asked to be prayed for we might have been helpful, but if they said they wanted to accept Christ right then and there, you could probably knock us over with a feather. (Okay, we were better equipped than that, but it was a potential weakness which I had remedied in my own life one or two years after.) We weren’t trained to see the question behind the question, or know when they were sincere or when they were just baiting us.
It was a lot of zeal, a lot of desire, a lot of commitment (in view of the weather); but not a whole lot of anything else. We just showed up and went to work, oblivious to any other ministries working in the downtown or even the fact that our ‘spot’ on that corner actually belonged to the ladies of the evening.
So…good memory or bad memory?
It was part of my personal spiritual development. There are aspects of it that I can say I would do all over again, but certainly not without training, a better battle plan, and greater accountability. We’ll never know in this life what the fruit of that ministry was, but I think in the long run it was better to do something than to do nothing.
In the course of doing adjunct ministry alongside the Yonge Street Mission, I was involved with a number of music projects involving Sound Design Studios and the Association of Christian Artists. The album cover photo I decided to use for this article made me think you might like to hear some music associated with those days. The artist is Martin Barret and the song is Who Will Tell Them?