Why is it that people allow alcohol and drugs to rob them of everyone and everything that’s important to them? Alcohol distorts, lies, and steals—yet millions fall victim to it.
Sun Bear was a victim of this kind of distortion when he and I first bumped into each other. He was walking out of a bar as I was walking by, trying not to step on a guy lying in the street. Not paying attention, I ran square into this seven-foot-tall Indian, knocking myself solidly to the pavement.
The man picked me up, shouting, “You’re picking on me!”
I thought to myself, “I wouldn’t pick on you even if I wanted to. You’re too big!” He was obviously quite drunk and in an ugly mood, so I quickly apologized!
“I’m s-s-sorry,” I stuttered. “I didn’t mean to bump into you, it was an accident.”
“It wasn’t an accident? You hit me on purpose!” Oh boy, I was in trouble.
“No, I didn’t. It was an accident!”
Sun Bear picked me up by my shirt, lifting me until my feet were dangling. “Please,” I squeezed the word out of my constricted vocal chords. “Is it okay if you let me down? I really didn’t mean to bump into you.”
If looks could kill, I’d be a goner. Still with his black eyes boring holes through my face, he slowly put me down, keeping a viselike grip on my arm so I couldn’t run away.
“Come on,” he bellowed. “Let’s go have a drink together.” “Why don’t we just take a walk around the block and get some fresh air,” I suggested, praying I wouldn’t upset the huge man again.
Sun Bear agreed that walking sounded like a pretty good idea, so off he went, dragging me behind him. Not exactly what I had in mind, I thought.
“What’s your name?”
“Sun Bear,” he replied.
I wasn’t sure I’d heard him right, so I asked him again what his name was.
He stopped, turned, looked me right in the eyes, and answered with a condescending pause between each word: “Sun! Bear! And you better not make fun of it!”
“Sun Bear is a nice name,” I told him. Frankly, as I looked again at all seven feet, 250 pounds of him, his name could have been Sun Flower and I wouldn’t have laughed!
As we walked, Sun Bear began to feel more comfortable with me and told me about his life as an Indian living on the streets. Apparently, there were certain bars that only Indians frequented.
“You’d better not go in there. You’re a white boy,” he warned. I can’t say we really had a conversation; it was more like a monologue as we walked. Sun Bear talked and I listened.
Finally he paused, looked around, and invited me into the nearest bar for a drink. He ordered his drink and cast a bewildered look my way when I said, “I’ll take a water, please.”
“You don’t have enough money to get a real drink? Here, let me buy you one,” Sun Bear offered. He pulled each pocket of his pants inside out, and after discovering he was broke, he said I’d have to stick with water.
Several minutes of silence passed as Sun Bear savored every drop of liquor and I sipped my water. Eventually I broke the silence. “Sun Bear, what are you doing here?”
He slammed his drink down hard on the table and stared at the amber liquid. Then he sadly confessed, “This is why I’m here!” “There’s more to it than that, isn’t there Sun Bear? Why is it you are here?”
He pulled his chair close to mine, leaned toward me, and said, “Someday I’ll tell you,” indicating that as far as he was concerned, the conversation was over.
Sun Bear looked away from me, lost in his thoughts. I silently asked God if this was an opportunity to share His love. “He is young, big and strong, and could probably find work anywhere,” I prayed. “I wonder why he’s here and what I can do for him. More importantly, what can You do for him, Lord?”
Sun Bear gulped the last drop from his glass and commanded, “Okay, let’s go!” I was glad he still wanted me to walk with him.
The day was young and we had many hours of daylight to head downtown and panhandle for money. Sun Bear had a unique method for getting complete strangers to cough up their spare change. As someone would approach, he’d simply stand up, towering inches— even feet—above them, look sternly down his nose at them, and hold out his hand. Most eagerly emptied their pockets of change and hurried on their way!
Panhandling was good for Sun Bear that day so he offered to buy me a hamburger. He ordered another drink with lunch.
“Why don’t you wait a while before you start drinking again?” I asked him. “If we’re going to spend time together today, I’d like for you to be sober.”
“No problem, I can handle that,” he replied. But only a few hours passed before he was craving his next drink. We talked about this, and as we did, he admitted he had a drinking problem.
“Sun Bear, you’re too young to be out here on the streets. Please tell me what happened. You obviously have abilities and talents that shouldn’t be squelched here on Skid Row.” I was trying as tenderly as possible to let him know I truly cared about his life and what had led him to such despair.
Suddenly, Sun Bear began to cry. “Kurt, I’ve messed up my life.
I have really blown it!” Pulling his arm across his face to wipe the tears, he continued, “I’m from an Indian reservation in eastern Washington. I came to the big city to make something of myself—to better myself.” How often I had heard that story. “I couldn’t find a job, so I ended up here. And now, alcohol is controlling my life. I have to have it. I need it—and I’d do anything to get money to buy it.”
“So, are you telling me you’re an alcoholic?” I knew he needed to admit this and come face to face with the real issue.
