I attended a funeral today. A funeral for a dear, dear man who had NO IDEA how much influence he had on the world around him.
I want to tell you some of his story. I love to find little ways to honour people that society often does a poor job of honouring, and Ray is one of those people who got the short end of the stick – over and over, for a lifetime.
Yet, the beauty of his story and his person were unmistakeable.
I only know a few stories from Ray’s early life. He was in foster care as a youngster, and the stories we heard were of abuse and sadness. I hope there were other kinds of stories, too.
As a middle aged man, Ray got into an altercation on Main St. where he was struck on the head with a thick steel pipe. He was in the hospital for months, where his body recovered but his brain did not.
I met Ray in January 2009- six years ago. I had brought a group of kids from Saskatoon to Winnipeg for an inner city learning trip. Our group lived in WCV – the Winnipeg Centre Vineyard (this was a few months before it actually became my permanent home) – for a couple of weeks. Ray was a daily fixture during our trip. He walked around the neighbourhood with us, told us about his friends and enemies, prayed for us, gave us stern, finger-wagging warnings, laughed and cried with us. He took us to his favourite restaurant – Angelo’s Chip Shop on Main – the one with the striped red awning.
Afterward, I heard the youth remember story after story of what Ray said, did, and taught – I got a glimpse of how influential Ray had been – what he’d taught them not only about poverty and oppression, but also about hope, spirit, relationship, and love. Of course, Ray had no clue at all what he’d done for them. He just went around being his simple yet profound self.
Ray has been a fixture around WCV and Flatlanders for years. He lived in two different buildings nearby – on both of the eastern corners of Main and Jarvis. He found friendship and community in this place. Anytime the doors were open for a service or event, he’d be there, invited or not. We had him over many, many times: for dinner, for coffee, for Christmas breakfast, for a yearly birthday party (we celebrated him turning 63 at least 3 times, because Ray didn’t actually have a clue how old he was!), for concerts, for art openings.
Eventually, the public housing authority evicted him for cleanliness issues, even though we’d been working diligently on a plan to keep him housed and supported. I cleaned the garbage out of his apartment weekly for a while, hoping that the repeated act of bringing waste to the refuse chute would sink in. (It didn’t.) Ray’s relationship with government housing ended the same way his relationship with many systems designed to help him ended – badly. Homeless, he moved into our memorial garden, where he claimed to be keeping Ruthie company because her ashes had been scattered there. When it got colder or when it rained, he slept in our foyer, until the prayers and efforts of many were answered, and Ray got a space in a group home for adults with disabilities. You might ask why we didn’t ask Ray to move in with us – we do offer housing, after all. You’d be in good company – we’ve asked ourselves that question a million times. The answer is … well, if you knew Ray for any length of time, you probably know what the answer is.
Ray was loving, kind, and gracious a lot of the time. There were also times when he was angry, jealous, even mean. But I think its safe to say that ALL the time he was stubborn. His stubbornness had two sides, a faithful-tenacity side and a determined refusal-to-cooperate-with things-he-didn’t-want-to side. I had the dubious distinction of being the only person who could “force” Ray to have a shower; I suspect this is because our stubbornnesses are a little bit similar. I just didn’t back down about him getting clean, at least every once in a while.
One of my favourite Ray stories: I was hunted down by one of the men organizing a summer fishing trip a few years ago. They wanted to bring Ray along, but it had been really hot, and Ray’s odour was a bit riper than usual …. Could I please change my afternoon plans and “do my thing” so Ray could go on the trip? I did; Ray and I argued and negotiated for at least 30 minutes; he relented, got clean, and then he went. Afterwards, Ray had a fishing story to tell – another experience of community that was facilitated by the fact that he truly belonged to a community.
Of course, our belonging to him and his belonging to us was broken. He’d get angry and call the curses of God down on us – literally. We’d get frustrated with his tirades, his smell, his constant requests for cigarettes or change, or to come in for a cup of black coffee even when he could see that we were on our way out. The story of our relationship with Ray, and of Ray himself, is that broken doesn’t mean worthless. Oh, how I want to pay better attention to this. Thanks, Ray, for living the kind of wisdom I desperately need and desperately avoid.
I’ll miss you, Ray. I’ll always remember the Christmas that you showed up with presents for each of us. I’ll remember the way you’d look toward the ceiling whenever you said a prayer for me – as if God lives right in our rafters. I’ve especially missed your presence in our neighbourhood. I love you, dear friend, and oh, I’ll miss you. Forever.
Two thoughts from Ray’s funeral today should be remembered always: first, that he carried the violence of our neighbourhood in his body and in his life. Few of us are worthy of such an honour, and few of us walk with such a sacred intimacy with their Creator. Ray revealed what it means to be blessed in poverty, the thing those of us with any power at all avoid and reject.
Ray made these words from 1 Corinthians come alive: God has made foolish the wisdom of the world. God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God chose what is low and despised in the world to reduce things that are seen as important and worthy.