The Common Good
March-April 1997

My Friend Buddy

by Carol Fennelly | March-April 1997

If I had to choose one word to describe my friend Buddy
Gray, it would be relentless. He was an advocate on behalf of
homeless people in Cincinnati.

If I had to choose one word to describe my friend Buddy Gray, it would be relentless. He was an advocate on behalf of homeless people in Cincinnati. For advocates of any stripe, relentlessness is a wonderful attribute. I remember the endless meetings required to put together a national homeless movement in the 1980s. Buddy was relentless in his pursuit of consensus. He drove a lot of people a little crazy.

I laugh when I remember throwing him out of my office at the Community for Creative Non-Violence in Washington, D.C. I was preparing to leave the organization after 17 years and didn’t know where I would go. Buddy, in one of the more loving and caring gestures during that difficult time, was there insisting that I come to Cincinnati to stay at his Drop-In Center for some R & R.

I tried to explain that Cincinnati was not a place I equated with renewal, but he was relentless and insistent, until I finally ran out of patience and asked him to leave. He shrugged his shoulders and walked out, not in the least offended, promising to return another day.

He was a remarkable man. When a Cincinnati slum landlord decided to sell blocks of skid row rental buildings, a sympathetic real estate agent gave Buddy a heads up. Buddy managed to scrape together the down payment money and bought up all the buildings. He was able to renovate and preserve them for low-income residents, as well as increase the amount of space he had to provide services to homeless people.

The development community was outraged. Buddy became their favorite person to hate. I remember visiting him once and getting a tour of his little empire. He seemed amazed at being able to pull it off, but as always was passionate in pursuing his vision. It stands as a testimony to relentlessness at its best.

Most of all, Buddy was relentless in his love for homeless people. He devoted himself to making life better and creating more opportunities for them. He accepted people right where they were when he met them. His Drop-In Center was a place where the lost, the least, and the forgotten could find refuge. He took in those who nobody else would or could deal with. He was relentless in his attempts to bring wholeness to broken and shattered lives.

ON NOVEMBER 15, 1996, while I worked at home, I got a call from a friend. She told me Buddy had been shot and killed by a homeless, mentally ill man. The man had gone to Buddy’s office with a gun and unloaded four rounds into him. While he lay dying on the floor, the man went outside to wait for the press and the police. Buddy died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.

Immediately, the press began to talk about how dangerous "those people" are. Doors were bolted just a little tighter, and purses clutched a little closer, and people in Cincinnati were a lot angrier at homeless people than they were in the first place. Just what Buddy would not have wanted.

But his relentless love transcended even death. Within days his family and community released a statement forgiving the shooter—and vowed to carry on. The future of Buddy’s work is a little shaky, since he was the primary fund-raiser. Those left behind have set up a trust fund to try to remain financially viable, but nobody will be quite as relentless as Buddy, I’m afraid.

In the intervening months since his death, I have often thought of my friend. Like Buddy, I lived in a homeless shelter for many years. Somewhere in my mind I always knew that Buddy’s fate could be mine. It just never happened to me or anyone I knew. We never talked about it, but the knowledge was always there like a secret never spoken.

Buddy never lost faith, and in these times when poor people are increasingly politically incorrect, the nature of his death would offer another excuse to do just that. I pray for Buddy and for his relentless spirit to infuse us all. I pray that we will continue to walk in the light of those Buddy loved and served.

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