Three years ago right about now is when he first walked into Sanctuary. He’d had a sudden, unexplainable urge to do something “normal” – maybe buy a dime of weed and go see a movie – instead of doing the usual night’s hustle. He was headed for the Uptown near Bloor and Yonge when some cracker on the street told him, “Hey, they’re having some kind of a do over there.” Didn’t even know where “over there” was, but his girlfriend did, and they wandered in. He says he sensed something different right from the start, and looking back, now he thinks he felt like he’d finally come home.
Through most of the mid-nineties he’d been the king of Allan Gardens, the guy who could be counted on to provide any amount of the best quality crack cocaine, no wax, anytime day or night. He had this one bench he’d work from, and anybody who knew him would get off it immediately if they saw him step foot in the park. He remembers times he robbed other dealers because he was so wired he wanted someone to kill him. They wouldn’t, of course – he was making them all too much money.
In some ways, like providing the best stuff and returning top profits, he was pretty reliable. And he had just enough of that Charlie Manson look and action to keep everybody careful. He’ll never forget the time he went off on a guy who had run out on him in a tough situation – he’ll never forget because every morning he can still feel the long shaft of scar tissue extending into his abdomen from just below his ribs.
Looking back, he’s grateful now to the cops who used to put him away for a month every now and then. He’s come to realize they did it mostly to keep him alive.
So, yeah, it was about three years ago that his life began to slowly tilt over on its side, kept tilting until it was upside down. Or maybe right side up; it’s hard to tell when your earliest memories are horror stories.
He’s still battling a vicious addiction to crack. It sneaks up on him every once in a while and tips him over again. As painful as that is, though, it’s hardly the whole story. He’s surrounded now by people he really loves, and who really love him. He’s clean and living indoors, instead of hiding out in a lean-to down in the valley. Around a year and a half ago he cleared a huge hurdle, facing down his fear and sense of worthlessness: he walked away from welfare support, and has been working and paying his own bills ever since. A welfare worker had been trying to convince him to apply for disability benefits as someone who had been addicted so long and deeply that he could never be expected to support himself again. He knows now that’s not true.
Most of all, he knows that he is beloved of God, made in the Image. His gritty, minute-by-minute faith in Jesus is inspiring the ones among us who are supposed to know about this already. The crowd who gathered for his baptism in September was a pretty accurate cross section of the community: middle class church families, transsexuals, homeless people, addicts (some clean, some still practicing), students, young professionals, straights, gays and lesbians, children and old folks. His people. Our people. Our family.
There are still many miles to go, both for him and for us as a community. It’s been years and years since he’s had a stable place to live, even longer since he had someplace to call home. His current employment will come to an end soon, and he needs work in an environment where both his needs and his gifts can be embraced. Like all of us, he needs the opportunity to continue to grow.
He’s an actual person in our community, and this story is true. You could say he’s also prototypical; there are many others here traveling a similar path, with very similar needs. All of us need healthy community, secure homes, and dignified work. His need for growth is our need.
As a Sanctuary supporter, you have contributed immeasurably to such lives. Your partnership with us is restoring hope and dignity where the mere words seemed beyond comprehension. Major international disasters like the one in New York on September 11th may leave us feeling helpless, but we are not. We are surrounded here by lives which often seem like bottomless wells of tragedy, and yet … and yet, we are also witnessing redemption. We are blessed in both experiencing it and in witnessing it. May God bless you richly, as you have blessed us.
Most countries have some form of national thanksgiving. In Canada and the United States, as in many other lands, Thanksgiving is traditionally linked to the end of harvest time. Most people in North America are familiar with the story behind the American version of the holiday: the Pilgrims arrived in the New World trying to escape religious persecution and made it through their first winter because of the charity of the native peoples. The next spring, under the tutelage of their Indian saviours and mentors, the handful of Europeans who remained planted crops. After harvesting the crops in the fall, they celebrated together the largesse of the Creator.
The Canadian antecedents of the Thanksgiving holiday are somewhat different. In 1605, some fifteen years before the Pilgrims arrived, Samuel de Champlain, a professional adventurer and France’s royal cartographer, was settling in for the winter in what later became Nova Scotia. Much better prepared than the little Puritan band, Champlain’s main concern wasn’t mere survival, but maintaining morale through the long, dark months ahead. He established the Order of Good Cheer (an appropriate name, considering that each member of it polished off, on average, 250 litres of red and white Bordeaux that winter), wherein each member of the party threw a party when his turn came, trying to outdo all that had gone before. Every night, they feasted, celebrated, drank, played games, and, believe it or not, prayed. Champlain had planned well. He and his companions had arrived at Port Royal in time to plant and harvest their own vegetables and grains, build grist-mills and ovens, fatten hogs and sheep before winter, and, of course, build a substantial wine cellar. They showed the local Mic Macs how to make leavened bread, and were taught in turn to prepare some native foods. That spring, Champlain wrote, “We spent the winter very pleasantly and had good fare” — a classic Canadian understatement.
