On August 1 last year, the Rev. Randy Murray stuck a handwritten sign in the park-like front lawn of Metropolitan United Church in downtown Toronto. The sign read: Talk To A Priest! / confidential / non-judgemental / free.
Then he sat on a nearby park bench and waited.
Thus began Murray’s three-and-a-half month experiment in what he likes to call “guerilla ministry.”
Months later, interviewed at the same spot, Murray shares his experience with the Anglican Journal.
Clearly, it’s not one he’ll easily forget.
“It was the most amazing, surprising, jaw-dropping, eye-opening experience I think that I’ve ever had,” he says.
Murray did not set out to be a park bench priest. Until last spring, he served at the Anglican Church of the Advent, in a residential neighbourhood of Toronto. The parish was not in great shape financially, however, and its prospects of growth were not promising. When it decided to amalgamate with three other parishes, Murray found himself downsized.
Murray looked for positions in other parishes, but as his unemployment stretched into late summer, he decided to take matters into his own hands. As he describes on a Facebook page he created to chronicle his park bench ministry:
“I had long thought that something a bit bolder than what I was used to might be the thing…I figured, why not put on my clergy shirt, sit in a public place and see what happens? So I made up a sign and ventured out on my own in the city.”
Murray first tried a corner dominated by university, government and hospital buildings. His efforts got him “a few strange looks, but a lot more people…just walked by,” he says.
Eventually he settled on the bench in front of Metropolitan United-a roost in a diverse downtown neighbourhood. He pitched his sign and someone stopped to talk within 15 minutes. That first day, as would become his custom, Murray spent about two hours on the bench. In addition to a number of casual interlocutors, three or four people stopped for a “significant conversation,” he says. One particularly busy day people waited to talk to him. Months later, he still remembers the people he met on his park bench: a man about to be evicted from his apartment, who seemed more concerned about what would happen to his cat than himself; a very distraught woman in the midst of a legal proceeding with the neighbours in her apartment building; a young homeless prostitute; a woman wondering how she could help a relative escape from a dangerous country; a young man who had been asked to donate an organ and was struggling with the decision.
While a few wanted to talk about God, most, Murray says, seemed to just want someone to talk to about their struggles. Once, he was approached by a teenager haunted by the conviction that a choice he had made in the past had caused someone he knew to commit suicide.
“He asked to make a sacramental confession,” Murray says. ” He told me what he wanted to say and then I pronounced an absolution at the end, and then I never saw him again. I hope he’s OK.”
Overtly theological conversations were relatively rare. Rather than trying to convert people, Murray says he focused on listening and occasionally offering what he calls “low-key observations” about what people told him. To actively start a conversation about the role of God in their lives, he says, would have eroded the trust between them.
“If they volunteered that kind of information, great-then I responded to that. But my evangelization, I think, was simply, ‘I’m a priest…I’m sitting on a park bench, and you are welcome to stop here and unload whatever you wish upon me, and I’m not going to make any kind of attempt to make you think the way that I do, to convert you to something, to make you come to my church, to put money in my brass plate, anything like that,’ ” he says.
Murray’s park-bench ministry wrapped up in mid-November, after he received an offer for a position as priest at St. Mark’s Anglican Church in Port Hope, Ont. He hopes to pursue it in some form on the streets of his new parish once he gets more settled, however.
The experience, Murray says, helped him realize how many people today still trust the clergy and seem to want a representative of the church in their lives somehow-but feel reluctant, for one reason or another, to actually enter a church. He believes the church needs to pursue some kind of public ministry more actively to reach these people.
Though Murray’s “freelance” approach seems unique, he’s not the only Anglican priest in Canada to have recently practised street ministry. From 2011 until the end of 2015, the Rev. Matthew Arguin, associate priest at the now-closed Bishop Cronyn Memorial Church in London, Ont., reached out to people in public places as a pilot project set up by the church. His role, he says, was “basically to hang around public spaces” in London, especially those likely to attract the needy-the vicinity of his own church and community organizations offering free meal programs; the public library; the Canadian Mental Health Association-and to make connections with people in these places. He met many people on the street and provided spiritual counselling in coffee shops and other public spaces, he says.
The Rev. Rae Fletcher, former rector of Bishop Cronyn Memorial, says this was a role to which Arguin was “ideally suited”-partly because of his condition. Arguin has cerebral palsy, and uses an electric wheelchair to get around. Even before the street ministry project began, Fletcher says, church staff noticed Arguin had a facility for establishing a rapport with the “wounded souls” coming into the church for its Alcoholics Anonymous programs.
The church, Fletcher says, “came to realize that Matt had a unique gift, in that…he was not threatening to those coming off the street. His own vulnerability because of his physical situation seemed almost to make him one of their own. They spoke with him about things that they would not share with others on the staff.”
Still, says Arguin, the work involved unique challenges. When he began, he was not yet an ordained priest and had grown up in a much more comfortable environment than most of the people he met.
“It was a little bit surreal for me, because I didn’t really have any exposure to issues surrounding poverty and mental health and addiction,” he says.
He now sees the project as a rewarding experience, as well as a valuable form of ministry.
“It puts you right in the midst…of the messiness of life, and so it’s very incarnational in that sense,” he says. “It’s also a form of evangelism that’s very much rooted in getting to know people, entering into relationships and having the evangelism grow out of that, rather than just spouting out theological ideas or Bible verses.”
Arguin’s service as street minister ended when Bishop Cronyn Memorial disestablished at the end of 2015. He hopes that the church will make street ministry more of a priority.
“If we’re serious about being the church, and we’re serious about Jesus being good news, and we’re serious about all people being made in the image and likeness of God…if the church wants to connect with who they are, and what they are, and what they are called to do, getting into a relationship with folks who are often considered ‘the other’ is a very important thing.”