A few hundred people gathered Saturday night for a candlelight ceremony in a small Nova Scotia community where a homeless man died Wednesday in a horrific fire inside the bus shelter where he slept.
The candlelight vigil for Harley Gordon Lawrence was held outside the grocery store in Berwick – a town of about 2,500 people in the Annapolis Valley where the homeless man spent his last months.
The ceremony started with prayers as candles flickered in the background.
Chaplain John Andrew, who knew Lawrence, told those gathered that the 62-year-old man’s life touched many people as he sat in front of local restaurants with a cup for coins and a bag of old clothes.
“Through Harley, may our hearts go out to those who have struggled to fit into society,” said Andrew, who runs the Open Arms Shelter in nearby Kentville.
“Whether they are homeless or among those who suffer in silence with forced smiles. In Harley, may we see our own frailty and know more deeply we’re all essentially the same.”
His friend Kelly Grant, 49, of Berwick, said she used to bring him food and said she is struggling to cope with his loss.
“He was pleasant and light hearted,” said Grant, who organized the event called “Soar High Harley.”
“He made the streets his home. It took a man of intelligence to survive these cold winters and storms we have here in the Maritimes.”
Angie MacEachern, a friend of Lawrence, read a poem to the crowd.
“The streets of small-town Berwick were my final place to dwell. Some folks looked upon me with sympathy, others with shame as if I was going to taint this small town’s precious name,” she said.
“Behind my tattered clothing was a warm and kindly smile and I rest knowing that I will be remembered and missed by many even though I was only here for a little while.”
Family members sat quietly in the front row of the ceremony, and a sister brought flowers to lie them in the bus shelter amidst the candles and lights that people had laid down.
People donated clothing for local shelters, and they also put money in a can to help pay for his tombstone.
They did not speak and declined to comment as they quietly departed afterwards.
Andrew said the vigil was held to remember Lawrence, and focus on the plight of the homeless.
However, he acknowledged that police are continuing to investigate his death.
“There’s speculation this is the result of a malicious act... and if that’s the case the town is facing a whole other tragedy,” he said in an interview.
Shannon Taylor, a woman who was delivering newspapers early Wednesday morning, says she is haunted by memories of the scene at the bus stop on the night Lawrence died.
At first, she said she believed the scene was a pile of burning leaves, but she then realized the man she’d passed many evenings was on fire.
She said firefighters arrived soon after and put out the blaze, but weren’t able to save the man who had become a fixture in the small community in the spring.
She says firefighters arrived soon after and put out the blaze, but they weren’t able to save the man who had become a fixture in the small community in the spring.
She recalled Lawrence had often seen sitting outside the local Tim Hortons or wandering down the street with his belongings in a large plastic bag.
Taylor said about 10 minutes before the blaze, she saw two young men, possibly in their late teens or early 20s, fill a small jug with gas at another station near the shelter. She said it looked like one used for windshield washer fluid.
She said she told police one of the young men pumped the gas, the other paid for it and they then ran off quickly in the direction of the shelter.
Police have deemed Lawrence’s death suspicious, and the medical examiner’s office has requested further information. But the RCMP have said they won’t comment on the accounts while the investigation continues.
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