What makes a man leave the comfort of his home to stand in the mecca of downtown Toronto for hours on end? Cold and alone, Sarko, colloquially known as the Believe Guy, does this nearly everyday.
You can find him, rain or shine, on the north-west corner of Yonge and Dundas streets screaming these impassioned, though heavily garbled, words at any who pass him by:
“Believe in the Lord!”
He does this for free. He does this despite being regularly rebuked. He does this because of perceived higher calling, a wordless understanding between him and the Abrahamic God. Some day, some time long ago, the notion that he must do the earthly work of the Lord was implanted in him. And, as a diligent student of faith, he acquiesced.
Today, he is handing out pamphlets with cliffs notes on Christianity. Most people turn them down.
“I’m here to save souls,” he says with a hint of whimsy.
Finally, a man takes Sarko’s literature. “Another soul saved,” Sarko chirps. “That’s 10 today!”
There are so many questions I want to ask this enigmatic man, this fixture of downtown Toronto, this local celebrity. So many that I find myself paralyzed. His voice finds me first.
“Have you read the Bible?”
“No,” I reply, surprisingly ashamed. Sarko doesn’t seem to mind one bit.
“I read all the books. Bible, Quran, Torah. Are you Christian?”
“No, I’m actually Jewish.”
“That’s good, that’s fine. I love Jews because God loves Jews.”
Our talk was interrupted, as it would be time and time again during my tenure at Sarko’s side, by him abruptly turning away from me and preaching in his trademark way:
“Jesus is the only way to God!”
I was reminded then that I had not just approached a man on the street for a chat. Instead, I had stepped into his invisible office, or, more aptly, his invisible church, to bother him at work. I stood there, in the busiest intersection in the city, for what felt like an eternity. I became a rock in the cascading tidal push of foot traffic. A silent, Godless Sarko.
A boy on a fixie bike skirted between us. He began to paw at Sarko’s belongings, a microcosmic landfill of plastic bags and papers that the amateur preacher had left on the sidewalk behind him. Sarko took no notice, so I moved to stop the would-be thief.
“Is that your dad?” the boy asked me, unironically, while gesturing at Sarko.
I looked the biker over, taking note of the feathery, proto-pubescent mustache slathered along his pale face. He was clad in a black toque, black tracksuit and a puffed black jacket. He gave off a gaze of dumb indifference, and carried with him an ignorant fearlessness and an ugly criminality. This was less of a person to me and more of a composite of Toronto’s edgy youth. I had seen this boy a thousand times, each time with a different name and different features, but always with the same soul.
“Nah, don’t you know him? That’s the Believe Guy,” I replied, incredulous.
“I just heard him yell. Crazy homeless guy, no?”
I wasn’t sure how to answer that. Was Sarko’s perpetual volunteer work for the Lord a symptom of mental illness? He’s been on this corner for 22 years screaming at strangers nearly daily. Surely that’s a sign that something has gone wrong upstairs. But how can you label a man who speaks with such lucidity (when not gurgling his catchphrases) as insane? To do so would be to dismiss all career clergymen. No, Sarko is eccentric, dedicated and perhaps obsessive in his behaviour, but not crazy.
Not homeless either, as it turns out. After speaking with members of the Armenian community, which Sarko belongs to, I found out that he has his own apartment somewhere in the Yonge and Eglinton area, though not much else is known about the man.
“Nope,” I said.
I stood watch over Sarko’s belongings, waiting for the boy to leave. He eventually did, peacefully.
Sarko turned back to me, breaking from the grind. We spoke about religion for a while. I told him that I had yet to find God, but that I was willing to learn more about His teachings. I conceded that I might even end up a worshipper too, one day. A half-truth. While I’m by no means averse to becoming religious, I’ve already tried. I finished two years of Torah High, a religious after-school program for Jewish children, with my atheism intact. My instructor called that a “personal failure” of hers. Maybe Sarko, an older, more devout servant of God, could succeed where she had not.
He told me about his relationship with God, how He alone gave him the strength to do this. How he had devoted his life to Him. I tried to understand his passion. It was undeniable, inexplicable and so very foreign to me. This elderly man, with cropped silver hair, missing teeth and wrinkled doe-eyes, had so much righteous dignity within him, enough to weather the thousands of jeers that teenagers must have lanced him with over the years. Enough to weather the Canadian weather. Enough to weather personal question after personal question that I lobbed at him. He wouldn’t say a word about his family, his history or his life. I began to feel guilty for my invasiveness and curbed this line of questioning.
A woman walked toward him with outstretched arms. She greeted him warmly and the two began to chat. I slunk back.
A little while later, Sarko and the friendly woman wrapped up their conversation. They thanked and blessed each other. She left with a pamphlet.
“That’s 11 souls, now,” he said to me, beaming.