No such thing as a Free Lunch?!

A few weeks ago I decided to go to a downtown Winnipeg mission for lunch to try and understand what that is like and to get to know some people down there. I wrote a sort of journal entry that I wanted to share with all of you, here it is:

Just came back from am inner-city mission where I went “undercover” for a while. This morning during my morning prayer and reading time I decided that I should go there and pose as a customer in need of food and just sit around and visit with people.

This morning, I went outside, shoveled the driveway (big snow storm last night), got dressed in an old jacket and some older jeans, drove the boys to school, went to church, looked after a few emails, and took care of some other business and went to the downtown library to do some work on some talks I needed to prepare. All morning I was trying to talk myself out of going, so I had built in a little accountability. I told Nicky that I was going to do this, then at the office, I told Pastor Ron that I would as well.

I pulled my car into the underground garage at the downtown library and pulled out my laptop and palm pilot. I was going to work at the library until lunch was served at Siloam at 12:30. I worked on my talk for Friday night for a while, then, at 12:15, I got up to walk over to the mission. I stopped by at my car to drop off the computer, palm pilot and a few other things. I put my cell phone, wallet, and keys into my jacket pocket. I started walking over to the mission…it turns out that it is a pretty good walk and it was a cold windy day in Winnipeg.

I pulled up my hood over my head and tried to imagine what it would be like to get around on foot all the time…perhaps to be stuck out in these conditions at night…I couldn’t. I kept walking, I was getting close, when I looked at my Perry Ellis watch to see what time it was…oops, I’m an idiot, of course I should take my watch off! It would be a dead give away that I don’t belong there (I think?!). I continued walking and realized that I had my $200 glasses on as well…I decided to remove those. I walked in totally convinced that people would know right away that I lived in the suburbs…I walked up the stairs and at the top was a woman with a name tag and a bag of slips of paper. As I walked up to her, I noticed the person in front of me was given a piece of paper. I walked up to her and she looked at me and kind of stared for a second…I thought my cover was blown immediately! She says to me, “you here for a meal?” “Yes, please,” I reply. She points me to the back of the line.

I stand there feeling very out of place for a while, when all of the sudden a young guy walks up to the guy in front of me. “Hey, how’s it going?” They say loudly to each other. They start talking, the young guy says to his friend, “yeah, I’m sore, because I spent six hours at the gym yesterday, and I was working just the legs!” It seemed like a conversation that anyone in my world could have, so I started to feel a little more at ease.

As I got closer to the front of the line, I noticed that there was a camera crew from the CBC there and they were filming people going through the line. I thought to myself, “wouldn’t it be ironic if I end up on the news tonight!” I go through the line, I think the U of M Bisons were serving the food – that may explain the camera crew. I sit down with three other guys and just start eating, minding my own business. The same two young guys were talking, now it was a good story. Apparently young guy number 1 has a friend who is 4’8” and weighs 100 lbs. this guy knows dragon kickboxing and he got in a fight with a big 6 foot tall guy. He jumped up, kicked the guy in the head and the fight was over. I decided that I needed to take up dragon kickboxing, then maybe people would stop bothering me.

Fabian, the man next to me starts talking and looking at me, but he talks so softly that I could barely understand him. He says (I think), “you kidding me, don’t matter how strong you are, the streets can beat down anyone. I’ve been there.”

Young man #2 asks young man #1, “how come you ain’t eating?” He tells us that he is on some kind of medication that takes away his appetite. “I haven’t eaten in two days,” he says. I wonder if by medication he means some sort of street drugs. Young man #2 asks him to use his ticket to get him another plate of food, so he does.

Fabian says to young man # 1, “not eating, it does bad things to you, after a while you start to lose it. I know, I’ve been there.” I ask him what he means. He says, “One time I didn’t eat for a week, I wound up passed out down by the river frozen half to death, and someone found me and called the paramedics. I know, I’ve been there. I’m not proud of it, but I’ve been there.” “How did that happen?” I ask him. I think that he said something about a few of his friends or family who were killed and then he just had enough of life and decided to commit suicide. “So it was suicide?” I ask. “Yeah, I quit eating, would line up a bottle of beer a bottle of rye and pop some pills, day after day I did this, after a while I didn’t know what was happening and I wound up by the river.” “I have to go to the hospital, for surgery.” He pulls out a letter. “I don’t think that I’m going to go there. The chances are 80-20…80 for them 20 for me. I’m scared.” “I guess so.” I say. “What do you have?” “A tumor, back here,” Fabian says, pointing to the back of his head. “I got this letter from my sister, haven’t heard from her in 27 years. Her husband died last year, December 31st 2007.”

The topic changes again…he talks about how he was about to beat someone to a pulp last night because they had hit a woman, then a little later on that day he had just about beat someone else to a pulp because they wanted to bum a cigarette off him when he didn’t have one. Each time, a police car had come just as he was about to let loose on the guy. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I’ve just been talking away here.” “That’s OK,” I say, “I’m not much of a talker.” (OK, a bit of a lie, is that OK for a Pastor?) “More of a listener?” he asks.” “I guess so.”

