Neighbour, Soldier, Friend
A Conversation with Murray Bevan
Interview by Wendy Stringer
God has given me a lot of strength to get over a lot of rough roads. Some of them I made myself, some of them other people made, some of them, just life. I’d still be out in the gutter somewhere without God.
Murray Bevan is a community advocate, a father figure, a recent widower, and a fantastic cook. He has lived at Dundas and Sherbourne for over a decade.
When he walks into the Tim Horton’s on the corner of Parliament and Winchester, where we agreed to meet, he is wearing flat-fronted chinos, a crisp white T-shirt, and a fedora he’s had since before hipsters were, well, hip. He’s got the best face: the whole of it smiles when he catches my eye, and he gives a deep throated laugh that makes strangers turn and look.
First thing he wants to know? “How’s Kiernan?” “How’re the kids?” He treats everyone the same. He’ll give anyone his time but he won’t take nonsense; he’ll always tell you the truth.
We catch up, reminisce, laugh. When I finally ask, “Can I turn the recorder on?” we find it hilarious.
Murray, we met at The Warehouse Mission, just off Wellesley, tucked in behind the shops on Parliament, ten years ago. How old are you now?
76. You met me when I was 65. I taught you how to cook breakfast on Saturday mornings. That was a bonus.
Well, for me, anyway. Remember I made pancakes, but the batter was too thick? You said, “Are you making tea biscuits or pancakes?”
But everyone ate them.
Everyone ate them.
And you learned to make pancakes for a lot of people.
That’s the bonus for sure. So, we met 10 years ago, but a lot happened before that.
I grew up in Oakville, raised by my foster family. A good family. So good. I finished school in grade 8, but I never quit going to school—I lived it.
You worked for the Navy.
I spent time in the Canadian Navy…
Wait, did you cook for the Queen or something?
(Laughing): No, no, no, no, no.
C’mon, didn’t I hear that?
No, no. She wouldn’t be where she is today. (Huge laugh)
Well, that would’ve been a great story. But you can cook for huge crowds.
(Laughs.) Yeah, huge crowds. I still cook for huge crowds. Cooked for the Navy ten years, and eventually I ended up driving tow truck. I moved around a lot.
I know your faith is important to you, Murray. Tell me about it?
I think, when I look back, I was about 5 years old. It didn’t mean much to me really. My foster parents were good people, but they weren’t church-going. They made me go to Sunday school. But I think I must’ve caught something. It wasn’t really until, oh, I don’t know what year it was now—‘81, ’82. I was drinking a lot, you know, so I got connected with the Salvation Army here in Toronto.
The Toronto Temple. I was drinking, going through another rough patch, staying at the Salvation Army hostel on Sherbourne. And I don’t know how, or why, but I just went to The Temple. I think I was led there.
Were you sober at that point?
Yeah, just sober. Before that, I used to get up in the morning, go to work, but I’d be drinking by 4:00pm. It never kept me from working. I mean, I had to work or I couldn’t drink. (Laughs) When I was in the Navy, I’d take leave, 4:00 in the afternoon, drink. Stumble back to the ship, 5:00 in the morning, have a little nap, be up and working by 7:30am. By noon, you’re saying “No more, that’s enough.” But 4:00pm, gone again. Day after day after day.
But I quit drinking. Worked at The Temple for a bit and then moved to Barrie and got away from the Army. When I left Barrie, I had 20 bucks, and I decided I was going to Nova Scotia. I love Nova Scotia. But I got to Toronto and I’m still in Toronto.
You never made it to Nova Scotia.
That was in ‘06. I never got past Cabbagetown. I didn’t know anybody, but when I got here I bumped into Derek. You remember Derek?
I met him at the Good Neighbours Club on a Sunday.
Just met him for the first time?
Yep, didn’t know him, and I said, “Is there any normal Salvation Army churches around here?” He said, “There’s a little one up in the back alley of Parliament and Wellesley.” And that’s how I ended up at The Warehouse Mission, how I met [the pastors] Ron and Linda Farr. And I’m still there. The first thing I started was cooking breakfast. Linda was pretty happy. She asked me, “How are you at organizing?” And I’m still organizing!
I started attending services and I renewed my Soldier-ship because I had just let it go. I got away from church.
Because when you were first at the Toronto Temple you became a member—a Soldier, as the Salvation Army calls it—and when you came back you wanted to renew it?
And I’m still a Soldier today.
How has your faith changed your life?
Well, for one thing, God has given me a lot of strength to get over a lot of rough roads, that I couldn’t’ve got over. Some of them I made myself, some of them other people made, some of them, just life. But I would never have got over it. I’d still be out in the gutter somewhere without God. And all of it has helped me deal with people.
Well, I wasn’t really a selfish person, but I was a survivor, and all I cared about was ME surviving.
But now I care about other people surviving too. I see a lot of people that are down in our neighbourhood, and I know I can’t bring them out, but I can hopefully steer them in a direction, toward God, so they can come out.
How do you do that, Murray? When you see someone really hurting, and you want them to know the God who meets them in hard places, how do you steer them in that direction?
I try to set an example but I never hide my past. I use my past as a tool. Where I came from and where I am today. If God would do it for me, he’d do it for anyone. Something brought me that far. I didn’t do that on my own, I know that. That’s what I try to do, what I try to tell people. Like Howard, you know Howard?
I’ve spent 10 years with Howard. And now, he’s in the kitchen and he’s serving there, he does it all. He has keys for The Warehouse, so he can put the garbage out Monday nights, and it’s all good. If I tell him I need him somewhere, he’s there. I can count on him.
But he learned that at The Warehouse, with you guys, in your community.
