We All Need a “Loser” in Our Lives

We can’t really judge much of anything about this book based on it’s cover. There is something to be said for that.

When Leroy was 3 years old, he found his way into the garage where he drank a can of motor oil.

His parents rushed him to the hospital and doctors saved his life. Barely. For most of the nearly 70 years since, his life has been dogged by an almost endless series of difficulties, most of them brought on by his poor choices.

In his late teens, Leroy embarked the slippery slope of alcohol and substance use, which eventually led to full-blown addiction. He tells me his “drug of choice” during those years was heroin, but he also tinkered with the many other hard-core drugs which accompany that lifestyle. He spent many years living on the streets, some in jail, some in the homes of caring people, others in hospitals, in-patient treatment centers and the myriad places that echo the textbook snapshot of the life of a drug addict. He’s lived a very rough life. But not everything in his life is dark and despairing.

On September 6, 2009, I took Leroy to lunch and he taught me a lesson on humility I will never forget.

I met Leroy when I was in my teens. He was an itinerant member of the church I grew up in. He was the most colorful person in that church and in some ways, still is. He was often part of conversation.

My friend’s dad was the pastor of our church, so he would regale us with “Leroy stories.” Most of these were comically tragic. The stories always involved other characters: some of them “colorful” like Leroy, some random, everyday people, and many who wore silver badges pinned to blue uniforms.

There was the bar fight which resulted in most of Leroy’s teeth getting knocked out (I don’t think he has any left); there was the time he successfully ran from the cops…across a state line; there was the classic encounter in the grocery checkout line when the clerk responded with an “I’m Jewish” to Leroy’s question asking if she was a Christian — when Leroy then turns to my pastor friend and says in naïve innocence (and in his customary FULL volume), “she’s going to hell, right?”

Now Leroy is clean, but his social awkwardness has improved little. In so many ways, he is a young child trapped in the tired body of a 68 year old drug addict. People typically steer clear of him, unless they know him. Because the more people know Leroy, the closer they allow themselves to venture. Not simply because he is quite certainly, harmless, but because he provides an unexpected doorway into a world that is more just, compassionate and human.

Several months leading up to September 6, 2009, I told Leroy I would take him to lunch to celebrate his sobriety. He was ecstatic. Two or three times per week, he would call my home phone number to remind me of our planned lunch date. “September 6th, right Dan? You’ll take me to Sizzler, right? And you’ll buy me the all-you-can-eat shrimp lunch, right? And I’ll get a coke, because I don’t get to have coke in the home I live. And, you promised to give me a ten afterward, right?”

“Yes, Leroy. I’m looking forward to it.

For weeks, this conversation repeated itself. Countless times.

On one hand, his relentlessness tried my patience. Sometimes, I would let the call go to voicemail. Sometimes, I would entertain the call. Sometimes, my family would laugh when they’d see me on the phone, knowing I was talking to Leroy, having the same conversation I’d had a hundred times. But his calls were always short, respectful of my time and appreciative. Honestly, I had no reason to be bothered by his calls. When I say he is like a child, there is a profoundly sweet demeanor to him that makes him endearing like a child. How can you get upset with a kid who is so excited about something? Even if that something is a Sizzler lunch? Maybe especially when that something is a Sizzler lunch…?

Finally, it is September 6th. It’s a beautiful Northern California day when I pull up to the front of our church to pick up Leroy. He’s talking with a small cluster of people, all congratulating him on his year of sobriety. I had a 1997 BMW convertible and had put the top down, knowing this would be a fun treat for him as we trek across town to Sizzler. Plus, I was trying to make the best of things for myself because all my friends were heading off to a lunch spot that was decidedly more my style than, Sizzler!

Leroy sees me in the car. He lights up. I mean, it was evident the endless weeks of anticipation were sincere and they have finally culminated in this moment. His excitement — like that of a little boy walking through a turnstile into Disneyland — was completely disarming to me. He jumped in my car and we headed out of the parking lot.

There was a big part of me that felt deeply glad to be heading to lunch with him; knowing this would surely be an adventure of some sort and time well invested. There was part of me that felt really jazzed that it was so easy to give someone a small gift that brought so much happiness. And, if I am completely honest with myself, there was also part of me that liked my friends seeing me drive off with Leroy — modeling what it looks like to “be a good person.” All-in-all, I was really happy to be doing something for Leroy.

We are driving down the road, sun shining down on us, wind blowing in our hair, chatting it up without effort. We’re laughing and talking about what we’ll order at Sizzler (as if this hadn’t ever been discussed). I’m feeling good about this decision. I’m feeling good about me.

Then Leroy startles me from my momentary, self-congratulatory bliss. “Dan, can I pray?”

“Uh, yeah. Sure, Leroy.”

And then he starts. He runs on for about two minutes. I’m still driving, but I’m hanging on every word. His prayer is a lucid, heartfelt litany — almost like a poem — of thankfulness and hope. For me. And my family. All of it is about his love for me. On and on he goes, offering up words of gratitude for each person in my family; by name. I didn’t even realize he knew the names of my kids. He prays his hope for each us. For goodness for each of us. For his thankfulness for each of us.

It ruined me.

I was taking Leroy to lunch today — to bless him. But Leroy picked up that whole thing and turned it on its head. My simple little lunch was done partly out of compassion, but partly out of some sense of duty and some sense of self. It was a small gift, without any real cost, when calculated. Leroy’s gift to me — his prayer — was without any real cost either, but it was sincere and heartfelt and genuine and a natural outpouring of who he was and how he views his world. There was no sense of duty; there was no sense of self. There was simply a worn, bruised, simple man whose heart was overflowing with gratitude. Toward me and those I care most deeply about.

I was humbled beyond belief. The whole thing was so sudden and unexpected, I had a hard time stepping back into the moment. But once I did, I found that I was changed. I now found myself with a deep desire to be at lunch with Leroy. Just to be with my friend.

I’ve been reading the book, Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson, an acclaimed civil rights lawyer, activist and author. In it he urges us to get physically closer to problems because doing so will completely change our understanding of them. This is true on a macro scale as he talks about a marred criminal justice system, but it’s also true on a micro level: moving closer to “problem people” will change our view of them.

Moving closer to Leroy not only changed my view of him, but it changed my view of me. I will talk about this more in another post, but I want to be an agent of “redemption,” where my time with people is bent on bringing out the best in them; for them to experience incremental wholeness in their lives. But like my time with Leroy, I’m finding that when I press into that kind of activity, I am the one who also experiences incremental wholeness in my own life. I find that whenever I am doing what I can to help bring out the best version of others, I am bringing out the best version of myself. I like that. I want more of that.

As I write this, September 6 is about a month out. Leroy and I will be lunching at Sizzler. He’s been reminding me of this lunch date since last October (no exaggeration). I’ll admit Sizzler is not my favorite lunch spot, but I’ve learned my way around the extensive salad bar so am okay with this annual outing. Ostensibly, this annual lunch is to celebrate Leroy’s next successive year of being clean; but actually, it has become a tradition of two friends spending a couple hours together. I bless him with his favorite lunch and (this year) a “twenty,” and Leroy blesses me with the kind of gratitude and compassion I try to emulate in my own life.

I really believe everyone needs a Leroy in their life. I know I do.

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