I am the Rev. Barbi Click, Deacon and Manager of Trinity Food Ministry.
I had not been Manager of the Trinity Food Ministry very long when Dennis came up to me with his hand outstretched for a shake.
“You don’t know me, but I know you. My name is Dennis and I used to be somebody.”
His statement stunned me, shaking many preconceived notions. It also humbled me and taught me a valuable lesson. New to the ministry of working with people who were unhoused, it had never occurred to me that losing one’s sense of identity was even a possibility.
This incident was simply one of the many times that I learned from Dennis in the six years that I knew him. He taught me that being homeless was only one small aspect of who he was as a child of God. A bigger lesson, I came to understand that love and addiction will always be at war, but that love will win eventually, no matter how long it takes. My job was simply to be there and offer my love.
Dennis helped substantiate what I had already begun to learn. Everyone has a story; some people have many; some of those stories are tragic. He could not be identified simply as “The homeless”. He was Dennis Kinealy who was so much more than what his current condition implied. Through him, I came to understand the profound depth of what community means. Sharing our stories is vital to building relationships. These stories lead us past the exterior into the real life, opening a new understanding that we are all connected, that we are one in the body of Christ.
And Dennis did love sharing his stories and the pictures he carried with him! Las Vegas cab driver, farmer, urban mountain man, adventurer, teller of tales, son, brother, uncle, father, Trinitarian, Episcopalian and a member of our Beloved Community – these were just a few of the terms that described Dennis.
He loved being called Dennis the Menace. His grin just got bigger when he heard that term. He loved being funny, cute, even coy. He loved people loving him. Of course, for many of us, loving him was easy because it required little of us, we had no expectations of him and his power to hurt us was very limited. He came and went as he pleased, with very few demands. We at the Pantry met him where he was and walked with him for a little while. We were often his audience as he played the stage. Yet love is complicated. The toll of worry and concern on those who loved him longer was much heavier, more broken and far more painful to them and for him.
He was a proud man, pleased with some of the things he had done, proud of his family, of being a part of Trinity. He was proud to have had the actor Debbie Reynolds as a passenger in his cab. He had a pride in having owned a bit of land at one time. He was honored to be the father of his two sons. He almost burst with pride when Debbie, his sister and her family came with him to the Trinity Art Club.
However, he was a man of many sorrows. Some of these things that made him the most proud also were the source of his guilt which brought him such disappointment in himself. He was unable to forgive himself for not being the son, the brother, the uncle, or the father that he wanted to be. He knew that he had a lot of grief for people he loved.
He knew that his addiction drove a wedge between them and himself. But that is what addiction does. It burns bridges with no regard for love. The addict becomes a passenger in a runaway vehicle. Being out of control is a very lonely place to be.
I don’t know the back story of what brought Dennis to this place in life. There were times when his sorrow rushed out of him in a torrent of tears. His pain and guilt were so evident, so real. I and others reminded him that we are called to forgive, not only others but ourselves. He simply could not see, on this side of the veil, that we all fall short of the glory of God. Yet, that is God’s promise – forgiveness, regardless of our lack. He did not see himself as worthy. That is the wonder of all of this – he was and has been and is now forgiven, just as we all have been for whatever we lack.
Most times, he was happy. He loved to talk, especially about being an “urban mountain man.” He was one of the most resourceful people I ever knew. I would introduce him to people new to the streets so that he could give them pointers on how to survive. He helped a lot of people.
I teased him that he was like a cat with nine lives. Something was always happening to him that would have laid out a lesser man. I cannot count the number of times that Dennis would burst through the doors and head straight for me. His hello would always be sidelined by, “You won’t believe what just happened to me!”
Dennis used a few of those lives after he was hit by a vehicle in December 2016. I think he coded once at the scene and twice in the ambulance ride to Barnes. Many broken bones and a brain injury laid him up in intensive care for a while. He was totally amazed when Fritzi Baker and I visited him. After his long rehab, St. Patrick’s Center connected him with a group that got him permanent housing. Fr. Jon offered to bless his new home so Jon, Debbie Wheeler and I attended the blessing of his new space. He never forgot that day. He never forgot anything anyone ever did for him. It always amazed him that someone would do things for him.
Dennis is an example of how having a house is simply not enough in this world. Home is where community is, and a place to share our joys and the sorrows. God calls us into community because we need one another. Dennis was proud of his confirmation as an Episcopalian. To him, that was proof that he belonged, Trinity was his space, this was his community.
Dennis looked at small things as great blessings. Every ask might not be met with a stated thank you; however, every offering was accepted with a great deal of thanksgiving.
He told me a few weeks ago that he didn’t know if he could go through another winter like last year, that maybe Maddie from the City would be able to help him find a place. Dennis had burned many bridges with help organizations – they wanted to help him, but they had exhausted their resources for him unless he was willing to make some dramatic changes. I reminded him of what he had to do to get help – go into long term rehab. As he turned to walk out, with a wave of his hand, he said, “yeah, I know.”
Dennis left this world in a flight of freedom. The prison gates of addiction broke open. He was rid of all the guilt and all the sorrow. He finally understood that he was forgiven.
I know that Dennis was not alone at the end. I know that “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” Take my hand and come with me.
I can hear him saying the same words he told me when I first met him:
“You don’t know me but I know you. My name is Dennis and I used to be somebody.”
However, I also know that God immediately told him, “I do know you. I know every hair on your head, I have known you since before you were formed in your mother’s womb. You are somebody because you are mine. I have a perfect place already prepared for you. Come and see.”
Memorial Service for Dennis Kinealy