It’s an overcast Monday morning in September and Cory Buettner is taking a walk.
Downtown Chilliwack is just waking up as he strides down Yale Road, grim-faced with watchful eyes that dart right and left.
He’s big and burly, with the build of a rugby player. He’s got earrings and tattoos, he’s bald and he wears a hoody.
If you saw his picture on a Crime Stoppers poster you wouldn’t be surprised because Cory looks a guy who could take down three punks with his left hand and slam back a Red Bull with his right.
He’s a lesson on why you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.
Beyond the ‘don’t mess with this guy’ exterior lies the gentle and caring heart of a man of God, who’s made it his mission to help Chilliwack’s downtrodden.
Cory is an outreach pastor at Ruth and Naomi’s Mission, and he has walked this route dozens of times over the last 12 months looking for people in need.
In need of a friendly ear. In need of advice. In need of someone to care.
And here’s someone now.
Sitting on the sidewalk outside of a thrift store is a girl who looks to be no more than 20 years old. Her knees are pulled up to her chin, her face is buried and she doesn’t react as Cory approaches. She’s coming down from a high and it’s a titanic struggle just raising her eyes.
“How are you doing?” he asks, and she says something in a barely audible whisper.
“Where are you sleeping? Are you OK?”
She replies with a shrug of her shoulders.
“OK. Take care,” Cory says, and he continues on, looking back over his shoulder as he goes.
On the surface it seems such a fruitless interaction.
“There’s ones I see and I get to know,” he explains. “You see a 15 year old girl that’s sleeping on the street and is with the wrong guy that she shouldn’t be with, and I don’t care who you are, your heart just breaks.”
“So there’s ones in particular I’ll check in on to make sure they’re safe.”
A few minutes later Cory is in the Safeway parking lot talking to a group of men who frequently hang out behind Corky’s Pub. They drink a lot and get into fist fights with each other, and most people steer clear of them.
Cory walks right up and strikes up a conversation.
He’s asking them where they’re staying and where their buddies are, and whether so and so has found a job and they seem genuinely happy he’s there.
Maybe it’s Cory’s tough-guy appearance that helps him infiltrate this world. No, infiltrate is the wrong word because that implies sneakiness, and he’s not sneaky at all.
What he’s got is street-cred and trust built up brick by brick.
“My role is to build relationships and function at the street level, and the only way I can do that is to learn the culture and adapt to it,” he says. “I have to speak their language and not just expect them to adapt to mine.”
Cory doesn’t judge them if they talk to him while downing a lukewarm can of Colt 45, or throw out a stream of f-bombs. He isn’t one of them, but by accepting them for who they are he’s allowed access. He likens it to Harry Potter where most of us are Muggles (Cory calls us Normos), viewed with fear and distrust by the people of this hidden realm.
“One thing I’ve learned early is respecting space and being invited into the relationship, and timing is everything,” he says.
Once he’s through that door and a relationship blossoms, he can help them find what they need. Sometimes they want nothing at all.
Sometimes, all they want is a bed and a hot meal.
Sometimes, after weeks of talking, they find themselves ready to make life-changing changes.
“I journey along with them just as I did with others when I was a pastor at a traditional church,” he says. “When they need to talk we talk. When they need prayer we pray and when they need to make some changes I try and point them in right direction.”
Though he’s a pastor whose ultimate goal is bringing people to Jesus, Cory treads cautiously on the topic of religion. When he took on this role he insisted on keeping pastor in his title and he always introduces himself that way.
But he’ll only talk about it if they bring it up first.
They often do.
“It’s interesting because many of the folks I meet on the street have faith,” he says. “When I introduce myself as a pastor, many of them will apologize for whatever they’re doing at the moment, because they’re often drinking or shooting up heroin as I say hi to them.
“My role is to love unconditionally and I try to treat everyone the same no matter what.”
“I may despise the acts that they do but I can still love the person.”
Cory has been to the homeless camp near Wal-Mart.
He spent hours visiting and ministering to Red in his log cabin before the 71 year old man passed away in April. He has ventured into the neighboring camp that caused Red so much grief, inhabited as it is by a younger, more volatile and violent crowd.
He has seen and heard dark things, things that could easily overwhelm a less-determined man.
Every day he hears stories of rape and overdoses and abuse.
“I’m a tough man to rattle, but there was this couple who believed they were Jesus,” he says, recalling the only time when he was really freaked out, “They absolutely believed it and they were smiling the whole time they were saying it, and it just gave me a little bit of chills.”
“I grabbed my bible afterwards, said a little prayer and tried to get on with my day.”
“But I still made it a point to talk to them and make an effort because just because they give me the chills doesn’t mean they don’t need love.”
It is a struggle some nights to go home and push the darkness out of his mind, and he doesn’t always succeed.
There are voices and faces that haunt him and there is forever the temptation to walk one more block.
“But my wife is brilliant that way where I can go home and she knows the questions to ask where I’m not giving details, but she can check and make sure her husband’s OK,” says the father of nine, yes nine, children. “She knows when to push and when not to, and I need that to survive.”
“There is overlap, and there always will be, but I make it a priority to do stuff and have relationships outside of this culture — with my family and friends and church — because I need to be filled even as I’m here pouring stuff out.”
You can’t spend so much time with a group of people and not come to empathize with them.
Cory’s not a drug addict or an alcoholic and he doesn’t claim any mental illness, but he’s familiar with the stigma attached to those things.
As he talks to the men behind Corky’s he sees the looks of passers-by. He puts himself into the shoes of the homeless and addicted and he feels awful.
At the same time, he understands why they are viewed the way they are viewed.
“I hate it, but I understand it, which is part of why I hate it,” he says. “The reality is we’re all broken people, and many of us are one or two decisions in life away from being in the exact same position.
“And at the end of the day you have to go, ‘OK, if I were in those circumstances would I be bitter? Would I give up hope and let myself go? How would I handle it if people were looking at me a certain way all of the time?’”
“But the biggest thing I’ve learned is rarely does someone not claim fault for the position they’re in. Even the most hardened people will say, ‘I’m here because of what I’ve done.’”
Cory doesn’t expect attitudes to change because prejudices run too deep.
But from molehills come mountains and snowballs and avalanche.
“There are people who will read these articles and be touched by them and say, ‘Man. I really want to see change,” he says. “There are others who will get mad and say, ‘Yeah those bums! Why are they getting any press time?’”
“There will be others who are just going to be indifferent and that’s just the society we live in right now.”
“But the ones who want to be part of a change, those are the ones I want to sit down with.”
Additional stories in this series:
Part 1: The long way home