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Tribute to Peter Porter by his friend Rob Ens

Peter and Rob had a special friendship developed over a period of 20 years.

Peter and Rob had a special friendship developed over a period of 20 years.

Meeting Henri Nouwen and Visiting L’Arche
Twenty one and a half years ago, I had a chance encounter with Henri Nouwen in the Hung Dho Vietnamese restaurant in Toronto. That brief encounter would change my life forever. Henri invited me to L’Arche, slipping me a napkin with his secretary’s name and number scrawled. The name read, Kathy Christie. Henri instructed that I should call her to arrange dinner at a L’Arche home, prior to the service. That home was the Green House.

On that epic Friday, I spent most of the meal nervously speaking with assistants, as I had no understanding of how to communicate with L’Arche core members. Following the meal, we walked down the laneway to what is now called the Cedars, but was then called the Dayspring Chapel.

David, Steffan and Peter travelling.

David, Steffen and Peter travelling.

I recall standing at the doorway, gazing through a sea of people at two individuals in particular – Peter Porter and Steffen Muller, a German assistant. Peter reclined on the floor into Steffen’s arms, displaying a palpable trust and mutual respect that did not require words. Tears welled up in my eyes, as I tried to process what was going on inside me. Steffen had shown me the treasure in Peter and both had shown me the treasure of mutuality. I knew one thing for certain – I had come to the right place. Thus began my road of discovery (and healing). That was the beginning of getting to know Peter Porter.

Developing a Friendship with Peter
On initially meeting Peter, I had no indication I was connecting at any level, because Peter waits. He waits for you to demonstrate that you genuinely want relationship with him. He didn’t speak much and what he said was of another world. For the first year, I had to make some sense of “boot in the bum, no need to get excited, no need to get rambunctious, dat Gordie, no Dayspring, no Ark tomorrow, dentit don’t work on bitmit day (the dentist does not work on Christmas Day), I’m a worry wart,” and a constant chatter about a deceased cat, named Souris (pronounced Sooree).

Peter's Friday nights were usually spent with friends at a local establishment.

Peter’s Friday nights were usually spent with friends at a local establishment.

My first social experience with Peter outside L’Arche was at a roadhouse bar on Elgin Mills. The Green House and I had just seated ourselves comfortably at a long table, when the band started playing. It took but a few minutes for our entire group to enter the dance floor, with two exceptions. Peter and I were left behind to manage the beverages – and that he did. I sat in front. Peter reclined behind me. Five minutes into the first song, I took my first glance back, just in time to watch Peter finish his third or fourth beer. It wasn’t long after, that Peter and I (the one with no dance skill) were making our own moves on the floor in front of a mystified group of L’Arche assistants returning to their empty bottles. Entering the Green House that night, Peter declared to me, “I don’t drink”.

Peter Loved Church
He made sure everyone knew he was an Anglican. He attended every week but under that stoic face was a healthy irreverence, something I loved about Peter. He knew when the sermon was too long and would sometimes call out “AMEN,” as that was when he felt the service should end. When that didn’t work, he would simple say “too long…… tea after?”

Peter Loved Christmas
Peter’s imagination knew no end and I loved that about him. Driving home from the Santa Claus parade was an absolute delight, filled with “Narnia-like” talk. We would sing Christmas carols together, alternating on the words, while trying to figure out where Santa Claus and the reindeer would sleep that night. “The Mall!”, that was the perfect answer, and so it was for 10 years – Santa would sleep safely at the mall between the parade and Christmas Eve; that is, except for one special night, when he would appear at the Green House gift exchange. Somehow through all the fantasy, Peter had an idea what was going on when he would say to Santa, “Dat you BILL?”

Becoming Surprised at Peter’s Engagement with Strangers
Although Peter would seem cool and aloof on first encounter, he would completely surprise me at times with his willingness to engage with complete strangers. The Green House would attend my annual summer parties without fanfare, mixing with the crowd. Bill would gather autographs, Dave would talk about his days in the Richmond Hill fire department and Peter would simply “be”. In one corner, near the BBQ, there was a circle of distinguished gentlemen talking about business. Peter decided he would join them. No one thought anything of the intrusion; they simply widened the circle. Peter, quietly and patiently, waited for his moment to participate. Now, there was a cheese plate being passed around and at the opportune time, Peter pounced on the large cheese-ball placed in the center of the platter and proceeded to eat it like an apple. The cat was out of the bag, so to speak. Peter was not there for chitchat. Peter was there for the cheese!

On another occasion at the Falcon and Firkin outdoor patio, where we spent many a warm Friday night together, Peter was getting bored of our table conversation. No one at the table was speaking directly to Peter, so he pulled a 180 and started talking to a single, slightly inebriated patron behind him. They spoke about the church – the Anglican Church – and Peter declared his allegiance. The gentleman was delighted, as he too was Anglican. The more they interacted, however, the more I noticed the pain in this man’s eyes. After about five minutes of back and forth, the man abruptly stood. He looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Amazing, that was amazing”. He then said goodbye to Peter, shook his hand and simply walked out to the street. Peter had clearly connected with the man, in only a way Peter could do, as only Peter has done with many of us here today.

Recognizing Peter’s Compassion
My awakening to Peter’s inner life was a slow process, but an incredibly journey. That once stoic face would now put his hand on my leg in the Dayspring and say, “hard week?” When I had been away, he would say, “I missed you Rob”. When I was impatient with him, he would say, “I’m sorry…..I’m sorry…” when I was the one who should have been apologizing. At night, before putting him to bed, Peter would often say, “Rob…. Thank you”. While lying in his bed, Peter’s knees would move upward when something was wrong. I would sit down on his bed and we would talk. The legs would then slump flat and I would turn the lights out.

“Good night Peter”……………… “Good night Rob”………“See you in the morning?”
“See you in the morning”
I would begin to walk away.…………………………………………”Rob?“
“Yes, Peter.” …………………………….“Dat dirty?”
“Yes, Peter your pants are dirty”…………………………..“I don’t want those pants.”
”Good night Peter”.

Rob has been a faithful volunteer and friend of the Green House for almost 20 years, and had a special connection with Peter.