lent people walking by

July 10, 2016  |   John:15:9-17  |   Michael Hetherington –

You’ll notice that I’m rather dressed up. I’m not wearing a T-shirt. But I didn’t want to get too dressed up.  The last time I delivered the sermon here—five years ago—I was wearing a white shirt with long sleeves and black dress pants.  After the service I was in Safeway doing my grocery shopping and a stranger came up to me and said, “Where are the fruit cups?”

Back to this morning.  As you know, over the summer, we will be examining four different faith practices.  The practice will be introduced one Sunday and on the following Sunday someone from the congregation, or a guest, will be asked to talk about how he or she has personally lived out or experienced the practice in question.  Last week, Wade led us in a discussion of the spiritual practice of community.  He asked us, “How do we practice community here at Mount Seymour?”  “How do we love one another in a way that reflects what we know about how God loves us?”  I am going to talk about my experience of what I might call “unexpected” community, which started here on the last Sunday of April two years ago—2014.

That morning, part way through the service a rather wild and dishevelled looking young man showed up and sat down in the corner over there.  This was who we later learned was Craig.  After the service I had a chat with him and my son and daughter, Nick and Amy, did too.  He told me his name was “MasterCard”.

A few weeks later he came back and attended the service again.  Afterwards he said he was going to the Sunshine Coast for the afternoon to visit someone.  I asked him if he wanted a ride to Horseshoe Bay.  He readily accepted.  We hung out having coffee in Horseshoe Bay while waiting for his ferry, spending probably a few hours together.  He was a little fidgety.  He accepted my offer to pay for the ferry and bus ticket on the other side when it became evident that he really didn’t have the money to carry out his plan to visit this person on the Sunshine Coast.

I should say at this point that what I am saying here this morning is awkward for me to the extent that it involves my telling of what I have done to help another person.  I was brought up to reach out and help other people, but not particularly to talk about it.  As part of accepting this request to tell you about Craig this morning, I have needed to get past the wish to keep all this to myself, even though parts of it have come out before.

One Sunday a few weeks later after the service I asked Craig what he might like to do for the afternoon.  He said he’d like to go to Bowen Island. So we went and spent the rest of the day there.  Over the course of the day, I learned that in fact he was homeless.              On returning to the mainland, I put him up for a night at the Holiday Inn and we had dinner there.

I should say here that by this time in my getting to know Craig it was clear that there was something not quite right about the way his mind worked.  I later learned from his brother that Craig had been diagnosed with schizophrenia at about age 26.  At the time he owned a house and a vehicle and had a job—in the Toronto area—and he lost it all.  He started wandering.  It had gone on like that for about fifteen years.  He had grown up in Thunder Bay and that’s where his parents still lived.

After his one night at the Holiday Inn, I took him to the Grouse Inn at the bottom of Capilano Road and booked him a room for five nights—a little suite with a kitchenette.  In the evenings I would go there to see him and sometimes take a pizza or something I had made at home.  One night Amy came too, with her homework.

Through the spring he was living under the bridge that takes Mount Seymour Parkway across the Seymour River.  As much as I wanted to help Craig, I had been advised to set boundaries and one of those I set was not to have him actually stay at my house.

But he was often over—for lunch after church and sometimes back for dinner.  And that spring he would come to watch Amy’s soccer games on Sunday evenings at Windsor school.  But it was hard to take him back to his supposed “home” under the bridge afterward.  I remember one night, it was pouring rain; after the game Amy and I drove him down to the Superstore parking lot to drop him off.  It was heartbreaking—Amy and I both felt it, and talked about it—seeing him get out of the van and wander over into the forest to head under the low Parkway bridge, first stopping to look through the clothing drop-off bin.

He began to talk about wanting to go to see his brother in Baddeck on Cape Breton Island.  So, with a lot of organization, we arranged the trip.  I bought him a train ticket to Halifax and a bus ticket from there up to Cape Breton Island.  But it didn’t go so well.  He became disoriented on the train and, apparently, disruptive, and the police escorted him off the train in Edmonton and took him to the hospital.

I soon concluded that I would need to go to Edmonton when he was discharged from hospital.  But I couldn’t decide what to do then—help him get to Baddeck as originally planned, or bring him back to Vancouver.

Craig agreed that I would fly to Edmonton and take him by plane to Halifax, rent a car, and drive up to his brother’s place. But before that happened, when Craig was getting better and was out on a two hour pass, he never returned to the hospital.  He got himself to Calgary and eventually back to Vancouver.

He knew how to get himself around.  His brother told me that once he received a telephone call from Craig from New York State.  His brother, Curtis, said, “Craig, how’d you get into the United States?  You don’t even have a passport.”  Craig responded, “I swam across the Niagara River.”