These national, cultural expressions of thanksgiving have much in common with the festivals of thanksgiving to which God called the people of Israel on the eve of their arrival in the “new world” of Canaan. In Deuteronomy 16, the God of smoke and fire, the God who insisted on the purity of his people — and gave them detailed commandments on how to maintain it — the God who destroyed their Egyptian persuers, warned the Israelites not to set foot on Mount Sinai on pain of death, and annihilated the family of Korah because they challenged the authority of Moses — this austere, forbidding, exacting, holy God commanded his people to celebrate three important festivals each year: the Feast of the Unleavened Bread (Passover), a solemn remembrance and celebration of their deliverance from slavery. The Feast of Weeks, a “holy convocation” to celebrate God’s presence with them; and the Feast of Booths (tabernacles, or tents), a week-long, blow-out party in which the whole nation went camping, commanded to “rejoice in your feast” and to “be altogether joyful” because of God’s promise to “bless you in all your produce and all the works of your hands”. These feasts called the people of Israel to remember that they had been slaves; they required the Israelites to seek out and include the poor, the marginalized and the defenseless; they were to be celebrated in community. And each feast required the Israelite to give something back to God, as an expression of thanks — a “thanks-gift.”
I am learning the value of giving thanks. Many of my friends, who are recovering from addictions or other destructive forces in their lives, have testified to me as well about the power of being deliberately thankful for specific things.
Just after Thanksgiving 2001, a friend of mine came to tell me that he would have to move at the end of the month. “Jack” is a tall, stooped man in his late fifties, but he could pass for ten years older. He told me he would be moving to a neighbourhood that is rife with crack dealers and addicts. The alleys are scattered with used needles, and the streets are full of emptied-eyed, agitated men and women.
Jack would not be moving into a house, or even an apartment, but a room – a room on the third floor of a rooming house. He would share a washroom and kitchen with about ten other people on that floor, and laundry facilities and a common room with the entire five floor building.
He was ecstatic. Grinning from ear to ear, thanking me and anyone else connected with Sanctuary who had helped him find this place. We’d been looking for three months, and for six or seven months, Jack had been sleeping in the entrance vestibule of a bank across from city hall. Through each night there, people would step over or around him to get to the automated teller. On at least one occasion, a frustrated customer tried to rob him. No wonder he was so happy!
It made me realize, though, that my attitude would have been much different had I been the one moving into his new place. I would have been far from thankful. I would have been resentful and glum about having to move out of my multi-bedroom house – the house I mostly just take for granted. I would have fretted about losing my own kitchen, living room and dining room. Our little backyard. The idea of passing by the addicts and dealers to get into my new place wouldn’t have frightened me – too many of them are my friends! – but it would surely seem intrusive and annoying. Suddenly, the fact that my ninety year old house has a cranky and idiosyncratic heating system, too many stairs, not enough storage space, some leaky old windows and bare plywood on the master bedroom floor didn’t seem to matter much.
Friends like Jack are teaching me a great deal about being thankful. Together, we are discovering that choosing to be thankful, even in the midst of difficulty, helps us to redeem resentments, anger, and bitter thoughts that might otherwise cripple our spirits. Thankfulness doesn’t change the things that have damaged us; it doesn’t lift us out of a current situation that is aggravating, painful or frightening. But thanksgiving does help us to see those situations differently, and it may help us to recognize the redeeming value hidden in our suffering — which can turn it from an ever darker and more lonely street into a path to glory.
