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“We’re Gonna Be Surrounded by Angels”

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.

18 Comments Post a comment
  1. mike #

    “I spend 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….” hahahahaha, I love it! (honesty).

    What a great story, Ryan!. I have met and know so many guys just like Darren. I used to question whether I was doing the right thing by helping them out with a little money when it was obvious what they were going to use it for (cigs/beer/ etc ). I was always torn between the noble idea of Helping my neighbor and the reality of EnabIing behavior. I decided it was best to give comfort$$ when the opportunity presents itself..and let God deal with them/me.

    July 2, 2013
    • I usually end up in a similar place, Mike. The lines between helping and enabling are so blurry. I try to offer what I can with the best intentions, trusting in the God who works for good in the midst of all kinds of mixed motives/demands/expectations.

      July 3, 2013
  2. Sharon #

    “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.”
    This is perfect; God’s idea of charity is so different from what mine often degenerates into. It is not a business exchange in which I am the responsible party for all results. I am responsible for giving as freely as I have received and being the servant of all, not judging the merit of the receipient … thank God He didn’t do things that way.
    I like what you said about having advantage too. Do I so easily forget that, as a Christian, I have surrendered all my so-called rights? Yup, I sure do.

    July 2, 2013
    • mike #

      “I am responsible for giving as freely as I have received and being the servant of all, not judging the merit of the receipient … thank God He didn’t do things that way.” ..great statement, Sharon..

      July 3, 2013
    • Thanks, Sharon! I really appreciated the line that Mike highlighted above. Also, this one:

      It is not a business exchange in which I am the responsible party for all results.

      In other words, we can’t control God and we can’t control people. Imagine that.

      Thanks for your comment.

      July 3, 2013
  3. Larry S #

    Hi there Ryan

    I meet Darrens through my day job all the time. (I’m wondering if he sold his bus ticket to someone).

    This sentence stuck with me: “I had plans to take the kids swimming.” Your Darren stole the kid’s father from them. Sure we can say the kids get to see Dad modeling Jesus. But they get to see you doing Jesus stuff all the time as you pastor.

    As an ex-pastor and current probation officer I read your story through my cynical grid and wonder if your kid’s were well served.

    Larry S.

    July 3, 2013
    • I appreciate the comment, Larry. For whatever it’s worth, I was back by 3:30 or so and spent the next three hours swimming/playing with my kids, and enjoying an evening by the fire with family and friends. I am pretty careful to make time for my kids. And my church is very clear that I am not allowed to sacrifice my family for ministry. All in all, days like the one I describe above are the exception, not the rule.

      July 3, 2013
  4. Larry S #

    I readily admit to being jaded.

    I once pastored a church in an isolated US small town. but the town was big enough to have a shelter/food agency. Our church supported people that social service agency. and when people came through town they would hit up churches for assistance. We’d send them to the agency where there was a system of checks/balances.

    As I see it buddy screwed up your morning (distracting phone calls) and on into your afternoon.

    I get where you are coming from in your story. I just don’t buy the premise that you had any ‘responsibility’ towards your Darren (you write of trying or wanting to evade responsibility). A key element of a con is to organize a sense of emergency where the mark is set up to make a quick decision which then always works in the con’s favour. So – long wknd – no ability to check anything in his story out. And he he needs a place to sleep, although his story shifts into wanting to get out of town.

    Buddy doesn’t want to stay at the shelter because he w/be tempted (that is a bit precious).Buddy could have slept in the park.

    I’m glad you have a good set of boundaries. But you still gave up your day-off due to a random phone call from a guy giving you b.s. stories.

    I could go on…. but probably sound like a complete redneck enough already 🙂

    Larry S.

    July 3, 2013
    • Yeah, I know very well what you’re saying. I feel it too. These are situations in which I often feel very conflicted. At the end of the day, though, I can’t escape Jesus’ words in Matthew 25. I don’t think he meant, “this only applies when the person’s need is ‘genuine’ or ‘virtuous’ enough or when it won’t be taken advantage of.” Perhaps I am just naive, I don’t know. I would like to think that I’ve seen and experienced enough to know how the world tends to work, but maybe in 2, 5, 10, 20 years I will look at things a bit differently.

      July 3, 2013
      • Larry S #

        I am such a pagan I had to skim the entire Mt. 25 chapter to refresh my memory. (I got caught up in the story about the virgins and how they didn’t share their oil). I see what you are saying. Your text comes later: Jesus wants us to help the Other – those in need. Got it. However, buddy wasn’t hungry or thirsty and he had a place to sleep. I assume he knew where to get free food (it sounds like he is quite the survivor). He already had some sandwiches. He declined going to the local shelter. That was his decision, his choice for which he is responsible.

        – It would be interesting to see how this would have played out if you had drilled down on why he needed to stay away from the shelter due to “temptation.” Granted, shelters can be hotbed of drugs and danger (but notice how he seems to make all kinds of ‘friends’ i.e. the people he hooked up with outside the bus-station. He isn’t really interested in resisting temptation). Would buddy have been interested in entering residential treatment to learn tools on how to resist temptation? I suspect not, he merely wanted someone to con. Had treatment become a focus of your questioning when he phoned you, I bet the tone of your conversation would have changed. You could have saved yourself your day off. Something to think about for next time.

