On the evening of Monday, February 15th, I lost my friend, Steve Owens, to cancer.
Steve was one of the first people Jasmine and I met when, in the fall of 2014, we settled into Uptown Saint John to launch Pennies and Sparrows. A longtime parishioner of Stone Church (our sponsoring church community) Steve was immediately intrigued by the vision we had for Pennies— a ministry that would reach beyond the four walls of the church, focussing on the needs of those who live on the fringes (the poor, the lonely, the addicted, refugees and newcomers). Steve had a heart for such people, particularly those who have recently come to Canada from distant shores— men, women and families of all stripes, striving to make a new life for themselves in a new land.
If there was anything that rivalled Steve’s passion for people, however, it was his passion for language. Steve loved words— their origins, their sounds, their meanings, and their nuances. And not just English words, mind you. Steve was familiar with the basic grammar and syntax of over a dozen languages— from dead tongues like Biblical Hebrew and ancient Greek to living ones like Portuguese and Spanish; German and Russian; Mandarin and Arabic. Granted, he didn’t speak all of these languages fluently. He did, however, possess enough of an aptitude to make a homesick Brazilian, slogging through her first winter in Canada, smile with delight at the sound of her native Portuguese uttered by the lips of Canadian man who (as far I as know) never once set foot outside the country.
It may come as no surprise, then, that Steve was an excellent teacher of the English language. Indeed, he had all three of the necessary qualities to make him so: First, he clearly had a love for his students. Secondly, he had a love for the subject matter (language). Thirdly, he had a love for the work of teaching— opening the minds of his students to fresh, new ways of thinking about grammar and the origin of words.
Over the years, Steve taught English in many settings— initially through the New Brunswick Community College but, most recently, as a volunteer with the Saint John Newcomers Resource Centre. He even played a significant part in helping me launch and teach my English Language Bible Study.
As the supporters of our ministry know, this particular program provides newcomers with an opportunity to practice their English conversation skills all while taking a deeper look at the the scriptures. To say I appreciated Steve’s presence at the Bible Study would be an understatement. An introvert by nature, it’s draining enough for me to take part in any group conversation— let alone a group conversation between people of multiple linguistic backgrounds that I am responsible for facilitating. However, with Steve present, I could relax. Not only was he able to help me keep the conversation going; he brought a kind of warmth and joviality to our gatherings that put even the shyest, most self-conscious language learners at ease. And, in each of those gatherings, Steve’s love for God and his love for God’s word was quietly evident— flowing naturally from his speech, as genuine and unfeigned as his love for language.
But perhaps I should rephrase that. It’s not so much that Steve loved God. Rather, Steve was possessed of a peculiarly deep awareness of God’s love for him.
“What did I ever do to deserve this?” he mused in one of our private conversations. Coming from the lips of anyone else, such words would have been uttered in a tone of resentment and despair. For Steve, however, they expressed a genuine sense of awe and wonder— indeed, a frank amazement at the sheer gratuitousness of God’s love, both for himself and for humanity. Don’t get me wrong. Steve, from what I gather, lived a challenging life. Even without the cancer diagnosis, Steve had more than ample reason to complain. In fact, I know a number of people who have lived easier lives than Steve but who have, nonetheless, fulminated against the many injustices they believe themselves to be victims of. Not Steve. He keenly perceived the extravagant love of God in the humblest pleasures of life— from a simple conversation shared with friends to a good supper at a church function. It’s fitting that the very last image Steve shared on his Facebook feed was an overhead shot of a family of deer, taken from the window of his apartment on the upper floors of Stephenson Tower. Although we never spoke about this picture, I’d like to believe that, in the moment when he took it, his heart was filled with a humble appreciation of the scene’s simple beauty.
Ever since we found out that Steve’s cancer was terminal, Jasmine and I have both wondered: Why should something so terrible happen to so good a man as Steve? And I won’t lie to you: We wrestle with that question still. But, having reflected on the matter a bit further, perhaps a more appropriate question would be this: “What did we ever do to deserve a friend like Steve?”