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All the Difference.

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” I wonder what was going through the great poet, Robert Frost’s mind as he penned these famous words in his poem, “The Road Not Taken.” I imagine Frost, sitting in his New England home on a winter day, in front of his fireplace, smoking a pipe. The snow lightly falling outside. And as he sat there, entranced by the dancing flames, he pondered back on his life. The people he’d met, the places he’d gone to, the accomplishments in his life. His mind lost in the days of yesteryear, Frost looks up from the flames, and outside his window and into the New Hampshire wood. A man who had gone through his share of hurt, pain, and loss in his life, who had shed his share of tears, who had known the highs of victory and the lows of defeat, had seen it all. And yet through it all, he said, I will press on. I will not settle. I will carry on. I will take the road less traveled by…and that has made all the difference. And with a contended sigh and a worn smile on his face, with the fire’s glare reflecting off of his kind, warm eyes, Frost takes up his pen and goes to work. I look at my friend Jerry, and I see that same kind of resolve. That same kind of fight. That same determination; to take the road less traveled and be able to say, “That has made all the difference.”

Jerry D. Stirewalt was born on January 1st, 1960 in London England. His dad at the time served in the air force in London and had brought Jerry’s mother and his four brothers and three sisters there. Shortly after moving, Jerry was born. Jerry spent the first two years of his life over in England and after his father finished his service in the air force, they moved back to the states, settling down in Bend, Oregon. As one can imagine, growing up with four brothers and three sisters made for an exciting and crazy household to be in. There was always something going on at the Stirewalt house.

At the age of fifteen, Jerry started working on a ranch for a family friend. After two years of that, he decided it was time to move on and be independent and see the country. And so Jerry took off to the National Guard in Fort Knox, Kentucky.  The National Guard, however, didn’t seem to be the best fit for Jerry and after just six months, he decided it was time to try something else. From there, at the age of seventeen, Jerry headed off to New York city. This was one of the best times in his life. Jerry loved getting to see the sights and explore the unknown concrete jungle that held new adventures to be had each day. Jerry continued his adventures in other cities too. Chicago, Nashville, Houston, Dallas, New Orleans, Atlanta, and Seattle, just to name a few. And each city held new exciting possibilities and new adventures to be had. The road Jerry was travelling certainly was one less traveled.

Along the way, however, Jerry experienced some difficulties. Jerry was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. His mind wasn’t working like it used to. Suddenly, the bright road that held new possibilities, adventures and excitement became dark, hazy, and frightening. And there seemed to be no way out of it. He had gone too far now to turn back around. In fact, he couldn’t seem to figure out how to turn back around or how to get off the road. Disoriented, confused, and scared, Jerry continued to stumble down the road, uncertain with each and every step. He wondered if life would ever go back to the way it was. If things would ever clear up again.

And then one day things took quite a change. Jerry had settled into Portland Oregon. He had decided that he had had enough of the travels for the time being and it was time to stay in one spot while he tried to get things back in order.  One day, Jerry met the love of his life, Georgiana outside of Bridge’s Apartment complex just down the street from his everyday hangout spot on Burnside Avenue. It was love at first sight for the two. Jerry instantly knew that Georgiana would be his wife. Out of all the smiles that Jerry gave talking and looking back on his life, he never gave a bigger smile than when he talked about his wife. He loved to talk about his travels all over the country. He loved to talk about the jams of his favorite bands, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and how he himself could play guitar with the best of best. And he sure did love talking about random trivia facts that he had picked up over his 51 years of life (“did you know that the sun is 93 million light years away?”). But all that paled in comparison to when he talked about the love of his wife, Georgiana. After eighteen years of marriage, that love seems to be as strong as it was when they first said “I do.” Georgiana helped turn his life around and brought light on the once dark and lonely path that he had found himself on. And Jerry couldn’t be happier.

I asked Jerry what he wished people knew about him as they walked by his spot on Burnside Avenue. “I wish they knew something better about me,” he said. “I wish they knew that I’m a nice guy.” Jerry had sat in that same spot on Burnside Avenue since 1981. He had seen his share of people walk by. On their own roads of life. And all the man wanted was just someone to stop and get to know him for the guy that he really was. All he wanted was someone to take a break from their own road and take the time to hear about his own road that he had taken. And it surely would be worth the break. Jerry is a wonderful reminder that we were made to share our stories. That each story is a beautiful work of art waiting to be shared with the world; each story leaving the world changed, moved and inspired. And each town and each city has its own Jerry’s waiting to share their own story. About their own paths that they took that made all the difference in their own lives.

