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A bag of ’empties’

A few weeks ago, my friend Bob asked me what my old church would think of him going there with a bag of ’empties’ – his term for empty beer cans and alcohol bottles that he collects and turns in for cash. I asked him why he would be going there and his answer was to see the place that was formative and to meet my friends. Predicting how he would be received, I suggested we go together so that I could introduce him as my friend. Bob has schizophrenia and lives on the margins of society. He cuts out ‘snowflakes’ of any design you can think of and passes them on to people he meets. He carries many bags that each have a purpose. He looks different, he acts different, he smells different.

As today drew closer, he made all these plans for him to show me his life – a typical sunday for him – after we visited my old church. He was excited, working out various bus and streetcar routes for us to take, looking up the times of each arrival to make sure we made it everywhere on time.

I began my day by giving him a wake up call and then headed to his street corner where he was waiting for me. He then asked me to carry one of his large bags of empties. Admittedly a bit hesitant, I travelled the city and visited churches with him carrying empty alcohol bottles that carried more alcohol than I think I’ve ever consumed in my entire life. The transit system workers all know Bob and warmly smiled at him. They graciously accepted his gifts of paper cutouts from recycled flyers. they laughed at his jokes. As we rode together, Bob had stories of literally almost all the churches we passed (though he did explain that he’s never stepped foot into the doors of a Catholic or Jehovah witnesses church).

Bob smiled at everyone he saw, pet every dog insight, held doors open for everyone and generously tithed what little he gets in disability to each church we visited.

I sat in a church that I called my home for 9 years. I recognized very few people. I was probably the least dressed up person in the room. Bob tucked away the bags of empties, perhaps sensing my slight uneasiness of appearing at my home church for the first time in almost a year with a smelly bag of items to be recycled. We sang the songs together, we listened to the sermon, we witnessed baptisms.

Tears well up in my eyes as I write this. Today I felt homeless. I returned to what was my home, but felt a profound sense of not belonging. I was the stranger. I aligned myself with Bob today, proud to show him as my friend. And I felt this strange sense of otherness, of being different.

I was talking with my housemate Chris who has practically become a younger sibling to me today about my experience and how I don’t think ‘regular’ church is something I could find belonging through. Being part of this community and this neighbourhood of marginalized people, I have become comfortable and learned to delight in the presence of people like Bob who have their quirks about them and who are hard to talk with because they easily stray and slip in and out of reality. I have become friends with prostitutes and sex workers. I’ve been greeted with warm hugs by people who have so much brokenness and struggles in their own lives, making sure that I am ok and well. I’ve eaten dinner with people who wreak of cigarette smoke and alcohol. I’ve had people who haven’t been privileged enough to go to university rejoice and celebrate my graduation last year and my announcement of returning to school.

I have also learned so much from people at the margins of society. Lee once prayed a profound, yet simple prayer of confession that brought tears to my eyes. Bob once thanked God for not turning away from him at first glance. Peter has shown me a desire to be the best dad to his very broken son even though he himself did not have a father who showed what it means to be a dad.

when I spend time with people on the margins of society, I am not a stranger. I feel profoundly at home and feel God’s presence in a real way.

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