Giving thanks is not always easy. It may, in fact, be costly. It requires me to face the dark nights, the loss of loved ones, fears about my own importance, relevance, or survival, and nagging questions about just what it all means, if it means anything at all — then to find some reason to say “thank you” to God anyway. Truly giving thanks requires that I not deny the dark things that tear at me — in fact, giving thanks may be about finding a reason within those dark things to be thankful. Thanksgiving causes me to offer up as a sacrifice those sorrows or resentments which I naturally tend to nurture and protect, because they offer me the dubious comfort of viewing myself as the one offended, the one to whom something is owed. In my reluctance to give up these familiar pains, I am like the convict who, upon release after serving a lengthy term, discovers that the familiarity of incarceration, with all its attendant regimens, feels more comfortable than freedom. He commits another crime simply to get back “inside”. Above all, giving thanks reminds me that, although I often behave otherwise, I have been set free, as the Israelites were — delivered, by Jesus’ death and resurrection, from the slavery which has its roots in the fear of death. And this is humbling, because there is nothing to be proud of in having been a slave, not even one who has been set free. After all, I didn’t even purchase my own freedom. No, there’s no room for pride here — but dignity, on the other hand, has been restored! I’m free, and I’m valued so highly that the Son of God has paid the price of my redemption, not in coin, but in the currency of his own blood!
It is easier for me to be thankful in the privacy of my own heart, than to give thanks in community. Thankfulness which I do not have to express is often vague, unformed; it may not bear too much scrutiny. It may only be my way of holding at arms length my own fears and doubts. I need the accountability which community requires, and the strength which it gives in order to truly give thanks. My community knows me, and when I have to stand and give thanks for something specific in my life, they know if I am faking it. I can’t afford to mouth platitudes — they are people who know pain, and they are not patient with smarminess. They call me to be truthful, just like the One who describe himself as “the Truth”. And within my community I have many friends who face situations similar to or more difficult than mine with such courage and grace, that, when I really look at them, I see the reflection of Jesus, and I am strengthened. And, the more I am freed, by being thankful, from my own petty jealousies and worries, the more clearly I seem to see his image. It is in community, I discover, that I can recognize and celebrate God’s presence with us.
All my adult life, I have struggled to overcome a deeply ingrained sense that there is, for lack of better term, a spiritual caste system in which all individuals have their place. Mine, of course, is somewhere very near the apex of the pyramid. Oh, I know, and can say to others with an ease which is a little frightening, that I have done nothing to deserve the deliverance and many other blessings which God has graciously bestowed upon me. “Blessings which God has bestowed upon me” … see? There’s that easy, casual, assumptive language! The very term ”blessing” is difficult to define. Nominally, it means to speak well of someone, to eulogize him or her. Our English word eulogy in fact derives from the Greek word often used in scripture. This is easy to understand when we think of us blessing God, but when we think of Him speaking well of us, it takes on a whole new light. We sense that when Jesus says that the poor, the sad, and the persecuted are blessed, He means even more than that God is speaking well of them. The word, in fact, is a different one, and seems to mean to make large, full and happy. When we think of this meaning being applied to those who, in wordly terms, are economically, emotionally or spiritually oppressed, the idea of being blessed takes on a redemptive quality, especially when we remember that Jesus did not say that blessing meant release from their oppressed condition. This sense of the redemptiveness of blessing is enhanced when we remember that, as God commanded the Israelites to rejoice in His blessing of their labours, they still had not entered the land of promise! They had spent forty years in the wilderness, wandering, complaining, muttering, dying. There were still battles to be fought, fears to be faced, spiritual crises to overcome. The Hebrew word for blessing carries with it the picture of one kneeling in God’s presence — a posture of humility, conveying a deep, painful understanding of one’s bankruptcy before God. And yet, it is here that we hear the Voice speaking well of us, and the very sound of it buys back our debts, and turns them to largeness, fullness, and happiness.
Still, when I look around and see others whose lives are messier, or whose Biblical literacy is lesser, or whose theological system is, in my opinion, not as exacting as mine, I can’t help but feel a little smug. I find myself believing that I am a kind of spiritually self-made man, and that God is pretty fortunate to have me on his side. I’m much like the Pharisee who loudly proclaimed his “thanksgiving”: “I thank you, Lord that I am not like other men …” Of course, this is not thanksgiving at all; it’s just a form of religious masturbation. A strong word, I know, but think about it: when I indulge in this kind of spiritual smugness, I pleasure myself, alone, at the expense of true intimacy with the one to whom I owe my true thanksgiving.