Jerry knew that God was the one who had set out this path of life for him. “God is love,” beamed Jerry. “Up in the sky when it rains and thunders and there’s lightning, that’s God. He’s always with me.” And seeing as that Jerry lives in one of the rainiest parts of the country, Jerry has seen God countless times and in countless ways. Jerry’s path of life certainly has been less traveled. Those kind green eyes that greet hundreds of people every day on Burnside Avenue have seen more than the typical traveler. From New York to Portland and everything in between, Jerry has seen it all. And he sees that God who is love and who sends the rain and thunder and lightning with those same eyes. He is quick to acknowledge that God has been his guide with each and every step through it all. Jerry truly did take that road less traveled by, and that surely has made all the difference.  


Remembering a Champion.

I’ve heard it said that the end is just the beginning. After the 9 rounds of life are over, after we’ve hung up the gloves, and after we’ve stepped out of the ring. That is when true life begins. Joseph Leon Hale’s life, in that case, is just beginning. Leon took his last breath in this world on the night of August 12th, 2011 in North Western Hospital.  Leon’s body was not able to take any more blows from the harsh winters on the streets and pneumonia eventually spread an infection through his body that could not be healed. It was our dear friend Leon’s time to go.

On April 3rd, 1910, Theodore Roosevelt gave this message describing the heart of the American people:

“It is not the critic who counts: nor the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who at the best, knows in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, it he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”

Leon knew what it meant to step into the ring and fight valiantly. The man gave himself up to a worthy cause: providing and caring for his wife Michelle, being a friend to so many, and dreaming big, and all the while not being afraid to dance and sing on the streets of Chicago Avenue in the midst of adversity and hardship. Leon’s life was a victory. And now, he gets to celebrate that victory with his Maker.

The blows for Leon are done. Never again will he have to spend a night on the streets of Chicago on a freezing winter night. Never again will he have to worry about where his next meal will come. Never again will his body hurt and ache from sleeping on the ground. The rounds are over. The race is done. And the end is just the beginning. I can’t help but think that Leon’s up there singing The Temptations and dancing like never before, surrounded by beauty unimaginable. With that big Leon grin. The masterpiece, the work of art, known as Joseph Leon Hale now gets to be with the Great Artist Himself and enjoy eternity with Him.

The Changing Seasons

The gusting wind tossed an army of white flurries to and fro. A sea of white was all people could see as they peeked out of their windows, shut in their homes and trapped in God’s snow globe; it was as if the Big Guy upstairs, having decided to do some cleaning around the heavenly house, took a shredder to every piece of paper in the heavens above and the earth below and sent it through a ginormous God-sized fan, letting His people gawk and gaze upon the marvelous madness as it fell from the sky. The result: The Chicago Snowpocalypse of 2011. A blanket of white had engulfed the Chicago cityscape and there was no sign of it letting up. Businesses were shut down. School was canceled. Cars were stranded along the road. And yet how the seasons do change. Just five short months later, Chicagoans in the middle of summer find themselves clamoring for their A.C.’s and desperate for some of that leftover cool air from February to blow their way. Temperatures shoot up to past triple digits, sprinklers are set to full blast, and popsicles are in high demand. The seasons have a funny way of changing like that.

I’ve heard it said so often that each stage in life can be compared to the different seasons. I like that. Each season so different and unique, with its own lesson to be learned, its own forecast and its own theme. And yet just as fast as it comes along, it goes, changing into the next season, with its own set of highs and lows, calms and storms. And to think, all this set in motion by that same Big Guy upstairs with the big fan. Each one of these seasons is crafted by our Abba. Papa. Father. A sunny day here, a rainy day there. He designs and sculpts each season with a real, intimate and unique purpose for His kids. Robert Fox is one of those kids. From Mississippi to Alaska to Chicago, he sure has gone through his share of seasons and climates, in more ways than one. And with each season, he has learned, and grown and seen God. And so this is his story.

Robert Fox was born in Tuvalu, Mississippi on April 1st, 1963. After a few short years spent there, he went from the small town of Colorado, TX to business of Orange County, California and then settled down in Wichita Kansas where he spent his childhood. Robert had four sisters and two brothers and was the second youngest out of the bunch. Robert was your typical kid growing up, he says. He was, in his words, “an excellent kid” and he and his family were very close. His mom was a book keeper and his father worked at a potato chip factory and gave Robert a good home to live in with his siblings. However, as he turned thirteen, Robert decided to leave home. He says he just got bored and wanted to try something new. And so, while still attending school, Robert stayed on the streets up until he was eighteen. The summer after his junior year Robert decided he wanted to try his hand in the working world. He worked nights at the local Wendy’s and days at a steel plant. He was making such good money that he got himself his own place and decided not to finish high school.

