How Many Roads Must a Man Walk Down?
It was January 15th, the Second Sunday of Epiphany. Only two weeks into the new year, with everyone – or some of us, at least – still trying to remember what we were doing in “real life” before pausing for the holidays. For many people, of course, real life never stops moving full steam ahead. Halfway through the service at St John’s that morning, Bradley walked through the church’s doors for the first time – at least, it was the first time I saw him there.
He was pulling a small cart behind him that bore a few objects, including an acoustic guitar. As the wheels of the cart squeaked and clicked across the wooden floor, Mother Alexandra paused in the middle of her sermon, and congregants’ heads turned, as the light of an unfamiliar but gentle soul cut through the post-holiday fog. His hair was white and whimsically frizzy, with a bushy moustache, suspenders, baggy trousers, and a jolly portliness. In combination with the cart and the season, one could be forgiven for mistaking Bradley for Saint Nick, perhaps delayed in his Yuletide journey by inclement weather.
As a relative newcomer to St John’s myself, after having spent several years away from churches, I noted how unruffled by the interruption to the service all feathers were. Mother Alexandra warmly welcomed Bradley, who introduced himself to us and shared a bit about his story.
Bradley was homeless for much of the pandemic, has been estranged from his wife, and does not hear from his siblings, but was able to get some help from the Salvation Army. He is currently living in assisted housing which, of course, is not the ideal environment for an artist to create his best work.
One of the reasons why Bradley came to St John’s was to have a place to share his music. He says he hasn’t written much music lately, finding it difficult to become inspired in his current living conditions. When he arrived that Sunday in January, after telling us a bit about himself, he asked if he could play a song on his guitar. Mother Alexandra welcomed him to do so after the service, which he agreed to before taking a seat in one of the pews. The service resumed, and when it was finished, Bradley came up to the front and performed Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”. Everyone remained seated and gave him their attention; some of us even sang along.
Churches, and organized religion in general, have received plenty of criticism (much of which I agree with, to be honest), and it’s old news that they have been hemorrhaging attendees for years. I myself grew up very much immersed in church culture and even attending private Christian schools – not the super-fancy ones with uniforms, but they certainly were not free to attend – so I can attest to many of the issues therein, including judgmental congregants who don’t always practice what they preach. But I was moved by the way in which Bradley was immediately accepted with dignity and respect, given space to share his words and music, and made to feel at home by the people of St John’s. For some folks, small and humble churches like our own may be one of the few places where they can find a community in which to breathe and belong, especially in sprawling cities like Toronto, where life seems to be faster paced, more competitive, and more individualistic than ever.
I forgot to mention: Bradley is also a painter. Last time I saw him at St John’s, he showed me a beautiful watercolour piece he had done. I’ve heard he can even get his art shown in galleries…
Back to that Sunday in January: Once the service was over, Bradley came up to the front and began to play. As he strummed the guitar and sang, his voice echoed that ageless question that Dylan posed, “how many roads must a man walk down before you can call him a man?”
As a much younger man, who has nonetheless walked something of a winding path, I find myself asking the same question from time to time. Bradley reminds me that, if we are honest with ourselves, the quest for peace and fulfillment never truly ends, at least not in this world. Facing that reality can sometimes be discouraging, but it makes a world of difference when you stumble upon a community who shows you it’s worth it to keep walking.