In 2005, Hume, then retired, began serving as a supply minister at St.
Stephen’s United, a small congregation in an affluent neighbourhood in
south Vancouver. His drug use remained a secret to everyone except a
handful of close friends. Hume says that at the time, “It didn’t bother
me too much, other than the fact that I had slight guilt feelings about
it.” St. Stephen’s was an aging congregation in “real need of pastoral
care and love and gentleness,” says John Keenlyside, chair of the
church’s board. When Hume arrived, Keenlyside says the church was
“feeling a little bit needy. And [Hume] came in with a really bouncy,
warm, generous spirit.” His presence was felt immediately. One of his
first mornings at the church, Hume walked in and declared, “All right,
I’m here! Who needs a visit?” Keenlyside describes Hume as an
“ebullient” pastor who has always taken care of those in need.
everyone saw the other side of their minister — the Hume who once found
his car missing around 2:30 a.m. Two men — one of whom was his drug
dealer (“kind of”) — had stolen his car and were demanding $500 in
exchange for its return. He was threatened with a knife and taken to a
bank machine. Hume was sure he was going to be killed that night, but
Vancouver police intervened.
Some members at St. Stephen’s
privately suspected not all was right with Hume. Yet they protected him
out of a sense of loyalty and respect for his privacy.
personal struggles became public after he began working at Oakridge
United, also in Vancouver, in September 2007. “That’s when I began to
feel that I was using far too much,” Hume says. “I was in trouble, and I
was getting very upset with myself.”
His work suffered.
Rough-looking types were reported around the church. There was talk that
he had become overly friendly with an elderly female parishioner. Doug
Golding, the treasurer at Oakridge United, says he heard Hume was seen
drinking wine with a woman in the office and was caught walking around
in his pyjamas. Some believed he had started sleeping at the church.
this time, Hume had tried to get help. He had attended sessions with a
drug and alcohol counsellor, but was still using when they finished.
Depressed, he drove to Vancouver’s Stanley Park. It was a Sunday
afternoon in August 2008. He parked his car, walked into the woods and
sat on a log. “I was sure my dirty secret was on the verge of being
exposed. I was a failure as a professional, as a father, grandfather and
friend, and I could not stop the train of addiction,” he wrote in the
testimonial he sent to The Observer. He hadn’t driven to Stanley
Park with the intention to commit suicide, but he was feeling desperate.
He did some meth, took a handful of sedatives that his doctor had
prescribed to settle him down, and fell unconscious.
He may have
died had it not been for the elderly parishioner (now deceased) with
whom he had become so close. Hume was supposed to meet her for lunch the
next day. When he didn’t show up and when she didn’t hear from him in
the hours and days that followed, she convinced Chris to call the police
and report him missing. Hume remained unconscious in the park until
Wednesday, when police returned to a location from which his illegally
parked car had earlier been towed. They found him in a state of
The members of Oakridge United did not see
Hume again. While he was in hospital, an official from Vancouver-South
Presbytery visited and told him that church officials were now aware of
his situation. The two discussed what would happen next. Hume understood
it as an ultimatum: resign or be removed. “There was no hearing,” he
says. “And I was not given any choice.”
Treena Duncan, personnel
minister for B.C. Conference, says they came to the “mutual
understanding” that Hume would be placed on the voluntary Discontinued
Service List (DSL) and that he would be restricted to the same extent as
someone placed on the DSL for disciplinary reasons. “It was an
arrangement that was made in order to allow him to pursue recovery,”
Duncan says. “I guess what I’m trying to say is we should have put him
on the DSL disciplinary, but we were trying to be pastoral.”
Don Hume during his days as a minister at St. Stephen’s United in Vancouver. Photo courtesy of Don Hume
day after our drinks on the harbourfront, we’re sitting in Hume’s
bachelor apartment. A small hospital-like bed faces the television.
Earlier, I called him to confirm our plans. That’s when he offered to
take me to a shop where I could purchase a crack pipe as a “B.C.
souvenir.” Thanks, but no thanks.
Now in his apartment, I ask him about his version of events and give him a chance to respond to claims made by others.
Someone said you were having an affair with an elderly parishioner.
“[She] was very angry about it. So was I. Absolutely not true.”
Did you ever meet with drug dealers at the church?
And you never slept there, either?
would sometimes go to the church early in the morning, but I never
slept in the church. I had an apartment.” Later in the conversation, he
admits it’s possible he went there and accidentally fell asleep.
The next day, he phones me with a small confession.
loved the office [at Oakridge]. I went to it as kind of a retreat. I
went often. I could see where people could see me as misusing it.” He
mentions a contractor who did a terrible job on his apartment, but he
doesn’t finish the thought. I learn later that his apartment was
virtually unlivable at the time. The implication is clear: he may have
stayed at Oakridge in the interim.
