The priest who ‘loiters with intent’

Matt Arguin on sidewalk - dc15By Wayne Newton

What’s the word on the street? Ask Rev. Matt Arguin.

The 33-year-old associate priest with Bishop Cronyn Memorial and St. Jude in London has been listening and providing important spiritual guidance to the people of the city’s east end for the past three years in an unusual ministry that’s touched the hearts of hundreds.

His pulpit has been a coffee shop table, his church a public library or street corner, his congregation one-on-one conversations.

“Where we are, where (Bishop Cronyn) is located, is pretty much social services central and it’s also an area of the city with a high traffic of drugs and folks who are alienated from the rest of the city, really,” Matt said.

“The idea behind having me on the street was to just be a pastoral presence to folks.”

Matt started with little training or experience, spending the first few months finding his way and developing approaches to ministering to the neighbourhood.

“It’s always been a great irony to me because I’m middle-class white boy and all of a sudden I’m working with folks who are alienated from the church, are on lower incomes, they have things with family and addiction, things that I was never exposed to and all of a sudden I’m in the midst of it.”

In time, he made connections and touched hearts using a style he describes as “loitering with intent” — an expression borrowed from Rev. Canon Bill Cliff, chaplain at Huron University College.

“They have a faith base, but it tends to not be Anglican. Also, you have people who have been hurt by the church, not necessarily by sexual abuse, although that’s what gets the headlines most of the time.

“It’s folks that have been turned away from the church because they cause a ruckus or they have mental health issues and folks don’t want to deal with that. The experience folks have of church when they’re low income or have mental health issues or are battling addiction is very different from other people’s experience of church.”

He found many with current church homes and several avid Bible readers, some of whom were obsessed with certain books, Revelation and the end of time as examples.

“Why is that? Well, their existence today is not the greatest existence ever and they want things to change. That’s what Revelation talks about,” Matt said. “It’s not that their theology is bad, but it’s certainly different from mine. You have to be open to that.”

Conversations Matt has had have led to everything from the practical of giving away bus tickets and helping people with grocery purchases to the spiritual of helping people through the grief process after losing a loved one.

Tim, one of the people Matt’s ministry has helped, pauses when asked what it’s meant to him.

“Words can’t say what it’s meant,” said Tim, who was shaken by his brother’s death four months ago. “I call him. It’s different than talking to a friend.”

Matt said Scripture meanings are a common topic with people he’s met.

“A lot of them want to talk about the Bible. Faith is a pretty central thing. I honestly think one of the things that helps in this situation is the wheelchair. The wheelchair is very disarming for folks. A lot of them don’t have the same kind of defensiveness around clergy or around church because they see the wheelchair and they realize this is somebody who knows what it is to go through hard times.”

The wheelchair is a result of being born with cerebral palsy, which affects how Matt’s brain communicates and controls his body. In Matt’s case, it was caused when the umbilical cord was caught around his neck during birth, cutting off oxygen to the brain for several minutes.

A native of Hamilton where he grew up in the Roman Catholic Church, Matt moved to London to attend Huron college, becoming an Anglican because he disagreed with the Catholic church’s position on celibacy for priests.

He graduated from Huron in 2010, became a deacon in January 2012, and a priest the following June, but because of his reliance on a wheelchair and the fact so many church buildings are not fully accessible, there was debate over an appropriate position.

The street ministry became a pilot program for Matt to embrace with the goal of not only helping people in need but rasing the visibility of the Anglican Church in the community.

After three years, Matt’s time with the parish and the street ministry ends Dec. 31.

While what’s next for Matt is uncertain, there’s no doubt about the impact he’s already made in peoples’ lives.

Wayne Newton is a freelance writer in London.