He’s the most dependable person. I could call him right now and tell him I need him, and he’d be here in 10 minutes. Wherever he is, he’ll come.
It says something, right? When people can come, be surrounded by friends, good community, and their life changes.
He came, he changed. Ron met him under a bridge—15 years under that bridge. Howard, people like that, they keep me going.
I’m thinking about Grace Toronto. We’re moving down to Jarvis and Carlton, and we’re going to have all these new neighbours. It might be hard for us to meet people and fit in, right?
But you have to either fit into the community, or don’t move in there. Get to know them and fit in.
Why are you moving in there? What’s your purpose in being there? In that neighbourhood?
That’s a great question. I mean, it started because a church said to us, “We want someone to buy our building.” And we said, “That could be a really good spot for us, a good place for us to finally be part of a neighbourhood.” But we’re not moving there to be the great hope, or just for the space either.
I like that. I hope the churches downtown will start working together. It doesn’t matter if it’s Grace Toronto, the Anglican Church, or Salvation Army: we have to join forces. We’re so busy with our own ministries and churches, we’re not together. I even see this between Warehouse Mission and 614, and we’re both Salvation Army!
You talked about your past, past hurts, and how you live life like an open book; you share it with people pretty openly.
Yep. I have no shame about my past. What happened, happened. I don’t sugar coat things. I say it straight—that’s the only way I know how to say it. I’m not selling anything. Take what I say and do what you want with it, or don’t do anything with it. I mean, I care, and I think people know I care. Doesn’t matter who it is, or what they’ve done.
Where do you live?
Dundas and Sherbourne. I’ve lived there 11 years. I can’t believe that. It’s Toronto Community Housing (TCH). Senior’s building.
You’re the Tenant Representative?
Yeah. I’ve done that for eight years, I might do it for another three.
Do you want to do another three?
No. But nobody wants to do it. So, if no one steps up, I’ll do it.
So, how does that work? Do you have a team you get to work with?
From my building, it’s pretty well me. But we have a council, 25 buildings, and we have a Tenant Rep from each of those buildings. We have monthly meetings, and we work together. And they’re all seniors’ buildings—seniors being 59 and up.
Is 59 really a senior?
No. But they’re calling it that.
Your work on the Tenant Council—tell me about it.
Most of the work we do, if we have a common problem in the building, like security, we’ll join forces to try and get TCH to do something about it. We choose things that affect all the buildings. If it’s something that affects my individual building, I deal with that myself. But if it’s something that affects most of the buildings, then we bring it up at council, and we have someone from TCH explain why it’s happening, why it’s not being looked after.
Have you had good success with TCH do you think, as a council?
I don’t think so.
So why keep doing it?
Because I think we get enough results to make it worthwhile. If the council wasn’t there, it would be terrible. The fact that Council is there and TCH knows it, helps. The people who work for TCH don’t know what it’s like to live in social housing or on a fixed income, but we do, so we can push for things that’ll actually help.
What do you see happening in our neighbourhood that encourages you?
I see a lot of the people, who had nothing, basically, in life; they had no hope. I see them getting hope, and they’re starting to join in and become part of the community. At The Warehouse Mission, at Yonge Street Mission, it’s their church home and they want to be part of it.
I don’t see the drugs out in the open so much anymore. Whether they’ve moved, or hide, I don’t know, but they’re not out in the open.
I see people who, five or six years ago, you wouldn’t want to talk to them on the street. They’ll now stop you and talk with you.
The Warehouse, Yonge Street Mission, The Gateway, they’ve been here for the long haul. It hasn’t been a quick change.
No, it’s not quick. I think God uses people to get to other people. You know, Bonnie, Chris, Howard, Linda and Ron Farr: we all, somewhere in life, have had it rough. Either emotionally or financially. We’ve all been through it, in different ways. But when you put us together, it’s pretty great. I think God put us there so we could deal with all the different things that come up. We were put here. What else could it be? There’s no other explanation. Five people, five different walks of life, and all of a sudden we’re in a community. Why? We didn’t go looking for it.
What are your hopes for this neighbourhood over the next year or two?
I would like to see more churches working together for the social well-being of our neighbourhood. We’re living in the same community with the same problems. None of this “I’m going to do this corner, and you do that corner.” Everybody together with one thing in mind: everybody eventually looks up to a God that we all say we believe in. The same God. Jesus.
What would you like to say to us at Grace Toronto Church?
I would say—never forget where you came from. Cause we’ve all been there. In some form, we’ve all been there.
I would say, think of who you’re doing it for. Think of who you’re really serving, don’t let ego and social standing get in the way. Cause we’re all the same, I don’t care, we’re equal. Be committed and dedicated, but not to each other, or to the guy who stands in the pulpit on Sunday.
To God. To Jesus. And the people. That’s the most important thing, no matter where you come from, you be one of the people. Always be one of the people. Remember you’re the same. Help folks with their problems, don’t add to them.
Before [my wife] Thelma died, we got a new doctor. He was young, about 40. We went in for a check-up, and I said to him afterward, “I thought you were going to tell her to stop smoking.”
He said, “Are you totally crazy?”
“Well,” I said, “You’re a doctor. Her other doctor always told her to quit smoking.”
He said, “That woman has been smoking longer than I’ve been alive! Do you think I’m going to tell her to quit smoking at this point?”
He knew, with her dementia and everything, telling her to quit smoking would just add more problems. There’s too much stuff going on. Beating people over the head makes it worse. Find out what’s happening in people’s lives and match that with what it says in the scriptures.
If you listen to someone, you can find something God has said that will help.
Text: Wendy Stringer
Photography: Catherine Noble