I remember the first time I met Michael McKeown. I was newly on staff at Sanctuary where part of my role was to be developing a system of structure and accountability known as “contracts” with a small number of people. Greg Paul believed there was a certain person who would be a good first fit and so arranged for us to be introduced. That person was Michael. He shook my hand, poured out some of his story, promised to take me on a adventure and then gave me a hug. He lived up to his promise.
Michael died today. He knew that death was coming close because of cancer and Hep C, things he fought for as long as he could. I don’t know that I’ve known anyone else who embraced the process of dying the way Michael did. In many ways he died the way he lived: with honesty, passion and courage marked with deep pain and longing.
Michael was the first person to sign the guest book at our housewarming party in 2001. He was also the first person to call the hospital after Cate arrived. Michael was a deeply emotional guy most days- that day he couldn’t stop crying as he heard me describe my daughter. I have a stash of presents that he gave me over the years, all signed with his name. There are so many memories similar to these that are percolating up today.
There are difficult memories too. Michael was very open about his demons and how they impacted his life. He struggled with sobriety.I recall desperately difficult conversations with him where I felt entirely over my head and powerless. I watched him put his fists through drywall out of anger. At the end of the day Michael would routinely confess and seek forgiveness in a way that took my breath away. He would publicly wail for God to heal him. His faith was raw and real and regularly contributed to mine becoming more so.
Over the last number of years I didn’t get to see Michael as much as I once did. This was more my fault than his. Whenever we were able to visit it felt like no time had passed. Our last few conversations centred around his desire to be free from pain and full of joy. Today, while the sadness settles in, so does the belief that Michael is finally both those things. Mike- rest in beautiful peace. May all those who knew and loved him find comfort.
I’m approaching a time of rest, which I will admit is coming at the right time. I will be taking much of August off. For years I have found planning the summer difficult. Trying to live in the tension of wanting to give Cate a great holiday while needing to continue my commitments at work until having a break myself has been, well, tricky. With this is mind, Joanna and I began planning for the summer at a staff retreat months and months ago. It has also helped that Cate happily spends a couple of weeks at camps she loves and is growing in independence when she’s at home. It is becoming apparent that I am entering a new stage in life- a stage that I am equal parts excited and nervous about.
One of the challenges we face at The Dale when it comes to vacation time is that we are a staff of two. Fortunately Joanna and I are a piece of a much larger community that makes this place work. Core community members and volunteers prepare food, set-up rooms, do dishes, plan music sessions, deescalate tension, etc. As we often say though, a body has many parts, and a necessary part of The Dale is staff. Something we’ve been dreaming about is how to grow this part.
This is where you all come in: we could use your prayer and good thoughts as we consider how to move forward. We, along with our Board of Directors, are thinking through what role this person might fill and how a necessary component will be to raise the funds for their salary. The fundraising piece can sound daunting, but as someone who does just that I know how meaningful it is to have a wide circle of supporters invested in you. Joanna would say the same.
To say I love The Dale is an understatement. I continue to be aware of a deep sense of call to this place and my role in it. When things became dire in 2012 I recall praying for God to light our next steps. My prayer remains the same. If you’ve been following the journey you’ll know that it is a big deal that we are ready to grow into this next stage. In order to be ready for it though, I need to take a break and spend some uninterrupted time with my family. Please do stay tuned.
There’s a man, I’ll call him “Bill”, who has hovered close to The Dale for a number of years. We have a complicated relationship. I admit that at first I was rather scared of Bill, an emotion that I don’t regularly feel with people. Most of our earliest encounters involved him being very angry with me because I didn’t have what he needed. I vividly recall holding back tears as I repeatedly explained that The Dale truly had no money to get tokens during the summer we first became under-housed. He wasn’t buying it though.
I have always been amazed that Bill keeps coming back, especially when we’ve told him he needs to take a break and that time has finally passed. He seems to have a love/hate relationship with almost everything we do (something that we’ve talked about me sharing). He hates our food and then he loves it; he can’t stand that we stand up to him and then he respects us for it. Bill can be every season in the space of a single drop-in.
I remember sensing a shift toward friendship when Bill started to tease me and Joanna. He’d see us outside and say, “don’t you girls ever GO HOME? You two are joined at the hip. You need to put your feet up. Have a drink. Rest.” I started to see that in his own way, Bill was often looking out for people, including us. More recently he’s even been able to receive a little teasing back.
Along the way I have learned more about Bill’s past (and he mine) and how it impacts his present. Life has not been easy. What Bill and we humans in general sometimes do is respond to our own pain by making life hard for others. It becomes a vicious cycle that is neither healthy nor good. I’ve learned that The Dale is one of the few places able to push back on this pattern in Bill’s life, while not having to push him entirely away.
We saw Bill today. He was in a pretty good mood, despite being anxious about an upcoming court date that could drastically change his life. On his way out the door he said, “I need something from you”. Never knowing exactly what this might mean, I said “well, you can ask. If I can, I’ll help”.
“I need you to pray for me”.
I promised him that I would. Watching him leave, I felt a wash of gratitude for how far Bill and I/The Dale have come. It has been a journey of very tiny steps forward, still occasionally halted by some big steps back. This work is messy, hard, sometimes scary and in the end…good.