Just as thanksgiving causes me to remember that I needed (and still need) deliverance, so it also calls me to recognize that I am the stranger, the widow and the orphan, I am the desperate refugee in need of the daily generosity of God and his people. I am the one without rights, on the outside, looking in, kneeling, with a supplicant hand outstretched. I don’t give thanks for something that is owed me, or is mine by right. (I may say “thank you”, to be polite, but that’s not the same as giving thanks.) I give thanks for gifts, acts of grace. When I truly offer thanksgiving, acknowledging that I have no claim of ownership on the things bestowed, I hear God call me to take my place with the lost, the hurting, and the alienated people of my world, just as Jesus did. And when I choose to do so, becoming the presence of Jesus to them, I hear his voice saying, “Come, you who are blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you (Celebrate the promised future blessing!) … for I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me drink …” The Beatitudes, too, remind me that, as I take my place among the poor, the sorrowing and the oppressed, I find myself in the place where the promise of future blessing is real and potent. When I plant myself firmly in the overstuffed chair of spiritual self-satisfaction — confidence in my own resources — I have little need of a hope of future blessing. “Hope” becomes a shallow word, which I am most likely to use in an almost meaningless way: “I hope the weather will be good this weekend”, or (even more meaningless), “I hope the Leafs make it into the playoffs this year.” When I become so deeply aware of my own poverty that my only option is to say, “My hope is in the Lord”, the word takes on a universe of meaning, and I begin to realize that I have been led to the only source of true wealth! If my hope is in the Wonderful Counsellor, the Mighty God, the Eternal Father, the Prince of Peace, then it is well placed. Because of the one in whom it is invested, my hope is not any longer the desperate wail of a poverty stricken beggar, but the confident expression of a son of the King. In coming to understand my own poverty of spirit, I have been truly blessed.
This turning of the tables — the embracing of poverty leading to true wealth — is reflected also in my attempts to be the presence of the Christ among the hungry, thirsty, homeless, and imprisoned ones. Incidentally, if there is one way to have your spiritual smugness kicked out from underneath you, it is to try and represent Jesus — the holy, generous, patient, self-sacrificing, bold, meek, truth-and-grace Lord Jesus Christ — among the people whom our society has rejected. Since the church is viewed as a part of the establishment which has marginalized them, many of my friends who are trapped in the destructive cycles of substance abuse, self-abuse, prostitution, crime and other ills related to living and working on the street are understandably cynical of the church’s goodwill toward them. Gay friends have remarked to me that the only gay people the church seems interested in are those who are dying of AIDS. My friends who live out their social lives in bars know that they will receive a warmer welcome from the locals at the corner pub than from the congregation at the local church. All of this creates a climate which often leaves me feeling frustrated, misunderstood, ineffective, and physically, emotionally and spiritually spent. I understand a little more of how my Lord must have felt walking among us, but I do not very often feel that I have represented him well. Still, there is great cause for thanksgiving, for I find that, even as I try to be his presence, Jesus reveals himself in and among the very people I find so draining! I feel very much like the redeemed ones in Matthew 25 who ask the King, “When did we see you hungry and feed you? thirsty, and give you drink? sick and imprisoned, and visit you?” I struggle to apprehend the reality of the King’s response: “To the extent that you did it to these brothers of mine, even the least of them, you did it to me.” When I look with eyes of faith, I see all around me the reflection of his suffering, and the myriad of reasons for which he needed to suffer for us. I see it in the terrible loneliness of people living on the street who ought to be receiving psychiatric care. I hear it in the anguished cry of an adult whose life has been de-railed by childhood abuse: “God, why did you abandon me then?” I see it in the humiliation of the young woman on the stroll, offering her most intimate physical self, and along with it, a piece of her soul, to any stranger who can pay the rent. And I have seen the reflection of Jesus’ generous self-sacrifice when one street person gives another his sleeping bag on a bitter January night. I have gone out trying to be the presence of the Christ, and ended up staring him in the face. For this, I am truly thankful. Sometimes He even comes in to visit.
Last Thanksgiving Sunday, our little community of faith celebrated by sharing the Lord’s Supper and, following it, a Thanksgiving feast. After a time of singing, we all seated ourselves at a long row of tables set with dinnerware. Before sharing the bread and the cup, we went around the table — fifty of us, my son told me later — and each told the others one thing for which he or she was thankful. A few simply said, “Pass”, but most offered thanks for friends, family, jobs, survival and, of course, the meal itself. More than a few there that night would have had no Thanksgiving meal (some would have had no meal at all) but for our celebration. One man read a poem he had written, expressing his thankfulness for deliverance from addiction, prison, violence and psychiatric illness. More than any of these things, he was grateful for deliverance from self-condemnation. He had discovered that God’s grace, expressed in the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus, meant that God would never condemn him — he was forgiven, completely and constantly; there was nothing left to fear. It was a simple, beautiful and thoroughly honest poem. When he was done, there was a moment of appreciative silence.
