Sometimes we think we need resources to have an impact. John Breaux proved to be the exception. John was ubiquitous in our community. Everyone in our town of 20,000 knew John. He was on his bike, with two trash bags hanging from the handle bars. He was there to open a door at Starbuck’s or he was shagging carts at Albertson’s. In the cold of winter he was shoveling sidewalks in downtown Louisville. In the heat of summer, he would be on his knees pulling weeds out of public spaces or sorting through trash containers looking for cans to recycle. He had a contagious smile and waved to everyone. John also lived with a mental disability that limited his conversations to short phrases and bursts of words. He never remembered your name but there wasn’t a person in town that didn’t know his. To those who didn’t know John he appeared homeless, with a full graying beard, thick, rough, weather hands, unkempt hair and a limited wardrobe that befit those who work outside. When, out of compassion someone gave him money, John would by coffee and donuts or flowers for someone he knew. John was a one man dispenser for the grace of God in our community.
John lived with his brother’s family. And when John would return home after another long day of service, John’s sister-in-law would ask, “John, where’s your hat?”
“I gave it to a friend.”
“Where’s your coat?”
I “I gave it to another friend.”
“Where are your gloves?”
“I gave them to another friend?”
“Well, they’re all my friends!”
And we were. We were all John’s friend.
In January 2009 John was killed when a car veered off the road and struck John while he was picking up trash from the bushes alongside the road. Our community went into shock. Letters of tribute poured into the local newspaper with each person explaining how John had touched their lives. The funeral service at Flatirons Community Church in our neighboring town was packed. The church started filling up at 10am and by 11am over 2,000 people had packed in for the memorial service with an overflow crowd looking in through the lobby. Many people rode their bicycles to the funeral and picked up trash along the way, as a way to perpetuate John’s work. The mayor of Louisville spoke first paying a tribute to a man everyone called “friend.” After the mayor spoke, firemen and policemen spoke, followed by John’s roommate and John’s aunts and cousins. There were so many kind thing that were said about John. Most of us didn’t know that John was an avid bowler and had a legitimate 300 game to his credit. John received many city and civic awards for his service to the community. Some called him “the angel of Louisville.”
Flatirons’ Senior Pastor Jim Burgen gave John’s eulogy. John was a committed believer who was a regular part of Flatirons. He always carried a picture of Jesus in his pocket that he would readily show people. Lying in his casket, the picture of Jesus was held in John’s folded hands. John belonged to Jesus and Jesus belonged to John. When John was asked why he served day in and day out he responded, “I need to be Jesus to the people.” In his simple way he got it. Better yet, he did it better than anyone our community has ever known. Pastor Jim said, “To look into the eyes of John Breaux was to look into the eyes of Jesus in disguise.”
In my lifetime there will most likely never be a funeral in our community as large or as meaningful as John’s. As John’s casket was carried from the church, 2000 people stood up and gave to John what they always got from John…a wave good-bye. A line of cars stretching nearly four miles accompanied John’s body to the cemetery.
In March of 2009 a local park was renamed “John Breaux Park.” The city administrator said in tribute, “Naming a park after a person is as high an honor as a municipal government can give out. It just felt right.” In January 2010 the city erected a bronze statue to honor John. We don’t need wealth, resources or a title to make a difference. Martin Luther King said it best.
“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.” John was such a man.