The Rev. Matthew Johnson

For over a year and a half, the Rev. Matthew Johnson of St. James, Vancouver, has been working as a "street priest" in the Downtown East Side of Vancouver, tending to the spiritual needs of the poor and homeless.

Several times a week, Father Matthew, an honourary assistant in the parish that encompasses the area, in effect walks a beat through streets lined with rooming houses and social agencies, passing many who are pushing shopping carts, sleeping in doorways, even dealing in drugs  just to be a visible sign of the Church's concern and Gods love.

It’s a very low-key approach. “I don’t force anything on anybody, said Johnson, who was happy to have this reporter accompany him on his “walkabout. He wants people to come with him, to see what he does, to see what life on the street in this part of the city is like.

During his walk, which takes three to four hours, usually about a dozen people will come up to the priest. He stops and listens intently to what each person wants to say.

He will pray with them if they ask. He will invite them to Mass at St. James if that’s appropriate. He may give the person a blessing. Often he lets people know where there’s food, shelter, clothing, or a service agency that can help. He never hands out money.

A mix of people are on the street. Some have mental problems  schizophrenia, depression, or bipolar disorders. Some are immigrants who just haven’t been able to find a place in Canadian society. Some are pensioners. Some are Aboriginal, and have left an often sheltered life on traditional lands. Many are disabled and have health problems. “Some of them have had everything in their life fall down.

Many have turned to alcohol or drugs to relieve their pain. There’s a great need for facilities for people with addictions. “We need ‘Detox on Demand. The impulse to go to detox is a very short spark. People have to wait through inordinate delays, and the spark soon goes out.

“And some people do get better, said Johnson. The Downtown East Side is a tough neighbourhood, but he insists: “It’s not a hopeless situation.

Johnson would really like to take clergy on his walkabouts. After months of this work, interacting with hundreds of people, he feels the Church can provide a real service. But it doesn’t have to be downtown  there’s poverty throughout the Lower Mainland.

Many parishes sponsor community meals, which provide a very good start for the work  but just a start. Clergy in particular need to make time for the pastoral needs of the marginalized, assisted by lay people. “We can be pressured to focus on only our own people  there are a lot of them.

Fr. Johnson gives the location of a hostel to a resident of the Downtown East Side in Vancouver who stopped the St. James priest on
Powell Street
to ask for directions and a blessing

Johnson said he isn’t asking that half of the time of every parish priest be devoted to the very poor, but that there be some relationships in which their religious needs, their spirituality, and their sacramental needs are dealt with. “Take seriously their journey.

“They just get discouraged, he said. Unless an attempt is made by the Church to reach out, they won’t interact  they certainly wont come to services on their own. “There’s this fear that the Church is a moralistic institution interested only in reforming them.

But real interaction with clergy and trained laity gives people the capacity to stand back and consider their situation. “Then people have breakthroughs.

And the interaction with street people and the very poor does not just help them. “There is a return on effort spent. You cannot do this work and not become closer with Christ. If you start doing this work, your own relationship with God evolves, he said.

“You learn to trust that God is in it with you, said Johnson, “that God can make all things new.

To contact Matthew Johnson phone St. James at 604 685-2532.

Street Outreach Prayers

You are invited to pray for the following people, encountered in the past month, by our Street Outreach Ministry. The initials below have been partially scrambled, to protect individual identities, and everyone has given consent for the inclusion of their needs in this prayer list.

A.N. - A man with mental illness, that through the community of friends and workers in his life, he will receive a measure of comfort and relief, in face of his painful illness, and that his Christian faith will grow.

T.B. - A woman who may have cancer, in addition to other serious health conditions she faces that she would know Gods presence at this pivotal moment in her life. Also, for the well being of her children who have been apprehended by the Ministry of Child Protection.

L.D. - For greater mental stability and knowledge of Gods compassion for herald for her children who are in foster care.

R.J. - A remarkable survivor whom I haven’t seen and haven’t been able to trace in the past 90 days that wherever he may be he will be keenly and powerfully aware of Gods love and presence with him.

E.N. - That she will contact her Mom and update her on her situation and well-being.

R.A. - A crystal meth addict that he would continue to exercise limits on the amount of his drug use, move closer toward recovery, and keep in touch with his friends outside the subculture.

A.L. - That he would continue to be an influence for good and moderation and an example of Gods love and compassion within his family circle and the larger community.

J.N. - Who works at one of the Christian missions, and who had his throat slashed while volunteering. Please give thanks that his life was spared in this incident, and pray for healing from the trauma he has experienced. Please also pray for the offender who assaulted J.N.

Fr. Matthew Johnson

From Cornerstone, a publication of St. James Anglican Church