“Hey, I got a poem to say, too!” Samuel spoke from the depths of an armchair which he had pulled to one side of the far end of the long row of tables. For some reason, he had chosen not to join us in sitting at the table. Samuel is an Ojibway man in his late twenties, a handsome man with long straight black hair, and classically clear, chiselled “Indian” features. He was also, at that moment, very drunk — not an uncommon condition for him. It was clear, from his tone of voice, that he intended the offering of his poem as a joke, and he smiled broadly as he introduced it: “It’s my stemming poem, man, you know, I use it when I’m panning [panhandling — begging on the street] …”
He couldn’t really remember much of it, and I remember less, but I do remember the refrain, for it had a curious power: “ … I got my grade eight, so what’s my fate … Can you help a guy out? Can you help a guy out?” As Samuel struggled with the lines that didn’t quite fit or rhyme, his whole demeanour changed. No longer jocular, he squinted painfully toward the ceiling, one hand outstretched and pleading eloquently. His voice grew softer as he repeated the last line a number of times … “Can you help a guy out? Can you help a guy out?”
Although I recognized Samuel’s pain, and to some small degree I hurt for him, primarily I was just trying to be patient until he was done, so the rest of us could get on with the business of being thankful. We did continue around the circle, and when we were done, I took the bread and began to explain, as is our custom, that it is the symbol of the body Jesus had taken, in order that God might be with us, sharing our pains and difficulties, and ultimately giving Himself up for us. I was just nicely underway when Samuel interupted once again, this time to tell us a story. I was more grimly patient now, and less inclined to hurt along with Samuel. Frankly, I was ticked off that he would ruin this most important moment in our celebration and remembrance of the gift of Christ with a mostly incoherent account of some irrelevant street encounter. When I got around to listening, I realized that he was telling a story which I already knew, the story of the death of another native man, under bizarre circumstances, on the streets in Ottawa just a few weeks before. Samuel spoke of the man as his best friend, his brother. A few years earlier, the man’s sixteen year old girlfriend had been found dead, stuffed head first into a barrel on a Toronto construction site. Since that time, Samuel’s friend had stayed drunk or high almost constantly. No one knows what motivated the encounter, but that night in Ottawa, Samuel’s friend was beaten, bound, doused with gasoline, and set on fire. Samuel told the story of his friend’s death without anger, but with a confused anguish which broke my heart. He spoke haltingly of his own deep sense of loss. When he was done the story, he paused for a moment, then concluded, with amazing gentleness, “So if you can give thanks … good for you.”
As I gave thanks for the bread, I was very much aware that the Christ was indeed present in our midst, and that He had spoken to us through Samuel, reminding us that He Himself was a man of sorrows, that He tasted death for each of us, that there is no life or death or human suffering which is not precious to Him. He reminded us of our slavery and deliverance, our alienation and His presence, our poverty of spirit, and His many blessings. It was a few days later when another thought struck me: the first nations were at it again, ministering to the needs of the “settlers”, giving them what they required to truly be able to give thanks.
Christmas time at Sanctuary is a riot of activity and emotion. And I do mean ‘riot’: big, unpredictable, loud, energetic, hilarious and tragic, exhilarating and often violent. Altogether, December is the most exhausting month of my year, both physically and emotionally.
As it is for most charities, it’s by far the busiest month for donations. Food, clothing, money, sleeping bags, gifts, and offers of help stream in at a miraculous rate, challenging our resources to handle, store, and respond. It’s truly wonderful. The experience of passing such bounty out to such needy people is a rare and touching honour. It’s enough to cause you to sing “Glo-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-oria, in excelsis Deo!” And it’s usually enough to help float us through the doldrums of the first quarter of the new year.
On the other side of it, though, there is no other time of year when my friends who are stuck on the street, trapped by addiction and marooned by family feel so completely useless. Rejected, on the outside of everything good and happy. Emotions are raw, and perilously close to the surface. Memories of Christmases past, whether fond or bitter, seem impossible to suppress and every bit as haunting as Dickens’ ghosts.
Each year, it seems, some hard-bitten, long-term street guy snags me in a quiet corner of a drop-in and asks, “Can I make a long-distance call from your office?” The eyes and feet shift uncertainly, and I know that the call will be made to Mom or Dad, or son or daughter. It will be short, awkward, and very painful. He’ll wipe his eyes and nose on the sleeve of his jacket, or Burger King napkins if I have any, and ask if he can just sit on the couch here in my office for a few minutes. Can’t go back into the drop-in like this.
The people of our community work hard to try to soften the harsher blows of the Christmas season for each other. We try to focus on Jesus, of course, and we pass around the largesse of our generous supporters. Those who have homes generally try to welcome a few more people in than usual. And like any other community, we throw a few parties. Traditionally, there’s some kind of celebration on Christmas Eve, and a party specifically for the “working girls” (sex trade workers). There might be one or two other events as well, but the big one is always the Wednesday before Christmas.