        But maybe, in a way, the world is better off when there are people around willing to be conned with their eyes wide open. My hope would be that people like you put limits on things. I’ve seen and heard way too much to listen to b.s. stories and then “help” someone. And I don’t think I’m being unspiritual or unloving to hold my views.

        Now that I’ve exposed myself as a complete redneck I guess I should stop. 🙂

        July 3, 2013
      • Nah, I don’t think you’ve exposed yourself as a “complete redneck.” I think you’ve seen many things, and I’m glad for the opportunity to look at this experience through different eyes. Truly. I think there is much wisdom in what you say.

        I’m almost certainly idealistic, probably a bit naive… But I can’t or won’t just assume that I was “conned.” That’s not to say that I don’t rule it out as a possibility, but it’s also not my default assumption. I certainly could have left Darren to figure out his own way back home, or to find somewhere to sleep here in town. I chose not to. If all this turned out to be was a wasted act of misdirected kindness, an unremarkable incident in a life devoted to deception and manipulation, I’m ok with that. I’m ok with the fact that I listened to him for a bit, that I bought him a cup of coffee, that I treated him like a human being with a name, a story, hopes, fears, etc, rather than a category or a social problem. Even if it was all a big con, even if he thought I was a sucker, even if he snickered and laughed at me as I drove off from the bus depot. I’m ok with it. I offered what I could.

        July 3, 2013
  5. Larry S #

    Glad to offer my perspective. It made for an interesting exchange.

    My analysis of the post is that you were conned. Don’t you indicate as much in your post when you talk about how his story shifted and how he was crafting his presentation just so you would like what he was selling?

    It seems that the question might be something like this: Could treating him the way you did yesterday help him in any significant way (coffee, human touch, bus ticket). Who knows? Maybe this will be his big turning point. Or he will pass your cell phone number around to people he meets in Calgary and you can look forward to more off the same. You were just another do-gooder he conned. I suspect the more negative scenario.

    I focus my energies on people moving in pro social directions that I can verify. And tell myself that I don’t have energy for the people who don’t have verifiable info. I know my limits and know the street too well.

    My issue is viewing the Other as just another con coming my way. I try to be aware of this. And if you remember that story about the gangster wanting to go to be with his dying grandma, you can see that my redneckness isn’t complete. 🙂

    Thanks for helping me think, this has been fun.

    Larry S.

    July 3, 2013
    • mike #

      These guys are beyond our ‘help’ in your sense of the meaning, Larry. At this point only a Divine intervention/Miracle will do for people like Darren…and you and I both know That’s probably not going to happen.

      July 4, 2013
  6. mike #

    Lets face it, Larry is right about these guys for the most part and I’m impressed by his learned street smarts. These nomads have become Zen Masters at getting their needs met by hook or crook. But my experience with them has shown me that almost all are emotionally handicapped in one way or another, hence they’ve simply ‘failed to launch’, in a manner of speaking…and since I understand This all too well, I’m able to can feel a very strong sense of identification and compassion for them.
    I KNOW that I’m being Used/Conned and taken advantage of and in this sense it becomes something of a Divine comic tragedy, BUT we stand on sacred ground when we KNOWINGLY allow ourselves to be ‘used’ by these poor souls…and Yes there are still some exceptions (boundries) to the rule. ..God help us all.

    July 4, 2013
    • The “failure to launch” idea really resonates, Mike. I don’t think this guy was a malicious person. I think he was a combination of mentally ill, confused, and a bit desperate. He realized that he had ended up somewhere that he didn’t want to be and just wanted to go home. There was, as you say, a bit of comic tragedy to the whole affair.

      His stories were probably 90% untrue or partially true or whatever. I’m sure he believed more than a few of them, if only because he had told them so many times. But, like all of us, he wanted to feel like he was worth something, even if he had no idea how to go about this. He wanted to be important, he wanted to be loved. He wanted me to think he was a big shot musician and that he had a girl he loved waiting for him. He wanted me to think that he had a story with someone famous (Burton Cummings). He wanted to matter. Richard Beck writes about this very movingly in a blog post I read today.

      July 4, 2013
  7. mike #

    “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” (emphasis mine)
    Sadly,there are many many times that I’ve discovered (upon reflection after-the-fact) that my giving was vainglorious,self serving and “to be seen of men”. It’s human nature and we all do it to some extent or another.

    I was contemplating this morning as I thought about some of the cons I’ve met and what’s the difference in them and me since I readily admit that my interest(con?) in God definitely has somewhat to do with the avoidance of Hell… just thinking out loud here.

    July 4, 2013
    • I wonder about the same things, Mike. It is so desperately hard to escape ourselves and our own interests. Wherever I go, there I am…

      July 4, 2013

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