photo by Murray Bush - I hope he's ok with me using it everywhere - it's the best one!
I met Ricky a couple of years ago... maybe it wasn't even that long. He would come into Jacob's Well on Fridays for our coffee hour. He was a big Cree man, hunched over with his head sunken into his shoulders. He lumbered slowly along the sidewalk with a bit of a sideways lean. He always wore a ball cap and a leather jacket and sweatpants, and he never smelled very good. ;)
I remember the first time I really talked to him... he called me over and said I was "the only one who could pray for him." This happened several times. While I reassured him that everyone was capable of praying, not just those on staff or those known as pastors, I still enjoyed being chosen to lift up his requests, which were usually related to problems on his reserve back in Manitoba. He focused particularly on First Nations children and suicide.
Over time, he opened up about his own childhood, and how his brother was killed with a cattle prod when they were both very young, at the residential school they were both forced to attend. It never made sense to me how someone carrying so much church-inflicted pain could still be so eager to pray to God. Ricky somehow figured out God was a God of justice, and that this God called him to share his story and fight against continuing injustices. He lived out at Occupy Vancouver full-time only a month before he died. He could endear himself to anyone, from anarchists to Christian conservatives.
About a year ago, Ricky started bringing his guitar to coffee time at Jacob's Well. "His guitar" was always changing - I don't know if I ever saw him with the same guitar twice, and though he'd always say the last one was stolen, I'm pretty sure they were in and out of the pawn shop. Ricky played with a barred finger in open D, which is easier than learning chords, but his skill came in that he could immediately figure out the chords for almost any song, and he could pick out the melody on the high frets, too. He'd play with the guitar resting on his big belly, hunched over, eyes often closed.
He would jam with whoever wanted to play with him. In fact, I think music didn't mean much to him unless it drew people around him. I can't really picture him playing alone in his room. He'd play on Commercial Drive, busking for money. He'd play at all of the DTES Christian gatherings and missions and community centers and protests. He'd play whatever he thought people would want to hear and sing along to, from worship songs, to gospel, to country, to blues. His favorite was bluegrass. He'd often make up songs on the spot, singing about whoever and whatever was near him, working in all sorts of humour and little joking insults. My favorite songs to do with him were "I'll fly away" and "Ring of Fire" and "Folsom Prison Blues."
I miss you, Ricky.
I miss playing the chords while you riffed on the melody.
I miss tuning my guitar to open D so you could play it.
I miss the way you'd say "Jesus" when you prayed to him.
I miss your banter with Gary. "Ask Gary..."
I miss you referring to people in the third person even though they were right there.
I miss you asking "Where's Beth?" when I was in the office, and you wanted me to come to the table.
I miss making you posters to advertise your concerts.
I miss you asking when the next group of "young people" was coming in, so you could come meet them.
I miss the way you gathered people.
I miss your playful teasing.
I miss your threats to "bannock slap" me. I'm glad I never found out what that felt like.
I wish I could have given you all those guitar picks I'd been collecting for you. They were still in my pocket the day I found out you'd died.
I wish we could have found a Santa costume so you could be our Santa at our Christmas tea, like you wanted. It's ok though, we had a good time with those carols.
Remember the time when you played worship songs with us out on the Hastings sidewalk at the end of our Welfare Wednesday party in August, as the sun set over the old hotels, and the sky turned pink?
Remember when you surprised all of us by joining in on our dance party at Creative World Justice? You were "party rocking" with the best of us, glowsticks stuck in your ball cap?
Remember playing old worship songs around the campfire at the same festival? We stayed up until all hours of the night because you wouldn't let any of us leave. You were in your prime.
Remember when you drew a picture of a buffalo dance, and drew a face in the sun, and told me I was the sun?
Remember when I came to speak at RAW, and I was still recovering from pneumonia, and you wouldn't let me go up and talk until you got a few people I didn't know to pray for me?
Thank you for being my elder and my friend.
Thank you for sharing yourself with me.
We will keep fighting your fights and singing your songs.
(We're gonna sing up a storm tonight, in your honour, you'll see!)
We'll see you soon, buddy,
hallelujah by and by.