Remembering Stephen Nelson

For Jason Lindsay, root beer has become a lasting symbol of Stephen "Crow" Nelson's spirit. The two really only knew each other as fellow worshippers at the River of Life Church in East Missoula—Lindsay, a local family man, and Nelson, the homeless guy with the constant, unwavering smile. But when Lindsay gave Nelson a ride to the Shopko parking lot last Fourth of July to watch the fireworks, Nelson strolled into the store and returned with bottles of root beer for Lindsay's kids.

"I bet he could have done something better with $5," Lindsay told the crowd of 40 gathered at River of Life for Nelson's Jan. 22 memorial service. "And that immediately struck me, was his joy, his giving heart."

Nelson's death earlier this month came as a shock to those who knew him as River of Life's self-appointed greeter. He'd been a member of the congregation for less than a year, says pastor Jason Tonn, and already he'd made an impact. Others in the community would likely remember Nelson as the guy asking for smiles near Interstate 90 or outside the doors of Eastgate Albertsons. Lowell Hochhalter, a River of Life attendee and chaplain at the Missoula County Sheriff's Department, says the news of Nelson's death left him "broken."

"I was sad, man," Hochhalter adds. "And I'm supposed to be the one that offers counsel."

Jack Kramer echoes Hochhalter's emotions. He met Nelson back when the two of them were staying at the Poverello Center's old facility. The first thing Nelson said to him, Kramer recalls, was "Can I buy you a Coke?"

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"It's a drag when someone's taken out of your life," Kramer says. "You're going to miss them, but with the certainty that you'll see them again."

Nelson's compassion and selflessness were particularly moving to Tonn in light of the challenges Nelson faced. Tonn remembers how torn Nelson was last fall over his desire to be baptized and his ongoing struggles with substance addiction. Shortly before Christmas, they'd even had conversations about River of Life sending Nelson to rehab in Spokane, Tonn says. But a few weeks passed and Nelson stopped showing for services. Not long after, Tonn received word of Nelson's death.

The service continued with Dan Delong playing "Amazing Grace" on guitar and those in attendance singing along. The stage was flanked by photos of Nelson's baptism and flower arrangements made special by the staff at Albertsons.

"It'd be easy to get to where you'd feel sorry for yourself," Tonn says of Nelson's situation. "But you never saw him feeling sorry for himself. He was always looking for, 'How can I make someone else's day good?'"

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