His friends call him “Reverend,” but he introduced himself to us as a seeker. Some would say we met Greg by accident, though I’m not entirely sure I believe in accidents anymore. In one year, Greg taught us more about evangelism than we’d ever expected.
Just after we moved into our new apartment in Tempe, Arizona, my daughter dropped a toy from the balcony of our apartment onto the enclosed patio of the apartment below. The gate was open, but since we were new to the neighborhood, we knocked on the door first. No one was home. We waited a few days, seeing no signs of life coming or going from the downstairs apartment. Elanor had moved on to other things by the time my husband, Sam, ran into Greg, returning from the laundry and opening the door to his apartment.
Sam and Greg found common ground almost immediately. Greg’s typical uniform was a T-shirt and faded jeans. He wore his wavy light brown hair in two braids that hung down the middle of his back just to his shoulder blades. Sam had been asked to cut his hair for his new teaching position and was still mourning his loss. As Greg led Sam through the apartment to the patio to retrieve the lost toy, they found plenty to talk about.
Greg burned incense and sage, and the aroma met you at the door like a lonely puppy—a smoky, exotic smell of herbs, sweetgrass, and tobacco. Greg’s apartment smelled like a Whole Foods Market in the middle of the Rez. Even with the blinds open (they rarely were), the light through the apartment made it look like a sepia tone photograph of itself. On a narrow built-in shelf in the living room was a small shrine to ’50s kitsch—gaudy antique postcards, plastic knickknacks, miniature tiki sculptures, a brightly colored floral bandana, and a small portrait of Elvis. There might have been a candle or two.
In the opposite corner of the room, lying on a dingy woven Mexican blanket, was Greg’s buffalo skull altar where he prayed. Greg told us he’d turned to Native American religion to quit a drug habit—it worked—and was following a Native mentor, hoping to become a medicine man himself. His pipe hung in a beaded leather bag by the buffalo skull. He’d crafted and beaded the bag himself.
Greg was an artist who worked in beads and leather in the style of Native American art, although he was not of Native ancestry. Sam and Greg spent about an hour talking, going through Greg’s apartment and discussing art and historical re-enactment (another of Greg’s hobbies) and their mutual fascination with Native history and religion.
“I’m a seeker,” Greg said. I’d never actually heard anyone admit that openly. Greg was a man who seemed more at home with questions than with answers.
Sam came back upstairs from his quest carrying Elanor’s lost toy, and, since he had been gone a whole hour, I had a feeling he’d found a friend even before he started telling me the story. Greg and his wife and son, River Minnow, had moved to Arizona earlier that year, but after they went to Texas to visit his wife’s family, his wife decided to stay in Texas with their son. Unable to convince her to come back home with him, Greg returned to Arizona alone. He suspected divorce papers would be coming soon. He wasn’t sure when he’d see his son again, if ever. River was just about Elanor’s age.
Sam and Greg continued their conversation over the next few days, and we invited him up for supper a couple days later. He sat on the couch with Sam and Elanor, reading a book together as my younger daughter toddled around the living room and I got the meal together.
In a way, we were all lost souls there in the middle of the desert, wandering in our own respective wildernesses. We’d moved to Arizona for a job—Sam’s teaching position in the town where his family lived and where we thought we’d settled was cut to part-time, and he was essentially laid off. When the job offer in Arizona came along in May, it was the only offer on the table. We knew no one in Arizona, having lived the past six years within walking distance of family.
After that, we offered Greg a standing invitation to come up for dinner with us. He took us up on it occasionally. “Be careful—I’m going to end up hanging around like a bad couch you can’t get rid of,” he said with a chuckle.
A few months after we’d met, Greg enrolled in trucking school, hoping to supplement (or at least regulate) his income by getting certified to drive trucks cross-country. It sounded like it would be a good fit. He seemed the sort of guy that would do well with life on the road. We fed Greg’s cat, picked up his mail, and checked on the apartment while he was away, sometimes for weeks at a time. I’d go downstairs while the kids were napping, carrying the baby monitor with me. Miss Kitty, Greg’s charcoal-dust grey cat, would greet me at the door some days. Most of the time, though, she’d saunter across the living room and hide under the couch while I replenished her water and food bowl.
I’d pass River’s growth chart on the hallway wall as I went to dump the litter box. Greg’s wife had had her things and most of River’s shipped to Texas, but there was still a ghost-like presence left in the apartment: her back issues of Cook’s Illustrated and expensive kitchen tools that didn’t seem like they’d belong to a neo-hippie. River’s sandbox was still out on the patio, its turtle-shell lid lying at a sad tilt in the corner.
I wondered what Miss Kitty thought of the situation—all her people gone, with only my daily visit to reassure her that she hadn’t been entirely abandoned by the human race. She was left with the run of the place, only the cockroaches sharing her domain.
