They represented social agencies, service providers, societies, camps, and churches, an inter-generational demographic of CEO’s, directors, business owners, leaders, professionals, and volunteers typically reserved for a public servant’s funeral. John Benes was a servant. And he was public, very public.
A Public Servant
John Benes passed away on June 3, 2019. He came into the world on November 3, 1957 in Foothills Hospital, Calgary. He was given up for care at birth. Over the following 61 years he lived in foster homes, institutions, care homes and a one-bedroom apartment, never knowing he was the eldest of five siblings.
John lived the promise of God – “He sets the fatherless in families.” (Psalm 68:6)
Many men whose first name is John attend North Pointe Church but there was one known solely as John. He was the “Elvis” and “Prince” of North Pointe. It’s rare to know someone simply by his or her first name especially in a large congregation, but also in a city of Edmonton’s size. The smile on the cover of John’s funeral program was known throughout the region.
News and Views
In 1981 Ella Zolotowska-Wyka with Catholic Social Services started him on “John’s News and Views” newsletter. She noted John had good verbal and motor skills and abilities in perception, abstraction and organization. He was faithful to it for over 25 years, remarkable because John couldn’t write. That’s where he got by with a little help from his friends like Marc Barylo – Chief Development and Community Relations Director for the Catholic Charities Society. Marc jokes that he became John’s executive secretary by taking dictation, and publishing the newsletter six times a year.
The newsletter became John’s ticket to every event in the city. Whenever a special speaker was in town, someone was celebrating an anniversary, a wedding, birthday, dedication, facility opening, retirement or an ordination John was there. He covered events at Commonwealth Stadium, Rexall Place, City Hall, the Edmonton Christmas Bureau, the Downtown Business Association, the Singing Christmas Tree and anywhere newsworthy. He not only reported on the activities of the chief of police, the fire chief, the mayor, pastors, artists, and professional athletes he invited himself to lunch with them. Lunch is where reporters got their best intel.
“Let’s do lunch” would later morph into “let’s have fellowship” with his church family.
John became a Christian in 1988 through the work of MarketPlace Chapel at West Edmonton Mall, an outreach initiated by Central Pentecostal Tabernacle. He was baptized and soon after RJ and Ferrol White brought John to CPT for his first Sunday of three decades of church participation. John always marvelled at how God could love him, a “nobody.”
He became an instructor in faith and life.
Lessons Learned From John Benes
John was never backwards about coming forward. With John, what you saw was what you got. He had amazing recall and limited social savvy. At times he could be annoying, lacking filters and hugging indiscriminately. His anti-smoking crusade, birthed from a foster father who smoked heavily, endeared him and estranged him.
John reminded me of Nathanael in the New Testament. Jesus complimented Nathanael as “a man in whom is no guile.” He was without pretense, hidden agendas or hypocrisy.
John loved a good joke, and it was fun to hear him laugh, but he loved it when he could make people smile. His eccentricity was charismatic because he was so unique. John was pleased to have made people smile, especially with his “milking the cow” joke and trademark handshakes.
John persisted in seeing himself simultaneously as receiving support and as a peer offering support. “All of us have to support each other. We have to support each other.” On Tuesday afternoons John volunteered at Jubilee Lodge, one of the opportunities that came his way through Chrysalis, an organization he had been involved with since the early 1980s. Getting snacks for the band of the day and wheeling residents into the dining hall to hear the music was his beloved role.
John was tenacity personified. He persevered to get anywhere. It was a rare Sunday that he was absent from church. John took the bus everywhere. When CPT relocated to the northwest point of Edmonton in 2006 there was no bus service to the new location. John would bus to the closest stop and then walk the rest of the way to the church – usually over two kilometers – in sunshine, rain or snow.
He never settled for the easy way.
John felt deeply. He cared. John’s depth of feeling was instructive. He was so excited about all the littlest things we just take for granted, and his childlike innocence was beautiful to see.
John brought people together. Even at his funeral he was still bringing people together.
John didn’t let his disability hold him back. John volunteered, and socialized without being blessed with social savvy. He published his newsletter. Marc Barylo said, “John had a gift to offer. He wanted to tell the world about all the great things that are happening out there. And it was important for him as well. John loved people, he was proud of our city.”
John prayed. Wendy Batty, former Christmas Bureau director, remembers, “John sits across the table, takes my hand and says, We’ll say a prayer so the Lord will ensure the works of the Christmas Bureau.” The Sunday before a Women’s event at North Pointe he would pray in the foyer with Pastor Jocelyn Jones for “women to know Jesus.”
“Want to say a prayer?” was his favourite expression and a favourite prayer, next to freeing people from smoking, “God give them strength.”
John was a noticer and an encourager. When writer Cheryl Mahaffey met to interview John for a chapter in the book Big Enough Dreams, their first encounter was at a Tim Horton’s doing lunch. Her first memory of John? A trio of transit security officers sat down beside them and John said, “You guys do a good job, keeping people safe on the bus. Public safety is a number one issue. Public safety.”
John made people better. God used the life of John Benes. In a relationship where people were serving John, there was a great benefit to them. In implementing selfless behaviour, they became a better person. John had a deep impact on many people’s spiritual life. For that we are forever grateful.
Six Yellow Duckies
A bookmark was given to each of the attendees at John’s funeral. It was adorned with his sayings, verses from 1 Corinthians 13 about love and yellow duckies – all his favourites.
John collected plastic yellow duckies. He had six of them. John never knew he had five siblings – his family of six.
“Three things will last forever – faith, hope and love – and the greatest of these is love.” 1 Corinthians 13
“We were given this treasure from above,
We were given this friendship filled with love,
Filled with joy, faith and laughter,
Prayers to the Father,
We’ll remember this gift of love, forevermore.”
Kayla, Kelly and Tracey Kimo
Thank you God for John Benes, our treasure from above.
APPLICATION: In the comment section below please share a memory, or experience you have of John Benes. Thank you.
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