COLUMN: Ed Olfert — Dec. 27, 2012

Ed Olfert
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It took the unexpected death of a good friend to remind me of the hope of Christmas this season, to sharpen the focus on the Good News of “peace on earth, good will to all people.”

Mike Foley was found dead in his house on Dec. 11. He had failed to show up at work for several days. The coroner indicated a massive heart attack. Mike was 50.

I have known Mike for about 15 years. He was one of the core members of the Circle of Support and Accountability (CoSA) of which I am a volunteer member. I officiated at Mike’s baptism into faith and our church. I was the recipient of many, many hugs.

Mike was born in Vancouver. His mother died suddenly when Mike was young, at which point his father became largely dysfunctional as a parent, hiding in anger and addiction. In the loneliness that was his existence, Mike began chewing mushrooms that could change his reality temporarily, school was as abusive as home life, and as a young teen, he just stopped going home.

Actually, “home” became the shelter of the nearest bridge embankment. Food was swiped, scavenged, or bought with proceeds of the latest B&E. In this chapter of self-loathing, drugs became a more central means of escape. Eventually, that led to a senseless assault that caused the loss of a life. Incarceration, a life sentence, began when Mike was still a teenager.

Volunteers who first visited Mike in Sask Penitentiary through the Person To Person program about 25 years ago recall a curly haired young man who simply hated himself. A cap was pulled low so that his face was hidden, such was his lack of worthiness. His body language screamed a message of self disgust, his voice an almost unintelligible mumble.

As those volunteers persisted in that relationship, the hat was pushed back a little, the voice gained slowly in strength, in confidence, and his friends began to catch glimpses of the very normal hopes and dreams of this still young man.

Among other gifts, Mike displayed a passion for horticulture, and did some studying in that field. As he progressed through the different hoops of trustworthiness that the federal system requires, he proved himself to be a person of integrity. From Riverbend Institution, he started a job dishwashing in a downtown restaurant, hiking back and forth faithfully in all manner of weather. During those years, Mike began to exhibit his uncanny ability to grow a bank account with very meagre income.

When Mike reached the local halfway house, a support circle was formed around him, and Mike began to live hopefully, to live in visible awe of the good things that were happening in his life.

Mike appeared in the church where I was ministering, where he was received graciously, warmly. For a time, he was employed as a janitor who cleaned show halls at the movie theatre. His shift would typically end around noon, and he would then stop by the church, to share the marvels of what he had found under the seats. Usually there were coins, carefully counted, sometimes dumped into an offering plate. Often there were little toy treats that had been packaged with candy. These were left with me, gifts for grandchildren. At least weekly, we would head off to Spicy Peppercorn for lunch, where Mike delighted in the soup.

From time to time, Mike was encouraged to talk about his dreams. He pictured himself in a little house, with space to garden, with a cat to share his life with. With his uncanny ability to save money at minimum wage jobs, Mike bought a modest house about three years ago. The cat soon followed. The mammoth task of turning the overgrown back yard into an oasis began.

The loner who had once huddled over a fire in the forest now delighted in solitary afternoons digging in dirt, planting, mulching, marvelling. At CoSA meetings, nothing felt more important than to update us on the latest antics of his cat, or which produce was now ready to be consumed, now ready to give away. Always, there were hugs.

Mike worked at a number of jobs, including several months in my son’s fencing business. That proved to be a bit too physically demanding, Mike’s life of incarceration and heavy smoking didn’t prepare him especially well for robust endeavours, though Jeb was left with memories of Mike skulking in the underbrush looking for snakes, rodents and frogs. He loved the freedom of riding the quad.

The frustrations of Mike’s life, the frustrations we all have, those frustrations were brought into the trust of the circle, where he listened to the wisdom of the group, and then did his best to loosen his grip on angry feelings and to move ahead. Mike died at peace with his history, with his world, with his chosen community, with his God.

Readings during this Christmas season take us to, among others, the Song of Mary, which speaks of a world ahead that will be very different. The high will be brought low, and the low raised up.

My friend Mike Foley taught me the truth and the hope, the reality in that song. We will celebrate Mike’s life among us on Jan. 4 at 7 p.m., at Grace Mennonite Church.

Organizations: Good News, Riverbend Institution, Grace Mennonite Church

Geographic location: Vancouver

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