The roaches that had taken up residence in Greg’s place had likely relocated from ours. Shortly after we moved in, I’d reluctantly resorted to chemical warfare after I counted over a dozen roaches walking around my kitchen in broad daylight like they owned the place. Greg had a more peaceful, if reluctant, coexistence with them. “They’ll just come back if I spray,” he said, so he just did what he could to squash them when he was home, which lately, wasn’t much. I suspected leaving Miss Kitty’s food out probably wasn’t helping the situation, but there wasn’t much to do about it, short of getting rid of the food or the cat.
The ants were a different story. I contended with an ant invasion in the bathroom of Greg’s place one afternoon a couple days before he returned. They were snaking a trail from the bathtub over the floor, as ants do. I fetched the dish soap and swept them away as best I could. They were back when Greg returned. When he came back and asked if we’d had ant problems in our apartment, I’d mentioned that I’d gotten rid of a swarm of them in his place and he seemed to shudder a bit. Ants were a bad sign. Bad medicine. Greg didn’t explain why—but I took note of it and figured I’d ask more later.
Around this time, he went on a road trip with his Native mentor, driving and visiting through South Dakota and various places along the way—in quest of a vision. He came home frustrated, unable to do the ceremony he had wanted to do.
“I’m not in a good place,” was about all he could say some days. His trucking adventure ended eventually when he found that spending most of the day behind the wheel of a semi was more stifling than he’d expected.
“There was no way to eat healthy on the road. I wound up eating truck stop food with my instructor all the time. No way to get to a grocery store—I was kind of at his mercy when it came to where to eat. I’m pretty sure I’ve gained 10 pounds,” he said, motioning to a slight paunch in his mid-section, “and I feel like crap.”
Some time after he’d returned from his failed quest, and around the time he started his trucking job, Greg asked Sam to pray with him. By then, we’d talked about religion from both of our perspectives. Greg knew how we worshiped; he knew a little about our perspective on God and faith and what it meant to us to walk with God. We knew some of Greg’s perspective on spirituality—what it meant to him to follow the way of the pipe. Greg knew that we prayed only to the Creator.
Our relationship was not one of trying to convert each other to our own way. Instead we listened to each other and tried to understand each other’s perspective. For Greg to ask Sam to pray with him meant we’d somehow reached a point of understanding that could bridge our differences in belief—but still we were aware of the need to tread carefully in recognition of those differences. After they had agreed to meet together in Greg’s apartment, Sam ran upstairs and quickly explained what was going on. I set our church prayer chain going as I put the kids to bed, making a couple quick phone calls to some friends who knew about our friendship with Greg and would understand the immensity of the situation. Our entire friendship could hinge on what happened that night, for better or for worse.
Greg and Sam prayed together. Afterward, Sam came home saying it was probably the most intense prayer time he’d ever had. They prayed together one more time after that. But after talking with his mentor, Greg explained that he’d had a dream that really affected him spiritually, but he wasn’t comfortable sharing it with us. We respected his choice to keep it to himself, but we also understood that a change had happened somewhere along the line. After that point, it seemed that whatever spiritual connection we had was closed off. We still ate dinner together occasionally, still spent time together, still talked, but an invisible wall went up any time the topic of spirituality came up.
By spring, it had become increasingly clear that Sam’s job was not a good fit. He started looking into other work around the area in preparation for when the school year was over. I took an early-morning paper route in the hope of piling up a little savings in case it took some time for the next job to come along. I picked up Greg’s mail while he was on one of his trips and placed an official-looking letter from a county in Texas in with the other mail on his kitchen counter.
Sam and I started feeling our life slowly shifting again, and we questioned God and ourselves: Why all this wandering in the desert? We could come up with only two good things that had happened that year: finding our church family and our relationship with Greg. “You know, if you think about it,” I’d said after Sam had had a really bad day at school, but we’d had a really good conversation over dinner with Greg, “maybe this thing with Greg is the whole reason we’re here. If that’s the case, maybe all this was worth it.”
Later that summer, Greg moved away. We helped him pack and load the truck and said goodbye. It felt like permission to move on. We moved back to Wisconsin about a month later, where unemployment was lower, the crime rate was better, our kids could play outside, and we had family. On our drive back to Wisconsin, we stayed a night with my parents in Iowa. They offered to watch the kids while Sam and I went out for coffee.
Sam and I talked about our long-term hopes of doing cross-cultural ministry, but both of us acknowledged that the plan we had when we moved to Arizona didn’t seem to be the right fit for us anymore. Greg had radically changed our definition of ministry in the space of that year of wandering in the desert. Greg taught us that in order to love your neighbor, sometimes the most important step is to simply show up.