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Every community has street people but in smaller communities they become familiar and affection builds as do the fables that surround them.
Such was the case with Bill Hunter. Bill looked to be in his late thirties when I first noticed him. He stood out because he had a certain dignity about him, very tall and straight, unclean but neat with his long hair pulled back in a matted bun.
He walked compulsively and his tattered coat disturbed the community more than anything, as he wore it in the heat of summer and cold of winter. He kept to himself, slept under the bridges, rarely accepted help and consistently refused offers of a new coat. The most repeated fable about his past was that he had been a professional surveyor.
One young couple extended Bill an invitation to come for supper any evening. He responded occasionally but only to sit on the doorstep, eat and hurriedly escape. He could be very insulting to anyone who offered him transportation but once in a while he was sighted in neighbouring towns, so most likely he accepted some rides.
He was not welcome at the local library, where he sought warmth and comfort; he was argumentative, smelly and unpredictable. He was suspicious of being poisoned so when he went to buy a couple of loaves of bread at the supermarket, he could end up being escorted out. Above all no one was allowed to physically touch him. Although some people tried to reach out to Bill, generally our community understood his idiosyncrasies and kept their distance.
One windy January night, Bill sought temporary shelter from the subzero temperatures at a familiar fast food chain. Although the manager had been instructed not allow him in, he couldn’t turn him away on such a night. It was a Thursday, Prayer Meeting night, and three friends and myself had decided on a cup of tea and further fellowship to help wind down from our spiritual highs.
As we settled at our table Bill’s presence caught our eye. We called the manager to our table and asked him to offer Bill a meal - we would pay.
The manager agreed but added that others had tried and were always refused. He returned shortly with a “No”. But Bill had passed on the message that he needed somewhere to stay for the night.
Aha, here we were four Christians fresh from praising the Lord for an hour and a half; we were willing to put money out for a quick meal, how much further would we go?
Looking back now, I smile at how biblical our responses were. Mary quickly retreated stating that she had to go home, Brigitte had no room with her six children filling the bedrooms, Pat stated that her husband would kill her if she brought him home, and I suggested we could pay for a motel. We offered the motel but the manager brought back the message that the motels wouldn’t accept him.
While we conferred together, Pat quietly slipped over to Bill’s table. We watched with admiration, knowing that Pat was the person among us with the most loving servant’s heart.
When she returned she simply said, “I am taking him home.” We all accompanied Pat to settle him in the conveniently empty apartment in the basement of her home. At that time none of us recognized the “door of hope” which we had gone through together.
The following spring I stopped my car at a stop sign and there was Bill. I waved to him and much to my amazement he returned my gesture with a deep bow, I instantly recognized it as a response of respect and appreciation.
Eventually social services started paying Bill’s rent and his medical needs were organized. Rejection and acceptance fluctuated as Bill reformed his habits and slowly a mutual trust built with the family upstairs.
Two years ago Pat and her husband John moved closer to an aging mother. Their youngest son and wife took over the house and Bill. It seems unbelievable but it is nine years since we took Bill to the apartment on that cold January night.
This year Bill came upstairs to join the family for Easter dinner. He ate heartily, played two games of crib and asked for details of the Easter Liturgy that the family had attended. “Oh Bill, you could have come with us!”
The above was written by former Terrace resident Marlene Sarich for the magazine Bread of Life.
Bill Hunter passed away in March.