By Ryan Stillwater, a member of the Visalia County Center Rotary, California, USA
On my walk to work on a recent morning, air crisp and clear after an overnight rainstorm, I walk past a man sitting on the street corner. I immediately recognize him as a former resident in our Life Change Academy, who left early on in the program. I nicknamed him Logan, due to his striking resemblance to one of my favorite X-Men comic book characters — with his muscular frame and prominent dark sideburns and stubble. This morning, he is angry and making loud threats against a man (not present) who had very personally wronged him. “Are you ok?” I ask. “No!” he screams, eyes fixed on an invisible enemy. I am standing with Wolverine – the enraged persona of the gentle man I had known.
I became a Christian at the age of 15 and was baptized in the Pacific Ocean a year later with blue-dyed hair and a head full of ambition to do great things. In the years that followed, I would travel to Vancouver, San Francisco, and what is now South Sudan. I saw remarkable (and terrible) things – hopeless drug addicts, prostitutes of all ages, and a desperate mother holding a sick infant miles from medical aid. I imagine these experiences contributed to my becoming a Rotarian at the age of 31.
I’m pretty sure my father hated these trips – not because I was helping others, nor because he is Jewish and these trips were Christian-affiliated – but because he loves me and wants to keep me safe. Also, as he once told me, “There are plenty of people you can help here in your own community.” He was right, which brings me back to Wolverine.
I stood there for just a moment with a decision to make. I could respond with a gracious, yet shallow, apology for his troubles and wish him luck. Or, I could engage. I chose the latter and awkwardly sat down next to him, full cup of coffee in one hand and a stack of papers in the other. I wasn’t convinced he recognized me and I discerned the need to tread softly – to listen and choose my words carefully.
It turns out, his 18-month old daughter had been removed from his custody three months ago. Suddenly, I had a window of opportunity to connect and to encourage. “I would hate for you to make a decision that further separates you from your daughter’s life.” He tears up. “She is young enough not to remember this situation, which means you have an opportunity to get your life together…to become whole and be in her whole life.”
What started as a scary interaction in which I feared for my own safety turned into two grown men (and near strangers) hugging each other on a street corner at 8 o’clock in the morning. I don’t think he hugged me and cried because of my advice, but because I felt led to say, “Logan, I believe in you.”
It would have been easier to move on, but that would have served self way more than another. As you and I pause in these moments and take them as opportunities to build goodwill and better friendships (especially with those hurting in our communities) more Wolverines may remember they have a different name, potential, and purpose.
No matter what you believe or how good of a person you are, you can’t protect yourself or your loved ones enough to avoid the everyday tragedies of life. So let’s risk a bit more in the day to day and seek opportunities for service in the mundane commutes. As Rotarians, “service above self” is not a motto we excuse ourselves from in the face of opposition, or even danger – we press in.
About the Author: Ryan Stillwater is the Director of Development for Visalia Rescue Mission located in California’s Central Valley – which operates a 12-month, residential drug and alcohol recovery program for men and women (Life Change Academy). Ryan serves as the Faith Community Representative on a County Task Force on Homelessness, as well as other local boards and committees.