I’ve been a little bit stuck on how to tell this story (the story of how I came to be working here in Haiti). I think I actually need to back up a little bit and tell about something I left out.
Even since back in high school I had problems having Christian friends. In hindsight, it may be that I held Christians up to a higher standard than I held non-Christians, not that Christians are necessarily harder to get along with. Nevertheless, at the time I found it really difficult to develop a circle of Christian friends that I liked, and I tried hard.
As I started college I went to the Campus Christian Fellowship. I felt that I was regarded as an outsider and potential threat rather than a brother in Christ – indeed, I often felt that I was seen as someone in need of converting. It may have been that some of my new friends had never seen a long-haired Christian before, except maybe Jesus. In fairness, these were people 18-20 years old coming from very conservative backgrounds, and I suspect I didn’t give them much of a chance to get to know me. My first year at university I visited at least 15 different churches and didn’t like any of them.
Anyway, I never gave up on trying to plug into a christian community. I eventually took a different tack and started volunteering at a drop-in center for street kids called The Upper Room. There ARE Christians who are fired up about doing the Lord’s work! They are even willing to develop relationships with street kids and clean up after them when they leave each night! It was there I met a number of Christians I really liked and respected.
I didn’t find this out until a few years later, but one of my fellow volunteers made an epic fast at one point – not for 2 days or a week, but for a full 40 days and nights. That’s still something I have trouble getting my head around.
Four other volunteers and I talked and decided we wanted to experience living as homeless people for a week so we would have that experience to draw on in the future. A man from Vancouver B.C. would occasionally facilitate excursions like this and he agreed to help us out in this case. We all drove up to Vancouver B.C. (Canada) and left our wallets and cash behind. I brought a toothbrush because I hate having a bad tasting mouth and we joked a bit about whether that was cheating or not.
I LOVED being homeless, and I know that statement makes no sense so let me explain. I had recently started taking anti-depressant medication and it drastically changed my outlook on the world plus I was out on a week-long excursion with some of my new Christian friends. My inhibitions were largely gone, thanks to the medicine, and to a certain degree I felt invincible. I ate better than the people I was with too because I had no qualms about hanging around the mall food court until somebody left a half-eaten plate of food and then finishing it off for them afterward. We had split into two groups – mixed groups with a guy in each one for safety, and in principle we met together for about an hour each day to talk about our experiences.
We met so many interesting people! There is a way homeless people treat each other that can be very kind. A lot of people wanted to make friends with us. Our cover story was that we were “travelling, up from the states”. Christians don’t lie, so we were intentionally really vague.
We spent our first night in a playhouse at a school playground, and it was really cold. Our next night we weren’t about to sleep out in the open again so we spent the day investigating what kinds of resources were available to street people in Vancouver. Aparently, there are many, many resources, and they are suprisingly well organized. We went into some sort of coordination center and said we would like a place to sleep for the night – we were travelling and had no money. One place would take us for the night, but it was a long way across town. We walked, in spite of my suggestion that we get on the Skytrain with no ticket – I thought that would be in keeping with our homeless guise but Christians don’t steal, so we didn’t. As we walked, it got dark and we realized that there was a full lunar exlipse. Not only that, but Hale-bopp was right beside it. I felt free, and it was so beautiful.
We got to the place that had agreed to host us, and it was just a modest house, in a normal enough neighborhood. A tiny little chinese woman with a loud voice asked us if we were hungry and she made sandwiches until we were all full. Everybody there seemed to be waiting for something. Eventually, each person or group of people were called one at a time into a room to talk with the guy in charge. The guy in charge was a parapalegic. He sat there next to the loud little Chinese woman and another guy and explained that 5 years before he had jumped off the Burrard Street bridge. Instead of dying, he lived in spite of his terrible back injury and gave his life to the Lord. Now, he said, he runs this ministry to minister to whoever needs help. To conclude, he said, “So, who are you and what are you doing here?”
The three of us looked at each other and started laughing. Our cover was blown and we knew it. We explained that we weren’t really homeless, what we were doing and why we were doing it, and would they please not blow our cover? He said, sure, we could stay there but we would have to attend the bible study in the morning just like everybody else who stayed there.
There were a number of interesting people staying there, but the ones I remember were a couple of very skinny recovering heroin addicts. It also struck me how many native Indians there were there too, and on the streets in general.
Later in the week, we met Mental Mike. He was stumbling along Grandville Avenue and could barely speak. I did manage to make out “I’m the greatest Chippewa Indian.” He seemed likeable enough, but it was just impossible to have a conversation with him – he was far too drunk. He told us he was going home and then left.
Later in the evening we met some more native Indians and they had a bottle of Night Train. They asked us if we would like a drink. I said sure but my friends weren’t interested. What better way to get to know some winos than to share their wine? My friends weren’t interested, but I had a blast. I really enjoyed talking to those guys in their own context. It turned out we were all headed to the same shelter that night, the Salvation Army shelter. We passed the bottle around, and I drank more than I intended to. I could have sworn I didn’t drink more than a quarter bottle. That’s when I learned that my antidepressent medication amplifies the effect of alcohol. Oops. At the shelter, the women were led off to a private room but the men all slept on cots in one big room.
I slept well until half way through the night, at which point I was just hungover and feeling ill. In the morning, I pulled my boots on, walked shakily outside and puked in the gutter. When my friends came out, I asked if we could go somewhere that serves food so I could settle my stomach and start feeling better. They agreed, and they were surprisingly quiet. Myself, I knew that in a few hours I would be ready for another day of fun, but the problem was that the girls didn’t feel the same way I did about being homeless for the week. They were uncomfortable, perhaps even frightened much of the time and by drinking with the winos I had let them down.
Ironically, the only place to get some food at that early hour of the morning was the Alcoholics Anonymous soup kitchen. They served some really good soup and I started to feel better immediately. We recognized one of the guys who came in – it was Mental Mike! We invited him to come sit with us after we explained to him that we met yesterday. There was another man at our table, a heroin addict, and a bizarre and disturbing conversation ensued about which was worse, to be addicted to heroin or alchohol.
We spent some time time with Mental Mike over the last few days of our trip. He also introduced us to his friend Indian Al and at one point Al showed us his “bible”, which was really a collection of native wisdom and various other things. He kept referring to the “hippy ways”. These guys were searching, even in their addiction and it seemed to me they just didn’t have the vocabulary to express what they were finding. The way Al meant “hippy ways” was just “love one another”, God’s commandment that Jesus taught us. Mike and Al seemed to understand what that meant, and they lived that way too. Drink was their priority, but they would give away the only money they had left over to other people on the street. They even gave money to us after they saw us sleeping in the park.
Mike wore an overcoat, and one time we saw him in good cheer and he showed us why: there were 4 bottles of chinese rice cooking wine inside. That was for a single day’s consumption! I don’t know where Mike is now, but if he kept that up I doubt he’s still alive.
After our homeless week, I knew I wanted to go into ministry. I didn’t know what that should look like, or how to go about it, but a lot of questions were going through my head like, “Should I finish college?” There was a sense of urgency that wasn’t there before, and didn’t see that an industrial technology degree would get me into ministry any faster. I could also see that people (not just people – but friends I respected) were having more and more trouble taking me seriously, and for good reason. I knew I needed to make getting off my anti-depressant medication a priority.
I’m new to blogging and I think I would prefer to write about what people are interested in. If there are parts of my story you have questions about, feel free to ask when you make a comment.