Although Joe is a burly man, he’s practically invisible to those around him. He stays on the edge of whatever’s going on. His slightly anxious eyes dart about, as if readying himself for a quick exit – which inevitably comes sooner than later. From childhood, he has learned to guard himself against those who cause pain.
Joe reminds me of the dwarfs in Snow White: bushy haired and bearded, stocky and rotund, he walks with a rolling gait. His boyish face is expressionless, unless something strikes him as funny. Then his blue eyes sparkle and he explodes with “You got that right, man! Ain’t that the truth, man!” He grins, slaps his thigh in excitement, and exhales an unintelligible torrent of wonderment. His other emotion is anger, of which there is no shortage. Mentally challenged, at 50, he has lived through more personal torment than most.
I first met Joe on the steps of Bethlehem mission’s 100-year-old church building in Winnipeg’s North End. The food bank was in progress. “Get your groceries yet?” I asked after greeting him. He shook his head, sucked on his cigarette, then flicked it to the side.
“No groceries for Joe…no way, man!” He started to leave, then turned. “The gang, dirty bastards, take my stuff,” he spat out, faking a head shot at himself, his face clouded with anger.
I stuck out my hand with a piece of gum. “I’m Clint. C’mon downstairs, Joe. Let’s have some coffee and cookies.” He grabbed the gum and followed me inside. I guess he sensed in that moment I would be an ally.
After coffee, we filled up a few bags for Joe and recruited a helper to walk home with him. That’s how Joe became a regular at Bethlehem mission.
We discovered in time that Joe could not count, read, or write, although he pretended to do all three.
“Almost lunch!” he would declare from his perch on a stool in the mission kitchen. Solemnly, he pointed at the clock, which read 9:30 a.m. That was our signal to put on the coffee and break out the toaster.
Joe preferred the mission to the loneliness of his small house and his dangerous neighbourhood. It’s peaceful inside the mission. He loved the library, leafing through magazines and books, scanning the pictures. Sometimes he was welcomed to staff or ladies’ meetings, where he sat quietly, listening. When the neighbourhood kids came to play in the basement, he coloured with them. One morning, he arrived at the office, sleepy-eyed, holding a sheaf of pictures he’d spent all night colouring as presents for the mission staff.
At a men’s Bible study one summer afternoon, Joe sat nearest the coffee and cookies, as usual, as a half-dozen of us gathered in the youth room. Finishing off the lesson, I asked if anyone wanted to say a prayer before we left for the day. To my surprise, Joe volunteered. It was a first for me – and, I think, for him. We waited while he fidgeted with his cup, then began in astonishing fashion. “Dust to dust, ashes to ashes; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” he gravely intoned, glancing nervously at the rest of us.
Looking up to the heavens, he finished with a flourish: “Zowie!” and beamed at us in spiritual triumph. I’m quite sure God “high-fived” the angels that afternoon.
Joe had broken a barrier of confidence and communication. Now, he would weave together fragments of whatever he had picked up from his favourite spaghetti Westerns, offering prayers to the Lord who loved him and made him laugh in the face of his limitations.
Joe became a fixture at Bethlehem mission. It wasn’t unusual to find Joe in the sanctuary, sitting on a chair pulled up in front of the huge portrait of Christ that hangs on the front wall. Observing it as if meditating, he would occasionally break out into uproarious laughter, throwing back his shaggy head and clapping his large hands in glee. Then, thumping his chest, he exulted, “He loves me, he loves me! Got that right, man!” His eyes were moist when he said it.
The communion table welcomes all who are seeking the Saviour of Bethlehem. Sundays, Joe lines up too. I doubt if he can connect the theological dots between the incarnation and eternal salvation. But I’m inclined to believe that when he takes in the symbols of communion, they are well represented in a heart that has learned to trust both God and man. If Joe had been a shepherd that first Christmas, he wouldn’t have hesitated to laugh and leap on his way to the manger, shaking his shaggy head, shouting, “Glory to God in the highest, Peace on earth, Good will to men.