Emile’s Encounter with Christ

Third Beach
Third Beach, Vancouver. Creative Commons License by Kyle Pearce

The strange case of Emile Lacoste. An unusual man who many people have tried to figure out and help, but with only mixed success.

He is an odd man. No one can define him because his problem lies in the realm of different thoughts, perceptions, and behaviors. All of which have defied a medical, spiritual or psychological solution. A state that some think only God can mend. But then, does he need help at all?

Emile liked to sit between two enormous logs washed up on the Third Beach in Vancouver. He has habitually been found on that beach for as long as most nearby residents can remember. What he silently contemplates for long periods of time between these gigantic uprooted trees is only known to himself, the winds and God. Emile is like the unpredictable Vancouver weather. You just never knew when he would be there. A few days out of the week he was somewhere else. No one knows where that somewhere else was.

Part of the problem about Emile is that he was always under the radar. He wanted to remain unnoticed. Those who did see him, their eyes quickly ventured to a different endpoint. Emile wondered if he had the power of invisibility. Well, not really in the most practical sense, but in an imaginary, childlike way.

The local food shelters provided for all that he needed. His large belly showed that this wasn’t a problem. His clothing had seen better days. His undersized white shirt had lost its glory and looked as though it was in need of a serious washing, that is, of course, if it would survive being washed without shredding. His gray hair was long and thick and stretched down to his shoulders. He also had a yellow streak that started at the mustache and continued linearly on his beard. This hue was a sign of a passion and one of the few external vices he possessed.

This vice was so strong that Emile would quietly wait for a passerby to toss their almost complete cigarette in the sand. He would quickly recover the stub, drawing whatever remaining life it had left in it. This sometimes made onlookers shudder or pretend this never happened.

Everyone had a different reaction when they saw him. A local newspaper crowned him the mascot for the homeless. The write-up outlined his physique as a modern-day Santa Claus. This celebrity homeless status was not an honor he owned with any pride. He wasn’t the type that didn’t like good company, but he didn’t appreciate being the center of a party either. The Santa Claus moment of popularity passed very quickly and he quietly went back into the shadows of humanity.

He did have another brush with popularity that just made him laugh. Emile fit in with the stereotype of the homeless millionaire that was once the water-cooler talk of Vancouver. This relates to a previous newspaper story of an old man who looked and dressed similarly to Emile. He was a big burly guy with an unkempt black beard who sold newspapers at the Hastings and Burrard intersection for years. No one knew his name until after he died. He was a disheveled paperman who died and left unclaimed, as the story goes, over a million dollars.

Emile wasn’t normally that popular. Children playing on the beach would walk a wide half-circle around Emile. Mothers would often shout, “beware of strangers,” within his earshot, and often tightly held their children’s hands as they passed.

Many people who would walk by him on the beach paid no attention to his presence. However, Emile saw them. He knew many of the mysteries that people carried in their hearts – the hurt, the pain, the elation, joy, loss, and successes. Did he quietly join the person in these moments of passing because he was a deeply sensitive man? Or was it because these people reminded the deep hurts that may have haunted him. The answer is not known.

A social worker came and offered Emile lodging and a small stipend for food, but he gratefully declined. “I am not a beggar,” he replied, “and I like it here.” The soft white puffs of clouds in the sky, the inquisitiveness of the seagulls, the comings and goings of ships of every kind of shape and color, and the ever-changing shoreline always caught his attention.

An evangelist came by and urged him to accept Christ. Emile humbly bowed his head and followed his lead. The recited together, “Dear Lord, I am a sinner, need your help, and ask for forgiveness. . .” Emile constantly looked down at the sand while praying but that indifference went unnoticed. The evangelist, delighted at his conversion, invited Emile to come to their Church. Sunday was four days away. Emile will say yes but would not attend. “They are really nice people, but it is not really a place for me,” he thought. He would never say this out loud nor would he refuse an evangelist’s prayer. He never likes to hurt anyone’s feelings. Neither did the evangelist realize that Emile has been converted three times in the last month.

Every night as Emile wanders about, he thinks about God and often prays. It is a kind of muttering self-talk. No one really knows what he is saying. He doesn’t even really understand either. The few times he went to Church have helped. The tele-evangelists have encouraged him along the way with their promises of a better life. He had never forgotten their words. He even tried to send $20.00 to the television preacher Peter Popoff because Peter desperately needed the money. However, he didn’t have any cheques or even a bank account to make this happen. He didn’t like to send cash through the mail. “Too many people would try to steal it before it got there,” he thought.