Shortly after, Robert moved to Ogden, Utah with his family. One day while in Ogden, Robert and a friend of his went to a local swimming pool where he met his future wife, Denise. Robert’s friend bet him that he couldn’t even get a date with Denise. And so, Robert took his friend up on the bet and just hours later found himself on his parent’s porch talking all through the night as if long lost friends. Two years later, Robert and Denise got married and had a son named Robert after his father. The forecast was looking good in Mr. Robert Fox’s life.

Robert, always passionate about cooking, joined the marines and cooked in San Francisco, CA where he was stationed. He and Denise enjoyed three happy years there together. Robert though realized that he wanted to travel the world whereas Denise wanted him home. And so Robert decided it best that they go their own separate ways. “We still best friends to this day, though,” said Robert with a sigh of contentment. A single man again, Robert traveled the world with the Marine Corps as a chef. Over the next thirteen years he was in Kenya, Tokyo, Amsterdam, Australia, England and Scotland. “I loved every minute of it,” said Robert, his lips curling at the corners and emerging through the curtain of his white beard.

However, pain was etched on Robert’s face and the curls disappeared once again behind the curtain as he readied himself to explain the next season. As his term came to an end, Robert married a fellow marine he had gotten to know over his years of service. In Robert’s words, “I don’t even wanna remember her.” To this day, Robert won’t mention her name. Robert and his second wife settled down in Utah and ran a bed and breakfast. The place was well known all through the area. “I had cops, judges and attorneys coming down through just because they wanted to taste my food,” said Robert. Things seemed to be going great for Robert, but little did he know a great storm in his life was to come. One day, after ten years of marriage, his second wife decided to leave him. Not only that, but she took literally everything he had and Robert was left with nothing. His boats, cars, and his property all became hers through the courts. The luxurious, comfortable lifestyle that Robert once had was now gone. “I couldn’t get back up,” grimaced Robert. The experience that once was “so beautiful” as Robert said now turned into the hardest experience of his life. “I went right from the courthouse straight to the streets,” said Robert.

Robert didn’t want to be around a single soul. And so he decided to leave what he knew and try to start fresh. In 1998, He ended up hitchhiking to Seattle and then hopped a train to Anchorage, Alaska. There he came upon some land where he became a homesteader, having the opportunity to build on the land free of charge. For the next ten years, Robert lived on the ten acres of land where he fished, hunted, and built his own home as well as an igloo. The season was one of healing, recovery and renewal for Robert.

Eventually, Robert decided it was time to be with people again and he went to Seattle to help out a friend in the food service business for a year. After he helped him get back on track, Robert, taking his own bike that he had designed himself decided to take a trip of epic proportions. He biked from Seattle Washington all the way to his home state of Mississippi over a span of eight months. During this time Robert lost two hundred pounds, going from 350 to 150 pounds, and gained recognition all through Mississippi.

Eventually, after having a difficult time finding work, Robert hitchhiked up to Chicago, deciding he would try his hand at the Windy City. Robert was familiar with the place from spending a month there back in his twenties after joining a hippie gathering out there for a short while. And so, in October of 2010, Robert was dropped off in front of the Buckingham fountain and ready to begin his next season of life. Three major parts of this season came about as Robert started this season. As he walked around the city, Robert realized his love and passion for photography and capturing the hustle and bustle of the city life around him. “It gives me memories when I go back to them,” said Robert. “And it can hopefully turn into a job one day.” During this time, Robert also became involved at St. James Cathedral, where he became their official photographer. “It gives me a place to worship and brings me peace when I’m there,” said Robert. During this time too, Robert became a crucial became a crucial part of Chicago’s Beloved, a group of people who spend time on the streets in downtown Chicago with dear friends, have a Bible study, and eat chili.

It has been quite a mix of seasons for the forty-eight year old man. And as I sit in front of him at a local coffee shop scribbling down notes and asking him questions I can’t help but hold the utmost respect and appreciation for him. Robert is proof of beauty through the brokenness. Just as when a seed is planted in the soil, it must go through rainy days in order to eventually grow and bloom, so too Robert’s rainy and stormy days have produced a wonderful result. Robert reminds me to never let my passions die down, no matter what the storm. It is a rare occurrence when my bearded friend doesn’t have his two cameras packed on him and ready to whip out to show me the latest and greatest pictures that he’s snapped, exposing beauty, brilliance and creativity with each one. He always has stories to share and things to be excited about. It’s as if the storms, rather than bringing him down, have brought him up, providing just the right amount of rain to grow, bloom and flourish. ‘

And throughout all of this, Robert has seen God as the One in charge of the seasons. “He’s been in my life my whole life,” said Robert. He wants people off the street to learn from him that they should always look for that silver lining in the cloud so to speak. “Don’t let things get you down,” said Robert. “Always think positive and never get negative.” And so, rain or shine, Robert Fox’s story is one that truly inspires and encourages those that go through their own storms and rainy days of life. With each storm that comes our way, we can be sure that God is in control of each rain drop, snow flake, and ray of sunshine. His Word states, “He covers the heavens with clouds; He prepares rain for the earth; He makes grass grow on the hills” (Ps. 147:8). And he has done just that for the painted canvas known as Mr. Robert Fox.  