We have a complete Christmas dinner: turkey with stuffing, cranberry and gravy, potatoes and sweet potatoes and three or four other vegetable dishes, rolls, juice, coffee and tea, dozens of pies, platters of baking (prepared at pre-Christmas “baking parties”), candies and on and on. This year each person received a beautiful and unique gift bag – a large white paper bag with handles, decorated on both sides with a colourful drawing and Christmas greeting created by a child at a suburban church. The bags are filled with small gifts, useful and frivolous, and the handles are tied together with ribbon. One of our people, living in a hostel herself, pled for the opportunity to go out and buy Christmas crackers, and so one lay beside each plate.
There was a huge evergreen wreath over the fireplace, and evergreen garlands around the poles running down the middle of the room. Centre-pieces with candles flickering on every table. And, of course, a fresh cut Christmas tree. Two or three people were putting the lights on it, and “the Kernel” was trolling the room with a box of ornaments, insisting each person take one and hang it on the tree. Kernel has long white hair and a voice like the last yard of gravel sliding of the dump truck. He’s hard to deny.
A small group flaked out on the couches and on the floor around the fireplace, dozing or chatting quietly. Popping sounds around the room announced the fact that some were snapping their crackers – they’d chuckle about the sad little pop! they made, laugh a bit when they pulled on the silly paper hats inside, groan when they read each other the jokes written on little slips of paper, and bicker about whose cracker had contained the “best” impossibly cheap and tiny plastic toy or puzzle.
Some of the people who were still sleeping outside received “Operation Good Thing” bags – street survival kits, including a sleeping bag, hat, mitts, socks, a flash light and a variety of other treasures, supplied to us by our friends at Youth Unlimited. Some of our people have been out there long enough that the magic of these wonderful bags has worn off, but those who had never received one before slowly pulled each precious item from the black nylon duffel, considered it, and slowly packed it away again. Put the bag down by their chair. Touched it every couple of minutes. Moved it under the chair. Opened the bag up, took an item or two out again, put them away again.
Christmas music was playing gently in the background, the usual cribbage game was underway, grown men and women were poaching cookies and candies from each other like goofy children, light laughter and conversation rose from every corner of the crowded room. “Crowded” isn’t usually good for us, and especially at Christmas when emotions are high, but this time was different. It was more than peace, which is precious and rare enough in our context. It was joy! The usual undercurrent of sorrow and anger was missing, and with it the clenched faces and forced smiles which are the standard markers of “just tryin’ to get through this without taking a swing at somebody.” There was an atmosphere of genuine and even slightly giddy celebration.
I may have been the only person there who was out of sorts.
The day before, I had received word that a friend of mine had died suddenly of a massive heart attack. I’ve been angry about such things before, but mostly now I just felt weary and defeated. I could see all the wonderful stuff that was happening around me, but I couldn’t stop thinking about his wife and two young children. A week before Christmas, choosing funeral options instead of trying to figure out how to sneak presents into the house.
I found myself rehearsing the reasons why what we were doing mattered. I supposed it was still a good thing if my friends here at Sanctuary experienced some peace and joy, even if just for a little while, even if most of them still weren’t able to connect that experience in any direct way with Jesus. I supposed so. It just seemed kind of pointless.
I was standing by the front door talking to a visitor when “Buddy” interrupted our conversation, as he often does. He put one chunky arm across my shoulders, patted my chest with his other hand, and told the visitor, “I love this guy. He’s a great man, a really good pastor. He’s my friend.”
And just so the message couldn’t be mistaken, he repeated it a few more times.
I continued on down the stairs to the drop-in room. There were about eighty-five people seated – ten or fifteen more than a reasonable capacity. Expecting a big crowd, the staff had agreed that, for once, we would all avoid sitting down ourselves to make sure everyone else was able to. As I cruised the room, I noted one seat still empty, despite the fact that there were people waiting for spots.
As I turned away to motion someone to the empty chair, Kernel spoke up: “That seat’s for you!”
“Yep,” Brian added. ”We wouldn’t let anybody else sit there. We been telling everybody else to …” Well, I won’t tell you what he was telling them to do.
