Three people who saved my life. The stranger

Enjoy this monthly blog post from Patrick Riecke, director, Chaplaincy and Volunteer Services. 

In my last blog series, I shared a bit about the five people to whom I owe my career. What is my career exactly? Well, I am a minister. A hospital chaplain. I am the Director of Chaplaincy and Volunteers at Parkview Health, and I get to lead a team of 20 chaplains and about 430 volunteers (in reality, the manager in our department and our secretary do about 99 percent of the work with volunteers). I also chair the Ethics Committee, which is an honor to help facilitate the best decisions possible for our most at-risk patients. Oh, and last but not least, my work includes helping faith leaders connect with one another and outside resources. Because a community where faith leaders know and care for one another is a more resilient and connected community.

In this next series, I want to go subterranean, underground. I want to talk about three people who saved my life. If it weren’t for these people, I would simply not be who I am today. I know, sounds overdramatic, but it’s true.

First up, a mystery man.

It happened like this …

I was 17 and confused. (Maybe that’s redundant.) I had grown up Catholic, and very involved. We attended Mass several times per week. My dad worked for the church full-time and my mother part-time. I was a Boy Scout at the church’s troop and an altar boy.

My first job was at the church. Dad would pay me to do things like vacuum in between the pews, straighten the hymnals, or mow the grass. I always joke that I wasn’t qualified to mow our grass at home (a job always reserved for Dad), but I could use the riding mower and knock out acre after acre at the church. Of course, maybe the time I cut through the extension cord with the hedge trimmers made him second guess (rightly so) my handyman abilities.

So, I was rolling right along as a reasonably committed Catholic Christian.

Then it happened. The same thing that happens for most teen boys at some point. A girl made me question everything. For the entire duration of our relationship, she required that this dyed-in-the-wool Catholic attend her non-denominational church. I didn’t even know what “non-denominational” meant.

My first Sunday at her church, I noticed the preacher was hollering. I didn’t think he was angry, but I couldn’t be sure. And I got the idea I was supposed to know the songs they were singing, and (ugh) they expected me to sing along. I knew this because a secretary somewhere had obviously spent time typing up all the words and putting them into the bulletin. I can still remember one time when I was giving it a shot and I sang when I wasn’t supposed to sing. It was bad. I wanted to teleport to another dimension.

Fast-forward nine months. I am a senior in high school who hasn’t made a college choice. I have gone from Mass to this other church service every Sunday for my entire senior year.

And then the girl dumps me.

Refer to the beginning of this story. I was confused (that’s an understatement). I was at more risk than I realized. Looking back, I was probably depressed. I had thoughts of suicide just to escape the confusion and uncertainty I faced.

So, I ran away. Only, it was the weakest “running away” ever. I climbed out my bedroom window and dropped onto the roof of the garage in my Adidas Sambas (no, I didn’t play indoor soccer, I just like the shoes). I jumped off the garage roof with my keys in hand. Upon reflection, no one would have stopped me from leaving through the front door. I honestly don’t know why I had to climb out the window. I ran over to my 1986 Chevy Celebrity and floored it. Zero to 60 mph in just under 30 seconds.

I drove to the Lake Avenue entrance to the River Greenway and started walking down the path. I should mention I was playing hooky from work (I was a bag boy at Scott’s Food Store). When I reached the one-mile mark, I sat down on a bench. I kept an eye to the parking lot, sure the police would be there any minute (you know, because I was a runaway).

At home, my parents just thought I had gone to work. The Department for Missing Persons had not been called. But someone had been called. I think that’s how he would describe it — as a calling.

I saw him coming from far off.

An old man.

And while I now know that someone who is in their 30s seems old to a 17 year old, this man coming toward me was legitimately in his upper 60s.

White beard.

Huge smile.

And suspenders.

I hoped he would just pass by.

He didn’t.

He stopped right in front of me. And even worse, he spoke to me.

“How are you?”

“Fine,” I lied.

He looked around at the Greenway, taking an audible deep breath. He seemed so … satisfied.

“What are you doing out here today?”

“Just thinking,” I said, trying to give him the shortest responses possible.

“What do you think about when you come here?”

Seriously. Just. Leave. Me. Alone.

“Oh you know, my family, friends, school, work,” I said.

“Do you know what I think about when I come out here?”

I wanted to say, “No, and I don’t care.” But my mom taught me to be polite.

“No, what do you think about when you come out here?”

“I think about the Lord Jesus Christ,” he said without hesitation.

He had my attention now. I was thinking about my Christian faith as well, but wasn’t about to tell the happy old man on the River Greenway that.

My sullen expression on that bench seemed to make him more committed to sharing really good news with me. He didn’t evangelize me. Although some would call it that. He told me what he was thinking about. And the outcome was that he was …. Satisfied, while I was still just confused.

We must have looked like an interesting pair. The cranky teenager and the happy old man walking the mile back to our cars together. Before we left, he wrapped his arms around me (I know, right, a stranger hugging you is not usually a good thing), and he prayed for me.

I don’t want to over-spiritualize this experience, but it was as though Jesus himself had come out to me that day. That he met me in my confusion and disarray and brought me light and love. And joy.

That day, everything changed for me. I knew I had a purpose and that even when I was far away, God would still reach out to me.

If it hadn’t been for Bill Dunn (I looked him up later and had dinner with him many times at his house), I might not even be alive today. Or at least I would still be confused. And I certainly wouldn’t be … satisfied.

And now? My life goal is to be a jolly old man who can speak a direct word. Just like him — the man who saved my life.

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