There was Ned, sitting on the front stoop. We hadn’t seen him in maybe a year. He had moved to another city. But now, there he was, and he did not look good.
Ned was with us for a few months last year. He came to Valley Brook fresh out of prison, where he had spent 30 years for murder. He was living with his sister in the neighborhood behind Joe’s.
Over the few months he was with us, we got to know him and his story. Ned was a soldier in Vietnam. He was trained and experienced in violence. When he came home, he was full of anger. Anger at what he had seen. Anger at what he had been required to do. He described himself as a ticking bomb just waiting to go off.
One night in a bar a man insulted him, and Ned “snapped.” He beat the man to death. During his time in prison, Ned’s anger and violence only worsened. He fought men out of his anger, and he fought men in defense of his own life. The violence led to him killing a man in prison, thus extending his sentence.
Ned went into prison strong and young, but the man we know is physically spent. The self-assured way he holds his head and the prison tats that cover his arms scream, “I don’t need no one!”, but Ned walks with a cane due to damaged vertebrae that were stabbed by a knife. He legs are weak from bullet wounds that damaged his muscles. And his lungs are destroyed from a lifetime of chain smoking cigarettes.
Those first weeks he spent with us held deep conversations. Sometimes he confessed that he was tempted to commit another crime. He didn’t know how to do life out here. Though life in prison was rough, at least he understood it. He was afraid—afraid he couldn’t make it on the outside.
For a few months, Ned was grateful that his sister had taken him in. But before long, it became clear that she was using drugs, that she would only bring dangerous temptation and maybe even guilt by association. He decided he had to move. We were sad to see Ned go, but he had found a promising situation in another city. We wished him well.
So I was surprised to see Ned back at Joe’s. It was hot—113 degrees hot, and Ned was holding on to the leash of a dog that sprawled on the ground panting. I greeted him and asked what he was doing here. In a tumble of words, he blurted that the friend he’d been staying with was crazy. She had started using drugs. Was angry; she said terrible things. He was afraid he’d get mad and do something he’d regret, so he had jumped in his truck and drove to the only place he could think of—Joe’s.
He didn’t know what to do. He’d slept in his truck the night before. He’d left without any of his stuff. He had no place to stay. He’d tried several cheap motels, but none of them would allow his dog, and the homeless shelter wouldn’t take pets either. He thought maybe we could help.
I hate these moments. The moments when I don’t know what to do. How are we supposed to help? I could take care of the immediate things. He needed a meal. His dog was thirsty. That I could do, but a place for him, a life for him, how do we accomplish that?
I told Ned we were glad he was back and that we would do what we could. I got a plate of chicken for him and a bowl of water for his dog, patted him on the shoulder and told him, “We’ll figure something out.”
We had a team of young people there that day doing a service project. Some were painting, some were cleaning. I spent a lot of the day running, getting paint brushes, clorox and mops, giving instructions, etc.
About 5:00 in the afternoon, as I rushed through the front door for the hundredth time, I realized that Ned was still sitting where I’d seen him before in the same place on the front sidewalk—in the 113 degree heat. I went to him and asked, “Why are you out here? It’s too hot. You need to be inside!” He said, “I can’t take my dog in there.”
Now Ned was wheezing. I had been so busy I didn’t even notice that he’d been sitting in the heat all afternoon!
We tied his dog to the back door and made sure he had a full water bowl. Ned had a nebulizer in his truck, so we took it into Joe’s, set it up in the corner and got to work giving him a breathing treatment. I scolded him about sitting in the heat like that, to which he began to talk to me about his dog. He said, “I love him. He is my family. He is the only one who is faithful to me. The only one I can trust. I didn’t want to leave him outside alone.”
Ned looked terrible. He sounded terrible. Deep wheezing sounds coming from his lungs. He is supposed to sleep with an oxygen machine at night, and I knew he had slept in his car. Even at night the temperature wasn’t getting below a hundred. If he slept there again, he just might die. And he just sat there—looking at me.
My family was waiting for me at home. I was already late. They were needing dinner. My mind raced. But I couldn’t leave without something to offer him! Options. What options? Any place I know where he could stay? Anyone in the community that might take him in? Take him home with me. A murderer? Hmmm.
In my mind, I started yelling at God, “You can’t send me people like this, and then not give me some way to help them! What do I do?!” Suddenly I remembered a guy. I even remembered his name, because it was great, “Valentine.” What a name for a guy!
Val had come into Joe’s a couple of weeks before. He walked in the door and just stood there looking around the room for a minute or so. He seemed confused, so I went to him thinking maybe he was looking for someone or maybe he was in the wrong place. I asked if I could help him with something. He said, “I don’t know.” I asked, “Can I get you some coffee?” He said, “Well, I guess I could have some coffee.”
While I was getting his coffee, I asked how he was doing. Such a simple question, but one that so often opens a floodgate. He started talking . . . and talking . . . and talking. He told me his whole life story in a few minutes. Successful business man. Drug addiction. Loss of everything. Been clean for several years. Destroyed family relationships. Moved here from the Northeast. (He had the accent to prove it.) Then he told me that he loves dogs. He rescues stray dogs, takes them in and cares for them, even tries to find good homes for them. He had five dogs at the time. He said, “I guess I like dogs cause they can’t hurt me like people have.”
After maybe ten minutes of him talking, he stopped and said, “I have no idea why I just told you all of that.” He said, “I haven’t spoken to anyone in about nine months. I’ve completely isolated myself from everybody but my dogs. I was driving home from the dog shelter that I visit and decided for some reason to take a route that I never drive. I saw this coffee shop and thought, ‘I need to go in there.’ I don’t know why. I don’t ever go to coffee shops. I just felt like I needed to come in here. Weird.” I smiled. We sat down at a table and visited for another hour or so. I learned a lot about Val that day.
I told him how glad we were that he had come in and invited him to come back any time. When he left, he handed me a piece of paper with his phone number. He said, “Just in case you ever need to call me for anything.” Now it was my turn to think, “Weird.” I couldn’t think of any reason I would ever need to call him . . .
I asked Ned, “If I could find someone who would take care of your dog for a while, would you be willing to let him? Then you could go to a shelter for a while, until we can find another place for you to live.
He thought for a moment, and then said, “Well . . . If I was sure they would really take care of him, I could do that.”
I jumped up and called Val’s number. “Val, this is Jamie—from Joe’s Addiction. A coffee shop you came to a couple of weeks ago.” Immediately he responded, “Sure! I remember you. What can I do for you?” I told him the story and he said, “I’ll be there in ten minutes.”
When I left Joe’s that evening, the two men were sitting together in the corner talking about their dogs, telling each other their stories and laughing like old friends. I heard Val tell Ned, “Yeah, Val is short for Valentine,” and I couldn’t help but think of the Love that God had demonstrated to Ned in the most practical, physical way.