I ask Fabian what his sister said in the letter…he hands it to me. “You can read it if you want.” I look it over, it is a horrible story of broken relationships. Her husband had died, she didn’t know what to do with herself, she moved in with a nephew. She wanted to support the family, she was back working at the Day’s Inn in Lethbridge. As I am reading Fabian keeps talking, “I don’t know why he took them away from me,” he says with bitterness. “My one boy when he was 5 the other when he was 17.” “Who took them away from you,” I ask. He points at the roof, “the good Lord.” He says in a way that makes me think he doesn’t actually think he is good. “That’s what led me to drink,” he says. I don’t know what to say...I say nothing. “It wasn’t them who had a bad temper, it was me, I deserved it, not them.” I still don’t know what to say.

"When was it that you didn't eat for a week?" I ask. "Two weeks ago," He says. This hits me like a tonne of bricks. Two weeks ago! I start noticing evidence of frostbite on his face and what looks like a nose that has been broken or seriously injured in some way. This guy is in rough shape.

The letter talks about how his sister had heard that he was in the hospital, “how was the surgery?” she asks. “Oh, I guess I should tell you that you are an uncle, Dom is 21, Maggie 14, Gord is 7 and Lori, the baby is 1. I am 56 years old now.”

Fabian eventually finishes, gets up, “I’m going to get a coffee, you want some?” “No thanks,” I say. He does not return to the table.

I talk with a few young guys who are talking about working tonight, they could have a job shoveling driveways all night. “It’s going to be -48 with the windchill tonight,” one guy says…”that’ll be f*%#ing cold at 4 in the morning,” the other says.

I talk with Dion for a while, I guess he hurt his hand last summer tying re bar for the Hydro building. He is on Methadone now, so that helps with the pain, so he doesn’t feel it too much, just at 6:30 in the morning it starts until he gets his methadone at 9:30. “Where do you get it?” I ask. “At the Shoppers on Portage,” he says. “Have you been around here much?” he says. “Nope, this is my first time,” I say. “I don’t come here much either, I try to stay away as much as I can.” I’m thinking that he prefers to fend for himself. “I like to go to this other place on Colony and Broadway. It’s a soup kitchen…you should check it out some time.” “I live at the McLaren, where do you live?” I hesitate… Dion saves me and says, “at the Shalom centre?” I let him believe that.

I suddenly realize I am wearing my wedding ring and become conscious that this might be a giveaway, I am extremely aware of it. “I’m trying to get off this methadone, I was addicted to morphine twice and went off that cold turkey, but you can’t do that with methadone…you have to do it gradually.” “The idea is that you get your life back together then slowly come off the stuff. I guess it’s ok, but I would just like to be off it.” “I would be in Calgary if it wasn’t for this stuff.” We talk for a while, and I eventually say, that I am going to get going. “Nice to meet you.”

I walk away, as I exit the building, I feel as though I am a different person, someone who understands just a little bit more, someone who can empathize a little better…but as I walk along I start to put things back on…first my watch to see what time it is...1:30…I was there less then an hour. Then I put my wallet back in my pants pocket – “I will lose it forever if I leave it in this jacket,” I say to myself. I pull out my cell phone to see if I missed any calls, I move my keys around. Each time I do one of these things, I slowly realize I am coming back to who I usually am…not who I actually am…the last hour I have been pretending to be someone I am not in order to gain some understanding, but I realize that I am always pretending to be someone I am not…I am just wearing a different mask now, one I am more comfortable with.

I am suddenly more bothered with people, people who talk about how annoyed they are that they have to scrape their windshields now, people who wear trendy facial hair and talk on their ear bud phones. Maybe I have become more who I actually am, the person that God intended me to be, maybe just a little.


Kris, Mike & Cohen said...

Wow, great story. I'm glad you were able to write all that down. I believe this city would really benefit from more people going to places like this and being "undercover listeners". Our pastor, Nathan Rieger, recently said that he firmly believes that ALL the problems in our inner city are due more to a lack of listeners than a lack of anything else (money, programs, proper government support, etc). It's a compelling thought.

roverT said...

I believe that Nathan has it pegged. I am going to try and do more of it!

Cal said...

Thanks for sharing. I really liked the story. We should all do what you did. Our church operates a soup kitchen once a month in conjunction with the other churches in town. I have gotten to know some of the regulars and it could break your heart to hear all their stories. Some people bring it all down on themselvs but many have similar stories to the ones you shared. It really humbles you though. God bless.


Mark said...

Fantastic story, thanks so much for sharing it with us. I like your authentic responses to the discomfort that you chose to put yourself in. I'm going to link to this sometime in the next week. And may God give us more compassion for others!