My friend George came by to see me this afternoon. He was stopping in to say “hello” and to see if we had any new deposits in our food pantry. George isn’t homeless but he’s pretty friendless. He’s about 20 years older than me, wears a big, black hockey lace for a belt, collects empty bottles for a living and was very excited to tell me a couple weeks ago that people in New York actually move around on trains under the city streets.
“Have you ever been off the Island George?”
“No I haven’t.”
“One of these days George,” I told him, “I’m taking you to New York City with a couple other guys and we’re gonna ride the subway all day.”
When our church first started meeting downtown at our current location we had a great big meal to celebrate and everyone brought something to share. Here on our block if someone hanging out on the street finds a free meal you can be sure that 6 others will suddenly appear. I think hunger or poverty gives you some sort of super power, sort of like Aquaman’s telepathic ability to summon fish, to send out the call to other hungry people when you’ve found some food.
So we were celebrating our new location with a great big meal when George got into the line right behind someone he knew from the street surrounded by moms, dads and their kids. George said something to her about not taking so much food and she yells at him as if he was on the other side of the room instead of right beside her, “George, shut the hell up!” I’m pretty sure that was the first time those words had made it into a fellowship meal at a church on our Island. Everyone carried on as usual as if this was normal church potluck conversation. A couple dishes down George lifted the top off of a dish of food someone had made and brought to share. He looked at it for a second and said loudly, to no one in particular, “Well what in the hell do you suppose that is?” A couple of the guys around laughed because they’d pretty much wondered the same thing but everyone else just kept up like this was typical dinner conversation.
Some people talked with George made a connection of sorts with him and invited him back. He didn’t come.
And one day we set up a hot dog stand outside after the morning service and gave hot dogs away all over town. George came for some hot dogs. We didn’t give them out until I was done talking and somewhere in the middle of my talk he looked at someone and said, “My God, when’s he gonna be finished?” He kept stopping in on a Sunday to see if we were having a meal but if we weren’t he’d take off and we wouldn’t see him for a while.
One day, about a year and a half ago, George stopped by during the week. “Any food in the food pantry?” he asked me. “No George,” I told him, “Nothing right now.” “Well, what in the hell kind of church is this that you don’t have food for hungry people?” he demanded. He went off on me, chastising me for not being much of a minister and our church for being pretty lousy sons of bitches. “O.K. George, are you finished?” I asked. “I am unless you’ve got something in the pantry you want to give me!” He shouted. I started to laugh, amazed and amused by his boldness and then I told him it was time to go and I walked him up and out of our meeting space. “Come back another time George.” I encouraged and said good-bye.
On my way back down the steps I was asking shaking my head and myself the same question though, “what in the hell kind of church is this that we don’t have food for hungry people?” We did have food, a friend, Deb, oversees the monthly collection, organizing and distribution of it. But some months are longer than the supply that comes in. We were running out around the 15th of every month and finances were too tight for us to buy groceries for people.
A few weeks later, on a Sunday morning, George was back. We open early on Sunday for our band to practice the songs for that morning and my friend Barry has the coffee on and he almost always brings a package of cookies or some banana bread he’s baked. George was having a coffee with another guy, Joe, who stops in early for a cup and they were talking and Barry was pushing the banana loaf on them, “Don’t mind if I do.” George said as he looked over the slices to pick out the thickest one. A little bit later Gordon, another friend, came in and he started teasing George about something he said or did. I don’t know if it was the coffee, the banana bread, the teasing or the time but something happened to George.
Fast forward to now. George comes in early on Sundays now and he’ll grab his coffee and come and sit on the front row and listen as the band goes over songs for the morning. George gives us advice, critiques our song selection, tells us when it’s too loud or too slow and a lot of mornings will stick around for the whole service. One Sunday when our mutual friend Gordon was up doing a talk George and Joe stood in the back giving him “thumbs up” to encourage him. He talks kindly to everybody and sometimes just stops by to chat about things like the subway in New York. This afternoon it was to talk about the amazing thunderstorm last night. He wanted to tell me about it just in case I slept through it. I told him we were out of food for this month. “That’s all right ol’ buddy.” He said. “Maybe you could just heat me up a cup of that cold coffee in the microwave?”
“George, it’s about 3 days old.”
“Oh. That’s so thick it could stop a freight train then.”
“Here.” I handed George a toonie. For non-Canucks that’s $2. “Go get a hot cup at Tim’s.” I was shocked that his eyes filled up with tears and for a second he looked like he was going to give me a kiss. “Thanks Brian, thanks.” And he made his way up and out in search of a little hot caffeine.
A few minutes later I had to run out on an errand and I ran into George sitting on a bench with another friend from the downtown. “Hey Brian,” George said, “when are we taking that trip to New York anyway?”
And you know what, I can’t think of anything more fun than taking my friend George to New York City. Let me know if you’re interested and I’ll send you a postcard when we get there.