I had no choice. I sat down. My friends filled my plate with food, and my ears with laughter…
He’s a big man. Big enough to have been tagged with the inevitable street name “Tiny”. When the meal was over and cleaned up, and almost everybody else had left, he sat me down for a chat. With glistening eyes he told me how his life had changed since coming to Sanctuary, how he’d begun to live again, climbing out of the pit of depression he’d slipped into following the death of his wife. Found God and – surprise! – Jesus. He told me about various people who had been important to him, most especially Karen, but then he looked me in the eye and leaned close as he told me in no uncertain terms of his love and appreciation for me.
I got no answers about the death of my friend, just three clear and gentle reminders about why I’m here. Because this is where I need to be. This is where God can reach me. And He does. He does.
* * *
One of the great events of this Christmas time: “Tiny” exported this whole ideal of community to his rooming house. He came to Karen a month or so before and said he wanted to put on a complete Christmas dinner for his house. Simple … except his house has more than sixty residents.
For years, the majority of those men have simply closed the doors to their individual rooms and waited out Christmas Day in silence and isolation. The few who have other options exercise them. Traditionally, it’s been the “deadest” day of the year.
This year it was different. Karen directed donated food and other supplies their way, and helped them figure out what they wanted to do, but “Tiny” and a small group of friends from the house did all the work. In the midst of their preparations on Christmas morning, one of the residents phoned Karen to announce with wonder and jubilation in his voice, “There’s happiness in this house!”
When Karen, the kids and I stopped in for a quick visit on Christmas Day, we were surrounded by that happiness. We were greeted by a gaunt but grinning Santa, his hat at a rakish angle, two days’ worth of white stubble instead of the usual full beard. We were shown proudly through the house – even a couple of private rooms. We met excited men putting the finishing touches on the big dinner in the tiny kitchens at the end of the hall on each floor. We saw the common room in the basement, decorated for Christmas, tables and chairs and place settings, a brightly wrapped mug full of treats on each plate. And we heard later that the whole house came. Only two or three took their meals back to their rooms with them. The rest celebrated together. Yes, celebrated. It made our Christmas, too!
“Resurrection Morning” – Easter Sunday – and a small group has gathered in the auditorium to reflect on what “new life” might mean. We’ve had an extravagant and noisy brunch, and now we’re sitting quietly as a pale sun fumbles through tall windows and dapples us with gentle light. Easter seems to have grown more potent each year at Sanctuary.
Into this attentive silence she speaks, softly and with little inflection: “I have come to believe that resurrection is possible.”
For me, she means. Resurrection is possible for me. For a woman in her forties who has stock-piled a lifetime of reasons why God must be dead, absent, incompetent or malicious. Who has heard too often just why she must be excluded from a grace that seems improbable anyway. Resurrection is possible – for a person who had a normal life, whatever “normal” means, before losing her job, her condo, her possessions, her cats and, almost, her sanity.
“Normal” now means sharing an average-sized bedroom – no door – with five others, and considering herself privileged because she’s not out in the main room where sixty-some bunk together in the basement of a church. It means receiving welfare, a repugnant thought, but not receiving enough to actually buy the food she needs herself. “Normal” means trying to look for a job, but having to “volunteer” at local charities in order to get the workfare subsidy that will allow her to buy bus tickets. It means repeating to herself, “Why am I here? I am not like these others …” and then discovering that, in many ways, she is! Discovering she actually likes and cares about people she might never have given the time of day to back when “normal” was normal! People who are addicted and luckless and mentally scattered … and homeless. People who tripped and fell, and are now facing a long, slippery climb without a rope or safety net.
Resurrection is what snatches you out of the grave after you’ve been there a while. It’s the power of God that blows the stone door off the tomb and animates a corpse still stiff with rigor mortis. This particular resurrection begins when he dynamites her assumptions and reveals that this improbable grace is not only real, it’s for her. The place she’s forced to turn to for food turns out to feel like home, and “volunteer” hours spent in the kitchen there provide the affirmation and inspiration needed for a new career.
Some six weeks after Resurrection Morning, that new life is still flowing. She’s got an apartment of her own, and a job! A place where she loves and is beloved! And an impossible, up-from-the-grave conviction: Jesus is for her. Forever.
I want to know Christ, and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead … the apostle Paul, Phil. 3:10,11
—————————————————————– Max always saves the filthiest joke in his ever-expanding repertoire of filthy jokes for me.
“Hey preacher! D’ja hear about the minister and the one-legged hooker?” he’ll rasp, sidling up to me on the street or in a drop in. Even if it starts out sounding much more innocent than that, I know that by its end, the joke will have revealed itself as dirty, racist, sexist, blasphemous, or, when he’s really on, all four. He tilts his head back a little – a big head with wooly blond hair and an incongruous milk-maid’s rosy fair complexion – runs his tongue across a full upper lip. Ignores my muttered groans. And launches into the joke.
