I noticed ‘Cal’ on several occasions at the drop in, but I never took opportunity to have a conversation with him until this week.
He was a large man with a hint of European blood in his heritage, often coming to complain about some kind of unjust or unfair thing that he noticed others doing at the drop in. We always took the time to courteously address his concerns, but I’m not sure that any of us have ever taken time to get to know him.
I approached the table where he sat alone, as he always did, and asked if I might join him for a while. He agreed and we spent the next hour in a meaningful conversation about his life, where he had been, what he had done and what was going on right now.
As had happened so many countless times before when I have taken the time to visit with one of our street friends, I was amazed at how resilient and strong the human spirit can be. I heard Cal’s story with great interest, and listened beyond the details to hear another story running parallel with the one he articulated.
The outward story was about his violent home, his unfaithful wife, his distant mother and his hardened and calloused brother. Injustice, greed, exclusion, partiality and rejection were the dominant themes outwardly, but inwardly there was even more. He had become embittered, jealous, and resentful: his anger was fueled by the traumatic childhood memories, and constant reminders of his failures from his brother.
I asked about his father, the one figure conspicuous by its absence. The response was immediate: a white collar professional that lived a double life. He had beaten and abused the two boys from their very first memories and earlier – until the sons became big enough to fight back and put a stop to it. The adjectives he used to describe his dad(apart from the beatings): hideous, unthinkable, sick, perverted, twisted – it broke my heart.
I hear these kinds of stories from most of my street friends frequently. The details are different but the themes are the same – all the time. From earliest memories and before, the effects of abuse, neglect and pain now manifest themselves in a broken man or woman at a table at a downtown drop in. Living with this pain all their lives, lacking needed support without even a friend to talk to, they come to us and share.
And us? We are privileged to hear the stories, listen intently and for some, for the first time ever, demonstrate the love and care of God.
For the remainder of the day, Cal watched me. Constantly. His eyes were on my every move as I visited from table to table and friend to friend. Every time I looked over to him, he was already looking at me. It takes a great deal of courage to share your life story with another person, and you might imagine what thoughts might be racing through his mind.
Question: Over 7,300 different people stayed in one of our Ottawa shelter systems last year. How many carry stories like this? How can we expect people with this kind of background and no support from family or friends to function properly (“Get up and get a job!”) How many times have we offered a ‘quick fix’ to a complex problem?