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Called to find the face of Christ in the streets

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From novice teacher at St Ignatius’ College, Athelstone, to parish priest of St Canice’s in Kings Cross and, most recently, founder of The Bridge community for ex-prisoners in Bathurst, Father Steve Sinn SJ has always had an eye for the outsider.

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Steve Sinn knew from the age of six or seven that he was going to be a priest.

“I was in the back seat of the family car on the way to Mass – I was one of nine children and my oldest brother Bill was playing up and not going to Mass,” the Melbourne-born priest recalled.

“I could hear my parents talking about how they were worried about him. I had a holy picture in my hand and on the back it said if anyone in the family becomes a priest, everyone will go to heaven.

“I thought, well I’ll become a priest and everything will be alright.

“That’s still fundamentally why I am a priest, not just for my family, but now holding up before God the worries, the concerns and anxieties of all the people I know.

“I think that’s what a priest does.”

Despite his early calling, Fr Steve said he understood back then that he wasn’t going to have “a life in our world”.

“I knew I wasn’t going to have a family, a career or a life of my own; I knew that somehow it was to do with God.”

“I never had any doubt I was called to that; the pain, the stress, the injustices of the world are mine, to be there and to hold them up to God.”

After joining the Jesuit seminary in Victoria, Fr Steve spent time in Adelaide during his novitiate and returned a few years later, in 1974/75, as a teacher. Following his ordination in Melbourne in 1978 he had further teaching appointments at Riverview and St Aloysius colleges in Sydney.

But even as a teacher, his main focus was “being there where people are in pain”.

“It’s always been an element of my ministry,” he said, “even in schools, I always had an eye for the outsider.”

As the director of Corpus Christi, a community established by Mother Teresa for 90 homeless alcoholic men on the outskirts of Melbourne, Fr Steve had the opportunity to live with, and learn from, those on the peripheries.

By now he was in his 40s but when a homeless man grabbed him by the shirt collar and said ‘you know nothing’, Fr Steve said he had to agree. “I’d led a very protected life, compared to him I knew nothing.”

During his eight years at Corpus Christi, Fr Steve was determined to let the men do things for themselves such as cleaning, gardening and washing.

“I was never there to do things for people, it was always about me needing those people, I need them to show me what the Gospel is, I need them to reveal Jesus to me.”

As an Alcoholics Anonymous contact once told him, “you can’t recover on your own” and you can’t be a Christian on your own.

When Fr Steve moved to the Kings Cross parish of St Canice’s, as assistant and then parish priest, the weekend soup kitchen became lunch every day for street people and the centre of parish life.

“Mother Teresa once said if you make the poor the centre of the parish then the parish will look after itself,” he said. “We had hundreds of volunteers from parishes all over Sydney. The kitchen was and still is a gathering place for street people, a place where they are welcome and meet their friends and where they don’t have to have money.”

While St Canice’s, a diocesan parish run by the Jesuits, comprises a diverse mix of people, Fr Steve said once again he was “drawn to the people who are outside the door, for whom the door’s not open”.

“I was lonely, I didn’t know anyone, it can be hard to get to know people in a parish,” he said.

“The first person I really got to know was a woman sitting on the steps of the church, Celeste was her name and she was rather swarthy with a three day stubble on her face and a lot of make-up. She was wearing a schoolgirl’s dress with a dog collar around her neck and a whistle. I sat down next to her and she actually heard me. She gave me the freedom to be vulnerable with her, she listened.”

Fr Steve is still in contact with Celeste, who later became a Catholic and was baptised by him.

“We have a very real friendship,” he said. “A priest needs real friends, there’s a friendship that’s offered by street people that allows me to be vulnerable.

“Most of the world we set up is not accessible to them, that’s why Celeste was sitting on the steps. We set up offices, buildings, homes and churches where they are not welcome. They (people living on the streets) don’t know how to act, or talk or dress, they’re outside our world that works to keep them out.

“They have given me my priesthood really. It’s where I can be a real human being.”

Having recently turned 70, Fr Steve thought to himself: “Okay I’ve got about 20 years left in me, how am I going to spend the rest of my life?”

He decided he wanted to live with a community of people who “don’t have doors open for them” and set about establishing The Bridge Community – two houses for men coming out of prison, with a third house for women on its way – in Bathurst.

He doesn’t receive any government or Jesuit funding and said the money “just comes in” from friends and supporters. He said success was not about outcomes such as jobs and permanent accommodation but about “establishing trust and real friendships”.

The ex-prisoners can be there for up to 12 months and Fr Steve visits them in gaol before they leave to get to know them and assess if they will be able to live in a community.

Some are not ready to live in the Community, such as one young man with an ice addiction. Fr Steve had met him in prison and had been writing to him because he told him he had never received a letter. When he got out of prison he came to see Fr Steve. Because he was still dealing and using ice he couldn’t stay in the Community. Before parting ways, the boy put his head on Fr Steve’s shoulder and began weeping. “I’m not going to walk away from you, I said, you can’t stay with us at the moment but I’m going to be your friend”.

“I knew from past experience that this was a 10-year relationship I was starting, that’s what being with the poor means,” he added.

“More than accommodation, he needs a friend, he doesn’t have anyone in the world, I don’t think people realise how isolating that is and how angry it makes people.

“He gets bashed up by his aunt’s son (where he was previously living)…his father has been in and out of prison for 30 years, his mother had five or six children with different men…there’s no tenderness in his life.

“He’s more than I can handle, but I recognised that Jesus came into my life when he did, asking ‘Do you love me?’ I can’t do it and that’s when I begin to live in faith.”

As a part-time Scripture teacher in state schools, Fr Steve lets the bible stories open the eyes of the young children who have probably never been to church to see the face of Christ in the homeless person we walk past in the street.

And yet as a society, he said, our suburbs are segregated, the poor and the homeless are seen as dangerous and “we don’t want to meet them or let our children meet them”.

“We become more and more afraid. Yet if I have my heart open and my eyes open, the Lord will show me the person today who will take me out of my comfort zone, invite me to stop, to risk being changed. It’s not me doing it. It is recognising that Jesus has come into my life.

“The issue isn’t the people coming out of prison, the issue is us.”

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