“No, no, I’m not an alcoholic,” he insisted. “I’m just having some trouble right now.”
I decided not to press the issue, and we talked a while about his home and family. He told me how much he missed being there. “Why don’t you go back where there are people who love you?” I asked.
“I can’t go back. My mom thinks I’m holding down a job here. She hasn’t even heard from me in three or four months. I don’t want to go back and let her see what a failure I’ve become,” he admitted sadly.
“If your mom loves you, she’ll understand and support you. Sun Bear, the definition of success is to keep trying and keep trying and keep trying. You can’t give up! Your people back home love you, and I want you to know something else. There is a God in heaven who loves you, and He has a plan for your life. With God’s help and your family’s support, you can make it! You can go back and start over! Sun Bear, I want to encourage you to do that.”
It was obvious by the look on his face that the Lord was working in his heart. As the tears continued to flow, he admitted he wanted to go back home and start over. He finally agreed to call his mother, but he wanted me to talk to her first.
“Why are people always trying to get me to talk on the phone?” I thought to myself. They had no idea how intimidated I was—afraid I would stutter so badly that the person on the other end would just hang up. I tried to explain this, but Sun Bear firmly insisted that I go ahead and dial the number. “Hello,” I heard his mother say.
Now, what I tried to say was, “Hello! My name is Kurt, and Sun Bear is here.” Of course, it didn’t come out that way. I could only make a stuttering sound as Sun Bear’s mother hung up on me.
“What happened?” Sun Bear asked.
“I tried to tell you I can’t talk on the phone. The words wouldn’t come out, and she hung up.”
Sun Bear dug into his pocket for more money he had panhandled that day so we could try again. I was going to concentrate this time and just say “Sun Bear.” Maybe then she’d stay on the line. When she heard her son’s name, Sun Bear’s mother listened while I stuttered my way through an explanation.
Sun Bear was getting excited and kept saying, “Tell her the rest, tell her the rest!” So I told her he loved her and that he was having a difficult time finding a job. Then I told her that alcohol was a big problem in her son’s life, but that he wanted to come home if she would let him.
Suddenly Sun Bear grabbed the phone out of my hand. “Mom, it’s me,” he cried. Sun Bear spent the next twenty minutes pouring his heart out. I’ve never seen a man cry as much as he did during that conversation. His heart was absolutely broken.
When he had said all he had to say, he handed me the phone. His mother thanked me for being with her son and for offering him some direction. She said she had been praying for Sun Bear to come back home.
“Are you a Christian?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said. I told her that the most important thing Sun Bear needed was a relationship with Christ. She agreed and said, “Please tell him that life without Jesus is hopeless.”
My conversation with Sun Bear’s mother ended, and as I hung up the receiver, he gave me a great big hug. “She wants me to come back home! Now we’ve got to raise enough money for a bus ticket,” he said as he grabbed my arm and dragged me behind him.
We spent the rest of that day, and the next, panhandling for the money. Late the following day we finally had collected enough money for Sun Bear’s ticket home. There was a bus headed for his reservation that very afternoon, and he had to hurry to catch it.
Before he left, Sun Bear agreed to keep an open mind about his relationship with Jesus Christ. He admitted this connection might be something he needed to take very seriously. Before he left for the bus station, and I left for school, we prayed together.
About four weeks later, I thought I saw a familiar figure walking down Burnside Street. As I drew closer I realized it was Sun Bear! I felt the anger rise within me, knowing that if he was on Skid Row, it was because he was drinking again.
“Sun Bear, what are you doing here?” I asked incredulously. When Sun Bear heard my voice, he took off running in the other direction. My anger pumped adrenaline into my system. I ran fast enough to catch up with the giant man, grab him by the shirt, and pull him down to the ground. Before I could say anything, I noticed the ugly scars on his face. They ran from the bottom of his chin to the top of his nose. There were also cuts that had not yet healed.
“What happened?” I asked.
Through teeth clenched tight with frustration, he spit out the angry words. “I only had five or six blocks to go before I would be at the bus station. A bunch of guys jumped me and beat me up. They stole all my money! That was it. If God did have a direction for my life, why did He allow this to happen? Why? Why?”
I was absolutely speechless. I had no answer to offer him. Standing up, I mindlessly straightened my clothing, trying to regain my composure enough to help him understand that God did love him.
But with a look of disgust and a slight shake of his head, he just walked away.
Sun Bear’s questions were some of the toughest I’ve ever had to face. I prayed that God would place someone in his life to help him. There was nothing else I could do. I felt completely helpless. This world is Satan’s domain. As long as we live in it, bad things will happen. The struggle with Satan will continue for all of us. I realize I need to encourage others continually to keep striving to be like Christ and never give up. When times get tough, when we question why, we can be assured that He loves us. We can know that salvation is ours. But until we are safely in the arms of our heavenly Father, tough times will come. One day, when we see Him face to face, we’ll understand why.