Weekly Edgework #38 - Mar. 22, 2005

Jim

I met him the other day at the local Credit Union. He was dressed as usual in his trucker clothing. Work boots. Blue jeans. A jacket a little too thin for the cold weather. His hair curled from under his baseball cap, quite content to avoid the barbershop for a while longer. A look of quiet dignity and purpose on his face – almost stoical. When he noticed me he greeted me with a trucker-style handshake and his face melted into a soft and satisfying grin.

Jim has had his share of hard knocks in life. A troubled home that has left a wounded imprint on his soul. Although quite brilliant in his own kind of way he quit school as soon as he could. He never did jump through all the hoops that his family’s church had set up for him. As a matter of fact, for many years he abandoned church connections all together. And he has endured some troublesome relationships.

But Jim has found some ground to stand on in recent years. He has become the best trucker – by his own admission – in a medium-sized trucking firm. There must be some truth to that because recently his boss told him to pick any kind of truck he wished from a catalogue and he would purchase it exclusively for his use. He likes to talk about that state-of-the-art rig that he calls home for most of his days. And in his own quiet way he has found his way once more into the back seat of church on occasion.

He is what you might call a self-made man. He can invent and build almost any contraption he or anyone else might think useful. He has built his own house way out in the country on a quarter section of land on which he makes hay for sale in summer. A few years ago he designed and built his own outdoor convection oven. When it was done he invited Ruth and me over for supper – cooked in his new oven, of course. Jim is Jim. Not Tom, Dick or Harry. Simply Jim.

So how’re ya keepin’? I inquire in that informal way of speaking he prefers. I hear you took a trip abroad recently. How was it? Then he tells me all about it. Slowly at first. But gradually, as I interject his telling with a question here and there his tempo increases and he gets emotionally involved like only Jim can.

He tells me that he has done his share of travelling. He spent a year in Australia on an agricultural exchange a few years back and poked around that bottom corner of the globe coming and going. He’s even been on a Caribbean cruise. But this last trip he took was different, he informs me. One day, as he was cruising down the highway in his truck he had an idea. I would like to go see the poorest of the poor this world can offer up, he said to himself. Some place out of the public eye. I want to experience for myself what it is like to live like they do.

Slowly plans began to fall into place. He knew many immigrant dock-workers at truck terminals all across North America. So he started inquiring about their home countries and asking them if they could provide him some leads to help him fulfil his quest. Before long he had names and addresses of various Filipino families, some of which lived in the remotest parts of the remotest islands belonging to the Philippines. With these address in his pocket and a small bag he took a flight to Manila. And as they say, the rest is history.

He was met at the airport late Saturday night by a family from Manila. In spite of jet lag he accompanied his host family to mass the next morning. After a few days with this family he took a bus – probably a discarded North American school bus, he muses – for a day-long trip south, then across the water on a ferry, to the island of his dreams. The heat was stifling in that tin box without air-conditioning, he says, but he was determined to experience what the poor experience and so simply sweated his way through that day.

When he arrived on the island his host family met him and took him to their home. They had kept their children home from school because “Jim” was coming. There’s no industry on the island and almost no jobs, he informs me. People live from hand to mouth, scrounging what they can from the sea. When he noticed there was not enough food in the home to feed the family, let alone its Canadian guest, he took them shopping and paid the bill. He did that a number of times. At night he slept on the floor of the crude home with his host family.

During his second week on the island some family members escorted him on a day’s trek up the mountain to visit even poorer and more isolated relatives. Again he bought some groceries and slept on the floor. When he returned to the town where he had arrived on the island, he talked to some people milling about the streets, asking them where they slept at night. Wherever, they told him - maybe in the ditch or in the cluttered park. By this time Jim’s eyes appear moist and his lips are quivering. And I told them, he says loudly in a firm voice as he punches the air with dramatic flair and tears begin to flow freely down his cheeks, “Not as long as I can help it!”

So he rented a house for a month and invited a number of homeless men to share that shelter with him. When he left a week later he told them the house was theirs for another three weeks. Three weeks after his last shower, Jim returned to Canada. When I met him in the Credit Union that day he had just wired enough money to the island to cover another month’s rent.

Oh, I know that one man’s acts of random kindness won’t change the world. And his generosity might not even be the best strategy for solving the long-term poverty of an island. But I know something else. One man’s heart was moved and changed. Make that two. Are you going back? I wondered aloud. You bet your boots, I’m going back, he shot back without hesitation.

And when the saints go marching in, I expect to see Jim marching briskly, well ahead of me, somewhere in the company of Mother Teresa.