As far as Canada Day holidays go, it was a bit of a strange one yesterday. I got a message that there was someone who needed to speak with me. Let’s call him Darren. He had shown up at a local L’Arche residence because it was a former nunnery that had still had a cross prominently displayed out front and he thought it was a church. He was looking for help. A place to stay, mainly. They gave him some sandwiches, some conversation, and a ride to the park but weren’t exactly sure where to go after that.
I spent a good chunk of the morning trying to figure out more of Darren’s story and, truth be told, to evade responsibility for this guy. It was a holiday. I had plans to take the kids swimming. I was looking forward to a lazy summer day. Just about the last thing I was interested in was trying to figure out a way to help some stranger who would probably just try to take me for a ride anyway.
I spoke with Darren on the phone a few times. Each time it was a long, rambling, disjointed conversation—despite the fact that he repeatedly assured me that he only had three minutes left on his phone card. You could tell he was trying to include the right details that would secure the desired result. He was clean and sober, he said. Hadn’t smoked pot for a long time either. He was trying to avoid the homeless shelter because there was too much temptation there. He needed two weeks worth of hotel accommodations because he had a “legal matter” to pursue. He was suing someone for defamation of character.
Eventually, two things became very clear. 1) Darren was telling me a very tall tale indeed; and 2) I couldn’t check any of his references on a holiday Monday and he had no money and nowhere to go. I agreed to meet him in town and put him up for another night.
He enthusiastically agreed. But before I had even made it into town, my phone rang again. The story had changed. He wanted bus fare back up north, not a hotel room. I guess the legal matter wasn’t very pressing. He had to get outta town… Now! There was a woman back up north that he was pretty sure he was in love with and he needed to get back to. He had met her at the Salvation Army. He had bought her a ring. I asked her if she would be waiting for him. “Yeah!” he said, “well, actually, I don’t know. Probably not. But I love her!”
I picked Darren up. He had long stringy hair, and a very red sunburnt face. He had a cane, a guitar, and a small suitcase. I took him to the bus depot and bought him two tickets, one to Calgary later in the day, and another for the next day to the small town he lived in. Darren smoked outside the bus depot. Eventually I convinced him to come inside so we could explain to him the bus schedule, when he had to be where, etc. He half paid attention. He had made a few “friends” outside that he wanted to get back to. It turned out Darren’s “friends” were mostly just looking for money or cigarettes. They didn’t stick around long.
I asked Darren if he wanted to grab a coffee while we waited for the bus. Over an apple fritter, he told me a bit of his story. He had a sister in Edmonton, a mom in Manitoba, a dad in BC. He didn’t see any of them very often. He told me that he was from Winnipeg, that he was a musician. “Oh yeah?” I said. “Well, Winnipeg’s the place to be from if you’re a musician.” “Yeah, man. Burton Cummings, The Guess Who.” I smiled. He leaned closer and said, “You know, I gotta tell you something. My mom, when she was younger, she had a fling with Burton Cummings.” “Really?” I said. “Yep, they were nine years old.” “Nine years old?” I repeated. “Yep,” he said, with evident pride, “Burton Cummings had a thing for my mom.”
He had come to our city on a total whim. He didn’t know what he was looking for or what he hoped to find. He didn’t know anyone here. Well, that’s not entirely true. When I asked him if he knew anybody in town, he responded with a grin, “Well, I know you now.”
I asked him if he had any money. “None,” he said. “I only have enough for a pack of smokes… and a coffee.” “Well, could you hold off on the cigarettes for a while?” I asked him. “You know, in case you need some breakfast tomorrow morning or something.” He looked at me incredulously. “But I only have one left!”
I drove Darren back to the bus depot. I pulled his guitar and his bag out of my trunk and plopped on the street. He grabbed my hand and shook it enthusiastically. He wouldn’t let it go for at least ten seconds. “Thanks, man,” he said. “Oh man, thanks a bunch.” “No problem,” I said. He looked around and then back at me and said, “You know Ryan, you and I are going to meet again some day.” “I would like that,” I said. “And we’re gonna be surrounded by angels,” said Darren. “And saints.” Oh yeah, and God too.”
There’s this interesting idea of the “deserving poor.” Those of us on the right side of the dispenser/object of charity line like to imagine that the people we “help” are unambiguously needy (and virtuous would help… or at least on the way) and that our help will “make a difference.” This expectation speaks volumes about us and about our need to feel good about ourselves, but it has little to do with the objects of our magnanimous intentions. We like our stories neat and clean and reflecting well upon us. We like happy endings. But real stories and real people rarely live up to our impossible and misguided expectations.
Darren probably wasn’t destitute. Or “deserving.” He had rings on every finger and a gaudy silver necklace with a big cross hanging off it. He had enough money for tattoos up and down his arms. There was the Ace of Spades, a picture of a guitar, a Playboy bunny, a crow with a cigar in its mouth, and a whole host of other images plastered across his body. He had recorded some CDs. He had plenty of money for cigarettes. He had $200 for a ring for his “girlfriend” from the Salvation Army.
Was I taken advantage of? Manipulated? Probably. But it’s an interesting phrase, this “taking advantage.” I have advantage simply because of who I am and where I was born and how I was raised. I could pull out a piece of plastic and within five minutes have a bus ticket paid or a hotel room paid for. Darren couldn’t do that. Whatever he was taking from me, it certainly wasn’t advantage.
I doubt I “helped” Darren out in any meaningful, lasting sense of the term. He will probably continue to limp along from crisis to crisis, from impulsive decision to impulsive decision. He will continue to tell his stories, to pitch his case to anyone who will listen. He will probably continue to use people to get what he thinks he needs and wants, to get where he thinks he wants to go.
But I also know this. Last night, while I was enjoying a lovely summer evening of swimming with family and friends, Darren was lugging his guitar and his backpack off the bus, contemplating how he would kill the fifteen long lonely hours until his next bus departed. While I was sitting by the fire roasting marshmallows, Darren was probably wandering around the big city, hoping to stay out of trouble, hoping to avoid temptation, hoping to make it until noon the next day to get back to the woman he “loved,” to give her his ring. When my head hit the pillow in a warm bed last night, Darren was probably sitting in a Tim Hortons or some other 24-hour coffee shop because he had nowhere to sleep and the bus depot didn’t open until 5:30 am.
In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus says the sheep and the goats will be separated according to how they treated the least of these. “I was a stranger and you invited me in” (Mat. 25:35). I didn’t invite Darren in. I sent him on his way. I don’t know if I did right by Jesus or by Darren yesterday, but I said a silent prayer for him last night. I prayed that God would protect him from the many forces, visible and invisible, that conspire against him. I prayed that he would know something of the love of God and the love of others. I prayed that the angels would surround him. And the saints. And even God.