A politician came by and sat with Emile. “Isn’t it bad Emile that the government has cut off social assistance to such a degree that it forces people like you to live between these logs?” Emile shook his head in agreement and gave a small smile. His golden rule to never hurt or offend anyone even if it means to lie was effectual in this circumstance. They posed together for a picture. The politician left, promising Emile a better life if he ever got into office.

A doctor and a nurse came by to give Emile a brief check-up. The doctor was a friendly man who Emile always appreciated. The physician gently but firmly asked, “have you been taking your medication?” Emile apologized. The doctor wrote a prescription with a few extra words of encouragement along with advice. Emile asked some questions and thanked both him and especially the nurse. The doctor patted him on the back and wished him a good week. He returned the greeting with a slight smile and then asked, “hey doctor, would you have an extra smoke?” The doctor shrugged his shoulders and answered, “that’s a bad habit that you should get rid of Emile. Smoking is not good for you”. “I know, I know,” Emile replied.

The doctor left and Emile didn’t know what to do with the prescription. He thought he should wait for his friend Alan who always appeared at the most unexpected times. Alan always helped him with going to the pharmacy. Emile didn’t like going there, but it wasn’t so bad if Alan came along. Alan didn’t mind helping him. This way they could share the prescription together. Well, sharing was what Emile thought, but Alan gave little in return, except that he was always fun to be with — except for the time Alan took much and had a serious condition called lock-jaw. There was no option for him but to go to the emergency ward and get treated. He told his gray-bearded friend that he would never do so much at once again. Emile knew that Alan may have learned this lesson but He wasn’t the sharpest saw when it came to experimenting with things. Sooner or later trouble would find him again in another form. Of course, Emile would never tell him that directly. He didn’t want to hurt his feelings. Friends don’t do that.

What if one takes this story a step further and look it from a spiritual angle. What if Jesus was walking on the Third Beach while Emile was in his usual pose sitting between the logs? Obviously, throngs of people would be surrounding Christ for numerous personal reasons.

Would Jesus stop and call Emile far away between the sand and the logs to join Him? Probably not. He knows Emile is sensitive to being singled out and that it would hurt more than help.

Would He forget about Emile while being among the pressing crowd? Emile’s legacy is minuscule compared to those extroverts who see Christ and think that salvation is by the act of physically coming to Him and speaking humbly. Both these acts gave Emile a morbid fear – not because it was simply a God thing, but because approaching or speaking emotionally to anyone was a fearful encounter.

Jesus talking, healing, and converting the multitudes who did not have such fears would have an immediate impact and could go viral. Almost anything He would do with Emile would have a negligible cosmic or social impact.

Emile is also too shy to move into Christ’s personal space and too humble to ask for anything.

What if Christ came to him? Would He explain that Emile must be born again and begin to read him the four spiritual laws? Would He cast out the demons that some would candidly believe Emile to possess?

No. It would be a different type of exchange. It would be a simple look that happens in a micro-second. The gaze a mother gives a child that goes far beyond words and warms the heart. Emile has seen it at the beach many times. The child doesn’t even pay much attention to it, or so it seems. One instance in particular that Emile recalls was a little girl with her mom. She had green shorts with white polka dots and t-shirt that has a picture of Dora on it. Two little pony tails tied up her reddish-brown hair. She sang while making civilizations in the sand while building imaginary worlds — a world of people, doctors, firetrucks, police, good guys and bad guys. Emile quietly watched from a distance. In these situations, he often has wanted to join. An hour or two later, the mother would wrap a towel around her child, gently stroke her head and say, “it is time for this little policeman to go home, get something to eat and go to bed.” The little girl would smile and give that wiggly little dance, or protest such a command that only four-year-olds can do. She may even ask for a few more minutes because it is fun to run away from the tidal ocean waves battering the beach, watch the birds, perhaps wait because a whale is about to come and talk with her, or see the boats and smell the salty breeze. In a moment, Emile will see them walk past the logs and the dunes, holding hands as they went their way. They would stop at the sidewalk and shake the sand from between their toes. They proceed further away, becoming dots on the landscape and in a few moments their frames would disappear altogether.

A look from Jesus would be enough for Emile. He would feel like the child with her mother. It is unsure whether Jesus would want to change him, or even see a problem. Emile probably wouldn’t budge from between the logs but the glance would warm his heart. The crowd from the beach, even if they knew he was there, wouldn’t even notice his change in countenance. Emile would appear to be the same stoic self, but inside he would be satisfied.

———

Emile is a fictional character based on Charles Sullivan’s experiences with transient males as a Residential Care Worker at the Salvation Army in the early 1990s.

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