“No, I’M Gonna Pray!”
It’s the last Tuesday of the month, which means it’s our church’s turn at the local soup kitchen. It’s so easy for “the soup kitchen” to become a kind of generic placeholder for ooey-gooey charitable goodness, like “the short-term missions trip or “the Christmas food drive.” It’s all too easy to forget that there are real human beings on the other end of our shiny good deeds—real human beings with faces and names and stories, real human beings with real sadness, sin, and and struggle, real pain and distress, and, yes, real humour, insight, and wisdom.
A few snapshots, then, of one Tuesday, in particular…
A teenage boy, hat pulled down low over his eyes. I try to make small talk, but he won’t meet my gaze. I give him his food, and he says, “Thank you, sir.”
A young woman, her shirt barely covering her breasts, her eyes glassy… “I want some more tomatoes in my salad… I love them tomatoes! Gimme a few more, eh??”
A middle-aged man, easy smile, cheerful banter… “White or brown bread?” I ask. “Oh, white, and give me five of them, would you?! “Sorry, I can only give you two at a time,” I say… “Aw, no problem man… I’ll come back later… I gotta get some dessert, too!”
[White bread is exponentially more popular than brown bread, I have discovered.]
A young man with a little boy, two years old, maybe three? I see the little boy and a lump forms in my throat. I ask the man if he would like more than the amount we’re supposed to give. “Naw, that’s fine,” he says, an awkward grin on his face. My gaze follows them to the table. The little boy is smiling as the man divides the food into two equal portions. He fills a spoon with the stew… The little boy leans over for a bite… I want to cry.
An older aboriginal woman walks up, her face weary in countless ways. She has two kids with her, a girl, perhaps six, and a little boy, maybe three. Their hair is dirty but their smiles are wide. I ask the little girl if she would like some salad, and she says, “Yes, I would. I LOVE salad.” The little boy can’t see over the counter, so I lean down and try to catch his gaze from underneath… He’s staring, wide-eyed at all the big people around him…
[Christ, have mercy…]
An older man with a baseball cap with an oil rig company’s name on it… Scraggly beard, timid smile. I begin to load up his plate, but he tells me, “Not too much! I want to make sure I can eat everything I take.”
Three aboriginal men, one talking loudly wearing a black sleeveless shirt with the word “Sturgis” emblazoned across the front… He’s virtually yelling at his friends, “We gots to be civilized, you know, the white folks haven’t finished the job yet… We gots to be CIVILIZED!!” “You been to Sturgis?” I ask him. “Yeah, man,” he mumbles… “Pretty cool…”
After nearly everyone has been served, the head of our team tells me to go eat. I grab a plate and look for somewhere to sit. I approach an aboriginal man with a toothless grin. Probably late forties, early fifties. He’s wearing a camouflage t-shirt. On the table, is a camouflage hat with a single cigarette sticking out the side. “Mind if I sit here?” “Naw, man, go ahead,” he says.
“What’s your name?” I ask.
“Terence. I’m from Piikani” (the reserve west of town). His speech is slurred and difficult to understand…
“Nice to meet you, Terence.”
I turn my attention to my food. I could see out of the corner of my eye that Terence was still staring at me. “We gonna pray?!” he demands.
“Yeah, sure,” I say. “You want me to pray?” I begin to ready myself. I’ve been “the pastor in enough of these “who’s gonna pray” situations. I know the drill.
But Terence, evidently, does not know the drill. He growls in my general direction. “No, I’M gonna pray!” “Oh, great,” I say, and bow my head.
I wait for a few seconds. Nothing.
I look over at Terence. He’s still looking at me. “I’m gonna pray,” he says, “But not out loud. Only in my head.”
“Sounds good,” I say.
And so we pray together. I sneak a few peaks at Terence, head bowed, eyes closed. His hands are scarred badly, like they’ve been burned. His nose looks like it has been broken many times, such is the state of its disfigurement. I wonder about the things he has done in his life, the things that have been done to him, the things he has seen…
All of a sudden, he raises both hands and smashes them down on the table, shaking all the plates, knocking over a few cups. “THANK YOU!” he yells loudly, “AMEN!” He looks back at me, right into my eyes. “You thankful?” he asks. “It’s important to be thankful.. I’m real thankful for this food….”
“Yes, I’m thankful,” I reply.
We begin to eat. And older woman joins us. Her name is Veronica. Terence looks up at her and demands that she get him a glass of water. When she returns, he grabs it, but doesn’t say thank you. He’s thankful, but not for Veronica, evidently. At various points throughout the rest of the meal, he makes all manner of lewd comments about her, toward her. She just smiles and laughs. I keep trying to change the subject, but Terence is a man’s man, and he’s got sex on the brain. He yells at her to get him some more food. She waves her hand at him before obliging. He gropes her as she walks away…
We keep eating, Terence and I. “Do you have any kids or grandkids?” I ask, desperately trying to divert his attention from Veronica. His tone changes a bit. He sounds wistful now, almost longing. He doesn’t see any of his kids much. Some are on the reserve, some here in town. But he only sees them when they want something from him. He misses his grandkids.
Veronica is back. “About damn time,” Terence snarls before returning his attention to me. “I’m a Northern Ranger,” he says. “I patrol the arctic.” “Really?” I ask, staring at my food. “Yeah, look at my shirt, my hat… I could get called at any minute… to protect the north.”
It’s time to clean up, so I shake Terence’s hand and wish him well. He lurches along with me up to the counter, stumbling a few times, and then stands, arms outstretched to all of the kitchen staff. “THANK YOU VERY MUCH!” he roars. And then, Terence is out the door into a gloriously sunny summer afternoon, Veronica trailing a few steps behind.