As much as I want to believe
him, I really don’t know what to make of the man. My skepticism grows
after speaking to his daughter, Irene. “I never really heard exactly
what the real truth is,” she told me of her father, “because my dad
distorts things the way he wants to remember [them].”
We tend to
see everything in binary terms, as black or white — and to condemn or
defend accordingly. I journeyed to Victoria hoping I would uncover some
basic facts on which I would build a story: Hume was either a recovered
drug abuser who had been heartlessly dismissed from the church (as he
claims he was); or he was a deeply damaged soul who embodied the
perniciousness of addiction.
I knew my investigation carried
risk. It could tear open old wounds or pave a healing path. It could
point to a larger truth or embarrass church bureaucrats — or, more
likely, Hume himself. When I got down to it, I often sensed the truth
was being obscured by the limits of memory, goodwill toward a friend and
former minister, and genuine uncertainty. Guarded by half-truths and
excuses, drug users can become strangers even to their families and
closest friends. Still, I continued to believe that, in the end, a clear
picture would emerge. Some event, person or obvious character flaw
could explain what happened to Hume.
In conversations with Hume before I went to British Columbia, he urged me to read Dr. Gabor Maté’s 2008 book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts.
Maté is a renowned addiction expert from Vancouver who considers
himself an addict — a compulsive classical music shopper who once left a
patient in labour to run to the music store. During my five-hour flight
to Vancouver, I pulled the book from my carry-on and started reading:
“I have come to see addiction not as a discrete, solid entity — a case
of ‘Either you got it or you don’t got it’ — but as a subtle and
extensive continuum. Its central, defining qualities are active in all
addicts, from the honoured workaholic at the apex of society to the
impoverished and criminalized crack fiend who haunts Skid Row.”
who favours harm reduction over “curing,” maintains that addiction
results from stunted childhood development brought on by abuse, trauma
or lack of parental love and attachment. Our early experiences shape how
our adult brains are wired; given the same addictive substance, some of
us will become addicts, while others won’t. This theory got me
pondering Hume’s addiction: his father’s emotional distance, the
untimely deaths of his parents. But who was I to dissect him this way?
believes that a full recovery is unrealistic for some drug users. Not
everyone can quit cold turkey. Having read Maté’s book, I found myself
unexpectedly sympathetic to hear from Hume that he still occasionally
“slips.” In his initial letter to The Observer, he wrote that he
had been clean since 2015. But asked about this in person, he confessed,
“I haven’t had a major slip since 2015. I’ve had a little bit here and
there, couple of times. But it’s not like I’m using continually or all
the time, and I usually just say, ‘Okay, you’ve done a little bit, Don.
Get the hell out of this. Stop.’” There was a time when Hume would get
“really angry” at the suggestion that he will always be an addict. But
he’s come to believe that it’s “part of my title now. On my obituary,
it’ll just say, ‘Don Hume, drug addict par excellence.’”
the Sunday of my return to Toronto, my last chance to meet with Hume. I
sit among some 35 members of the Capital Unitarian Universalist
Congregation in Victoria’s James Bay district. The blistering heat may
be to blame for the small turnout. An opening word reminds us that all
are welcome — no matter your gender, age, sexual orientation, race,
religion, life story. This is the congregation that has welcomed Hume
with open arms. He suggested I attend the service as part of my visit to
Some time after leaving the United Church, Hume
started attending Capital. Unsure how he would fit in as a Christian, he
took his time before becoming a member. He used to joke that Unitarians
are “godless heathens,” and still questions their ways and occasionally
asserts his Christian beliefs. Still, the Unitarians seem to have
accepted Hume as Hume. It was here that he first shared his secret in
the form of a testimonial: “My name is Don Hume. I am a drug addict who
used crack cocaine and crystal meth.”
Following the service and
reception, members of the congregation gather in the next room to share
thoughts on the subject of today’s sermon, Taoism. It’s not easy for a
hodgepodge of people from different faiths to discuss the merits of an
ancient Chinese philosophy. But the youngest among us, a girl who
appears to be in her teens, raises her hand to explain the principle of wu-wei
— action through inaction — based on her studies of Taoism. Think of a
single drop of water in a river running downstream, she says. The drop
doesn’t move, yet the river flows.
I wonder what Hume would
think of this. Would he congratulate the girl on her insightful
contribution? Would he search for a Christian angle? Stay silent? Find
it significant to his own story?
I will never know. Shortly
before I arrived at the service that morning, Hume phoned me to say that
he wasn’t feeling well and that he wouldn’t be joining me. I left
without seeing him again.
Justin Dallaire was The Observer’s summer intern. He lives in Toronto.
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