Tim Harris speaking at Robert Hansen’s Memorial Gathering May 12, 2011, City Hall Plaza
Robert would have loved this.
Seeing you here. In City Hall Plaza. Looking like a protest rally.
But we’re not here to protest. We’re here to celebrate our friend, Robert Hansen, and the things he stood for.
Robert was always there to support the various poor people’s issues Real Change fights for. He was driven in this, I think, not by any sophisticated analysis of urban poverty issues or belief that the world would actually one day become more just.
He was there because it was the right thing to do. Robert Hansen was a good man. An honest man, who was loyal to his friends and kind to everyone.
There are things that I know personally that Robert believed in.
Robert believed in both Ford and Chevy pick-up trucks, although he preferred Chevy’s. Robert believed in Econoline vans.
Robert believed in hot drip coffee and cigarettes.
Robert believed in the power of bad jokes to make people laugh.
Robert believed in work, and in making himself useful.
Robert believed in fairness, and that everyone should have a shot at a decent life. Robert saw the value in all of us.
And Robert believed that people are good.
I say that Robert believed in work.
He put in more hours than most people selling the paper, and would always be there for us to do what needed to be done.
He called Real Change from Swedish a few days before he died to apologize that he wouldn’t be there to help unload the new papers Wednesday morning, like he always was.
Not long ago, someone asked me what I thought about those who “choose” to be homeless. Who make the calculation that being a wage slave sucks and drop out of regular work altogether.
I said that this struck me, for those who are forever consigned to the worst jobs at the worst pay when they can get them, as entirely rational.
I said that the bigger mystery for me, the bigger source of wonder and amazement, are those who, despite the fact that work doesn’t pay — that our social contract of an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay has been long broken — continue on working, or at least trying to work.
Robert was one of those people.
I remember around six or seven years ago, when Robert thought his ship had finally come in.
He’d been working a lot of hours under the table at an auto junk yard. They liked him and saw that he was good with a wrench and knew his way around cars. I’d never seen him look better. He dropped a lot of weight and even got kind of buff.
They offered him a regular job. He was elated. Twelve bucks an hour. Vacation benefits. Health care. He said he’d still sell the paper sometimes, because he loved his customers, but he wouldn’t be around very much.
Then came the background check. There was a nine year-old felony, expunged from the record in one place but not another. They said sorry, deal’s off.
His desperate attempts to explain went nowhere. My phone call to vouch for him had no effect. My recommendation helped get lots of former interns into grad school, but it couldn’t get Robert his dream job at the junkyard.
The business was under no obligation to give Robert a chance, so they didn’t. They just hired someone else.
I think this was the only time I ever saw Robert in anything like despair, which, in itself, was kind of amazing.
No matter what was going on, whether he was losing a cheap apartment and living in his truck, or sick, or tired, Robert didn’t complain.
He was happy. Robert Hansen was a happy man. I think maybe he was born that way.
Robert never stopped believing in work. In the months before he died, he’d often show me the ID card he received for completing Washington State road flagger training. He was really proud of that. He thought that maybe that would be work a 58 year-old man could do.
The last time we talked about it, he’d pretty much figured out that his badge wasn’t going to get him a job. He was less disappointed this time, but part of him still hoped.
Robert never stopped hoping.
A few days ago, I was talking with one of Robert’s good friends about the extraordinary community response to Robert’s death. The spontaneous memorial where he worked the Seward Park PCC. The full obituary in the Seattle Times. A column from Nicole Brodeur. The many expressions of condolence and grief we’ve received at Real Change.
She reminded me that our work is to love. She said that if we just love, the change we need to create will follow.
She said that this is why her Jesus means so much to her. That he loved, and he loved unconditionally. He had one commandment, to love one another, and that if we could do this, we’d create his kingdom here on earth.
I’ve never been able to accept my friend’s Jesus. That’s my issue. I certainly have nothing to say to the Jesus who condemns sin and worships material success. The Jesus of the powerful and the Jesus of the powerless and frustrated.
But I believe in the power of love, and I believe we are called especially to love those who aren’t always easy to love.
And I believe in what Robert Hansen believed in. I believe in people, and in caring for each other. And in taking the time to share a joke and a smile to let someone know that they mean something to you.
I picked the poem for the front of Robert’s memorial flyer. It’s a nice poem. It’s a nice thought. But I don’t know that I believe that either.
I’m probably not going to be thinking of Robert every time I feel the warmth of the sun on my skin. If he’s part of the Universal All, that’s great, but it won’t help me much when I stop to remember that he’s gone.
But I do think he’s with us. He’s in the memories of hundreds, if not thousands of people. He’s there with us on Wednesday mornings, when the new papers come in.
He is here, in the faces of all the people I know who knew and loved him.
Robert Hansen has inspired me, and reminded me again that universal, unconditional love isn’t some overwhelming burden of which only a few Saints are capable. It’s in the small, everyday acts of kindness. It’s in taking the time to smile at someone and say hello. It’s in knowing that everyone, EVERYONE, is worthy of human dignity and respect, and taking the risk of living that truth into your life.
Robert did that. And if Robert did that, so can we all.