So, Craig was back in Vancouver.  As we had done before, we restarted the process of trying to work through the social services system to get his designation as a person with disabilities, for the increased housing opportunities that would open up.  But it was slow going.  Craig’s life went on, and mine became increasingly intertwined with his.  But it was very enjoyable.  He was a really interesting person to spend time with.  To put this in the context of the practice we are examining here today, I was experiencing community with Craig; it wasn’t just a one way transaction of my offering community to him.

I hosted some meals at my home, inviting other members of the congregation, to give Craig a chance to get to know some other people in the congregation.  One evening David Ney came for dinner.  Another time, Jen-Beth Fulton.  Sometimes after the service on a Sunday morning I would ask someone to join us for lunch—at the Village Table in Dollarton: Sherrill McLeary came one time, Joyce Jones, Sharon Brain.

And anyone who was here that morning will remember the day Craig read the scripture during the Sunday worship service.  His reading was riveting and rendered the sanctuary hushed and moved.  Craig had become part of our community here at Mount Seymour.  It was not all just me.

Craig sometimes went to community dinners at the West Vancouver Baptist Church.  After one of those evenings, a kind couple, Karen and Peter Balogh, took Craig home to stay with them.  He ended up staying there for about six weeks.

For many weeks, including while he was staying with Karen and Peter, I would meet Craig on Friday mornings at the Tim Horton’s on Lonsdale and then go to the health clinic nearby.  It would take a lot of cajoling each time to get him to go to the clinic, where he gradually got to know the doctor, but Craig would always refuse to take any medication.  One time was different, and the doctor finally concluded that Craig really was unwell and at risk by continuing to be on the street with his condition untreated.  The doctor signed a certificate of involuntary admission to hospital.

Craig was admitted to the then brand new Hope Centre, the mental health building adjacent to and part of Lions Gate Hospital.  He was kept in a locked room for two days.  I told the nursing staff what Craig’s brother had told me—not to underestimate Craig’s ability to escape from such a health facility.  Apparently he had done it many times in other places.  They assured me there was no way anyone could get out of there, the place was state of the art.  After a few days Craig phoned me and told me I could come to visit him.  So a little while later I went over to the Hope Centre and up to the fourth floor and buzzed the intercom from near the elevators.  They told me, “Sorry, you can’t visit him.”  “Oh,” I said, “He phoned me just a few hours ago and said I could come to visit.”  There was a pause.  “He escaped.”  Then the voice over the intercom said, “But he’s been…repatriated.”

That was the start of about three or more weeks of Craig being in the Hope Centre and my visiting him most days.  Some people from the congregation, including Donna Dinsmore and Marianne Hansen, also visited him there.  He was, after all, part of our church community by then.

Eventually he was discharged and was soon he was back on the street.  Then one day at 6:55 in the morning, Craig phoned me sounding very agitated.  He said he had heard talk of a “hit” (i.e. an execution), and he thought he was about to die.  “Can I have one more day?” he asked in a panicked voice.  “Even just a few more hours.”  So I found out where he was and went and picked him up.    It was a very difficult day.  I knew it was all in his head, but it was so real and so terrifying for him.

By the next month Craig had made a lot of progress on the social services front, his designation as a person with disabilities had come through, with the prospect of more housing opportunities.  But then late one afternoon, Craig called to say he had bought a bus ticket to Thunder Bay to go to stay with his parents there.  It would take 47 hours.  He was leaving at 6:30 the next morning.  [pause] Based on his experience on the train, I knew he wouldn’t make it on his own.  Without thinking about it too much, I asked him, “Do you want me to go with you?”  Immediately he said, “Yes.  That would be a prayer answered.”  I thought—Yikes!

So early the next morning we set off on that long journey.  As you can imagine, it was quite an experience, lots of different kinds of people getting on and off the bus.  I think we had eight different bus drivers.  His dad picked us up at the bus depot in Thunder Bay.  I stayed for a few hours and then flew back to Vancouver.

I’ve stayed in touch with Craig, writing letters back and forth, sometimes talking on the phone.  The health care system in Ontario has been working well for him.  Generally he’s been taking his medication, but not always.  His parents are wonderful and loving people and they live on three acres of property and have bees and chickens and a huge garden.  Craig helps out.

As some of you know, last month I went back to visit Craig for three days (I admit, I flew, both ways).  He was very pleased to receive the card I took with me which many people here had signed sending their good wishes.

By way of closing, and to reflect on my experience with Craig—on the practice of community as we’re calling it here, although I didn’t name it as such at the time—I recall what my spiritual director, Tim Scorer, said to me a few days after I had accompanied Craig through the difficult day when he thought he was about to die.  Tim said, “This is the meat on the bones of retreat.”  He was referring to my habit of making an 8 day silent retreat each year and to my daily practice of silent, contemplative prayer.  And he spoke of the connection between contemplation and action.  Meister Eckhart, the 14th century theologian and mystic, put it this way: “What we take in by contemplation, we pour out in love.”  Practicing community is part of that outpouring of love.

The last verse of this morning’s scripture lesson:“This I command you, to love one another.”

       May it be so.