Now comes the time when frost releases its icy grip on all things poking from the ground, and backyard fences battered by winter winds buckle like punch-drunk fighters.
Kevin Ch’en looks at these torn seams of suburbia and sees a chance to make things right. He frees the sun-bleached planks of a Spokane Valley privacy fence from their rotten frame and sets them aside. He drives thick metal down the spines of teetering posts to give them enough backbone to stand upright.
Mending Fences is Ch’en’s business. The words are boldly painted on the picket sidewalls of his flatbed Dodge pickup, along with his phone number and assurance that no task is too small.
But it is also his spiritual vocation. The pastor of the Mending Fences Fellowship dusted off his tools five years ago after the church’s utility bills overwhelmed its offering basket, which wasn’t hard to do. Ch’en’s church at 1906 E. Sprague Ave. ministers to the homeless, the hapless and those so tortured by drug and behavioral problems they’ve been turned away from other Christian charities.
As he worked another rusty nail from a worn but salvageable board last week, Ch’en’s cell phone rang every 10 or 15 minutes. He spoke of Jesus while cradling the phone in his left hand and working a crowbar with his right. It’s quite a balancing act doing both jobs at once, and you have to believe you’re doing the right thing. “You just have to decide, ‘Did God call me, or am I just delusional?’ ” he said. “You don’t have the writing on the wall like you do at a church with a whole bunch of money coming in.”
Bridging the two tasks with a metaphor doesn’t hurt. A Christian has to mend fences, Ch’en said. He has to forgive and has to realize when the walls he’s raised for protection are just holding in the pain.
It was at the beginning of his own spiritual journey that Ch’en realized the barriers in his own life had become a prison. He was volunteering at a soup kitchen for the down and out at the old Otis Hotel in downtown Spokane when his father turned up.
Quentin Redshaw was a man over whom Ch’en had boozed and drugged to forget. Even today Ch’en looks to the ground when speaking of the man. The son lived out his pre-teen years in North Spokane hiding from the Redshaw who, as Ch’en politely puts it today, “never said anything quietly.” As an adult, the son took his mother’s name in part to further distance himself.
But Redshaw eventually made himself unavoidable. Ch’en’s mother had thrown Redshaw out. The two were getting divorced, and Redshaw sought refuge in the dilapidated rooms of the old hotel. Sitting in the soup kitchen, Redshaw told anyone who would listen that Ch’en was his boy.
“I went over to him and I yelled at him, ‘I don’t love you. I don’t want you here!’ ” Ch’en recalled. “And he looked at me. And he looked like I’d never seen him before. He looked like a little kid, just empty and scared. And God spoke to me and said ‘You have to love him.’ “
Except Ch’en’s father wasn’t looking to be loved. The courts granted Redshaw ownership of his house. He eventually moved out of the Otis Hotel, and the father’s relationship with his son still wasn’t right.
Years went by. Ch’en started his own family. Now and then he’d stop by to check on his dad. Occasionally Redshaw groused as if his son wasn’t coming by enough. Other times the father acted as if he could’ve cared less. Their relationship always seemed to boil around Thanksgiving when Ch’en would invite Redshaw to spend the day with his family only to be stood up.
“It made me so angry. We kept going over there. We took the kids over there,” Ch’en said. “The next Thanksgiving, my son had his driver’s license. I said, ‘Son, let’s go get your grandfather.’ “
They drove to the North Side, to Redshaw’s house two blocks down the street from the Doughnut Parade. Redshaw answered the door as if that last Thursday in November was like any other day.
“He said, ‘What do you want?’ ” Ch’en recalled. And at this point in his story, Ch’en is no longer fencing because the waterworks are starting to flow. His voice cracks with emotion, and you can really tell he loves his father. “I said ‘Dad, you’re going to Thanksgiving.’ “
Not long after that dinner, Redshaw died. He’d checked into the hospital with heart problems and never checked out.
The fence between the two men was left with some mending still needing to be done. But they got the gate to open. What a difference that made.