Learning to Listen

January 13, 2015 Length: 8:45

Fr. Roberto Ubertino, Founder and Executive Director of St. John the Compassionate Mission, explains how mission work begins by showing how God is already working in people's lives.


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The mission is the only place that is open in the city of Toronto for the homeless during the winter months at five o’clock in the morning. Dedicated staff and volunteers come here sometimes as early as four o’clock am to prepare the breakfast.

That morning I was able to spend some extra time at the breakfast program. And wandered from table to table speaking to some of the people who had come in.

I noticed that there was a man sitting by himself in the corner reading a newspaper and I went and say beside him. And he did not even acknowledge my presence. I hugged my cup of coffee, sipped it and hoped that he would strike up a conversation, which he did not seem to be interested.

When I was about to leave he looked up to me and greeted me. And I introduced myself and so I sat back at the table and we started to talk. It turned out that this man, John, was from Nunavut, which is the far North of Canada, near the arctic sea.

And we started talking about his life, how he grew up in a village and how life was up north before planes would bring in supplies and then the conversation took a deeper turn.

He talked to me about how he had been in a residential school, he assured me that his was pretty good compared to others.

As he said that I looked at his face and saw his eyes swell up with tears.

And then he started to speak to me about how eleven years ago he had come to Toronto. Obviously I assumed he was fleeing some pretty dark demons. And sure enough he said to me that when he first arrived in Toronto he was a man full of rage. He said to me, “you could not say anything to me without me attacking you.”

“I was so angry,” he said.

And he lived by himself in a rooming house. And then one day about nine years ago, he said to me, “I decided that I had had enough.” And for two weeks, from morning to night, he consciously remembered all the events and the people that had caused him harm in his life. And he remembered them in the most excruciating details as he would relive them again in his mind.

And then he said, “at the end of each event, of each memory, I would say the ‘Our Father’ and then it was gone…the pain of that even was gone.”  And he said, “I did that and it took me two weeks from morning till night to do this work.”

And he said to me, “ever since I have never felt anger and rage as I did before. I am now at peace in my heart.”

He said to me, “No one told me to do that, no one helped me, and I didn’t tell anyone.”

“I’m telling you,” he said, “because I can see that you are a priest.”

“But otherwise,” he said, “I did it on my own.”

But then he stopped and said, “well…with His help.”

And he pointed up, actually he was pointing up into the huge fresco Icon of the Trinity.

I was very struck by how this man, who was completely lost. God found him and grace was poured in his heart years before he came to us, nine years to be exact, before we met.

It taught me that truly that the grace of the Holy Spirit is not confined to walls and that the Holy Spirit can act in anyone’s life as the Holy Spirit decides.

And there are two extremes in Orthodox mission work, one is the understanding that we bring God to people, that we bring Christ to people, that we are the ones who ‘save’ people. I find that Orthodox mission really begins by learning to discover that God is already present in people’s lives and you begin by showing how God is already working in people’s lives. You actually help people understand that Christ is already among them and you reveal to them the presence of Christ to them already present.

But in order to do that you can’t go into a mission territory or mission work and talk. There’s too much talking…we need to learn to listen. First listen and to listen a long time before we can begin to speak and say anything.

So there’s one extreme that says, you know, that “we are it…without us nothing happens.”

The other extreme is well obviously God is already present in this person’s life and there is really no need for Church.

Those two extremes are not actually realistic and useful in Orthodox mission work.

It was important, I believe, for John to tell me his story, and it was also important for me to affirm, to say the Amen, to what he told me. To place what he experienced, what God had given him, to place that within a context of the Church, within the Body of Christ. To receive that story, that grace, that he held, that he lived, to give it its full place, its full meaning within the Body of Christ. And that he could not do alone. We need one another.

John keeps coming to the breakfast program and there has been a deep friendship that has grown between us without really saying much else, besides sharing a few cups of coffee together and a few tender moments.