The joke itself usually hangs on a two or three minute story, which he recites with a kind of laconic bark. Throughout, he fixes me with eyes as wide, blue and impassive as a summer sky. Sometimes it’s actually funny. If it is, I’ll laugh a little, but most often I just wait ‘til he’s done and say something like, “Well, thanks for sharing that, Max. That was thoroughly up-lifting.” He doesn’t really expect me to laugh. Whether the joke is funny or not isn’t the point to him. Mostly, I think, he wants to prove that he’s disgusting boor, not fit for relationship with “normal” people. And he wants to see if I’ll still stand in there listening. Maybe he’s trying to find that one joke that is so awful I’ll just walk away before he hits the punch line.
The peculiar thing is this: as often as not, as soon as he’s done telling me his latest filthy joke, he says, continuing in exactly the same tone of voice, “Okay, now you gotta bless me.” It threw me a bit the first time. I thought he was putting me on. But he crossed his hands on his chest, closed his eyes, and stood there waiting in the middle of a Yonge Street sidewalk. So I did. I put a hand on each shoulder, and prayed for him out loud, asking God to bless and keep him, and draw him close. And off he went.
Apart from a mouthful of teeth that are going bad, he resembles nothing so much as a healthy young farmer. He’s big and solid, with clear youthful skin and, in repose at least, an open, square-jawed face. In his mid-thirties now, he’s been in jail or on the street for most of the seven or eight years I’ve known him, and it may be an awareness of his essentially innocent looks that makes him swagger and bluster and scowl so much. He’s a truculent street fighter, a drinker and a bully, with raw-knuckled fists like two frozen joints of mutton. But when I “bless” him, a visible peace settles on his face like snow on a city park.
A couple of years ago, I walked passed him while he was panhandling near Yonge and Bloor. Just said hello and kept on going, but about ten steps later, I heard him shouting for me – “Preacher! Hey, preacher! C’mere, I gotta ask you something.” Calling me “preacher” is for him no mark of respect. There are others who insist on using some honorific, but most are only too willing to comply with my preference and use my name. Max addresses me so in the same spirit that he tells me his jokes. If he was sitting in the desk behind me in public school, he’d flick the back of my ear with his finger, or kick my chair every five minutes.
“Hey preacher,” he says, leaning fiercely toward me and breathing out high octane fumes. “If the bulls are after me” – ‘bulls’ is his term of endearment for the police – “and I run into Sanctuary, they can’t come in and get me, right? Place of sanctuary, right?”
“Why, Max? Have you done something already, or are you just planning to?”
Well, he allows, he does have five outstanding charges, but that’s not the point. He had just been wondering about it. I tell him I’m not positive, but I doubt any church could offer him that kind of protection. This angers him.
“Whaddaya mean?” he yells. “That place” (pointing over me head and the buildings behind us in the direction of Sanctuary) “is called Sanctuary! It is a sanctuary! It’s the only safe place we got from all this crazy [stuff] out here” – sweeping his arm wide to indicate the busy sidewalk, the street, maybe the whole city.
“Don’t you know what ‘sanctuary’ means?” he asks, loudly incredulous. And he goes on to explain to me the medieval concept of the church building as a place poor people could run to for physical protection from noblemen, soldiers or enraged townsmen. He has his facts straight, more or less (he quotes a recent animated movie version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame as an authority), and he’s passionate and eloquent on the subject. It becomes clear that he has been doing some real thinking about the concept of safety and where it’s important in his life, not just trying to figure out how to evade the police.
“That place” (pointing again) “is what ‘sanctuary’ is all about,” he says as he winds down. Throws me a look that communicates pretty clearly his disgust with my lack of knowledge and conviction about the matter, snorts.
“No way the bulls could take me if I was in there.” Waves a hand at me in dismissal and returns to panhandling, squatting with his back against a storefront, still muttering and shaking his head.
The last three times he’s come into a drop-in …
Some time ago, when Max had done his dirty-joke-and-blessing thing again, I told him that next time I wanted a blessing from him. He took a sharp step back as if I’d slapped him, and gave me a suspicious stare, then he changed the subject.
A month or so later, as I was checking the messages on my office voice mail, I heard that familiar bark, “Hey, preacher! How ‘bout this?”
There was a brief pause, then an acoustic guitar played a solo piece until the machine cut it off. Max told me later that it was him playing. I don’t know about that, but it was a beautiful piece of music. I kept it on my machine for months, replaying it whenever I felt in need of blessing.