Just the Right Tune

A symphony. The perfect blend of sounds conglomerating together to greet your ears with just the right tune. The baton goes up and down and side to side as the conductor waves his small, tiny instrument of wooden fiber to beckon a myriad of noise to come together to create beauty. The blare of the horns. The trill of the flutes. The vibrato of the violins. It all speaks to the listener and calls him to feel emotion. Pain. Sorrow. Despair. Hope. Courage. Love. Each part of the symphony delivers its own unique message and each one plays off the last and comes together to create a masterpiece of sound. The life of my dear friend Brian Weil is like that. A masterpiece of sound. With so many different parts that have delivered their own unique message that come together as a whole. There have been times the tune has been sad; minor keys, a slow time signature, soft and quiet. And there have been times the tune has been joyful; crashes of symbols, runs of melody and upbeat sound all over the page. And everything inbetween. All this coming together to create the song, the story, the masterpiece, of Brian Weil.

Brian’s song began on November 13th, 1970 in Chicago, IL on the West side of Chicago. Brian had an older sister, Lorraine and also was born as a twin with his sister Brenda, who was just five minutes older than him. Brian, always the kind of a guy to crack a joke, likes to say that on that day they closed down the hospital and the Dr. quit his joy. I like to think that on that day God smiled and knew a wonderful symphony had just begun.

A few years later, Brian and his family moved to Berwyn. Brian was a unique and special child, full of life and energy. And maybe a little bit of trouble to go with that too. “I was Dennis the Menace,” laughed Brian. “I did anything and everything.” Throughout Brian’s education, he had experienced kids picking on him and giving him trouble. This made things really hard for Brian as he went through school.

A common theme in the symphony of Brian’s life has been his relationship with his father. Brian’s father, George Weil, was a well-respected man who had served in the military for several years. However, George and Brian’s relationship was very harmful to Brian. “To my father, I was nothing but a moron,” said Weil. Brian faced constant verbal abuse from his father during his time under the same roof as him. And so whether he was at school or at home, Brian faced hard times and verbal lashings that he didn’t deserve in any way. This made for a very sorrowful symphony as Brian went through his growing up years.

The symphony picked up while Brian was in high school. He decided to find a healthy outlet for all the verbal abuse he was taking. And so Brian took up weight lifting. Part way through jr. high Brian had been lifting weights and now in high school he was lifting consistently. To this day, Brian spends time just about every single day at the gym. I’ve received many tips from Brian on how to work out and the man really is an expert.

After graduating high school, Brian worked at a newsstand for three years. The hours were long and early. Brian would be at the newsstand some days as early as 4:30 in the morning but enjoyed it. Following the newsstand job, Brian enlisted into the navy and went into special training and was selected to be a part of the high caliber and high demanding Navy Seals. Brian was great at what he did. He was a good swimmer. He was great at calisthenics. He was in the best shape of his life. Simply put, Brian was cut out to be a Navy Seal. About two months after Brian’s enlistment, he graduated from his training program and was scheduled to ship out to California the following morning. Upon reacting to the exciting news, Brian accidently fell off a stair landing from the second floor and ended up breaking his right leg in eight different places. Brian’s plans of California, in a moment, had changed drastically. “I was angry,” said Weil, desiring so badly to continue on, being the tough, determined man that he is. “I said that I was young and strong and the leg would heal up.” Unfortunately, Brian would have to be discharged due to his injury and he was sent home.

The transition back home for Brian was hard. He was back with his father who caused him emotional and physical harm. Brian explained to me multiple occasions where they violently fought in their home and the police were forced to come. Brian would eventually find a job at a Courtyard Marriot as a dishwasher in 1990. But the belittling from his father continued and he eventually kicked Brian out of his home. Brian, homeless and with a heavy heart, decided that he couldn’t continue to live his life. One night, when he got off work he rode his bike in front of an oncoming car. The blow was terrible. Brian was rushed to the hospital and put on life support. However, his symphony was not finished. Brian ended up staying in the hospital for a month and was then was transferred to a facility on the north side of Chicago where he recuperated. During this time on one winter day, as Brian slipped and fell in an icy Wal Green’s parking lot, he would meet his soon to be girlfriend Carola. Carola meant the world to Brian. They instantly became close and were insperable for six weeks. Six weeks after they met, however, Carola was hit by a car on a business trip and died. It was a terrible ordeal for Brian. “I was devastated, said Brian. “I cracked.” Despairing, down, and depressed, Brian was homeless once again for a short while before going into a center for help.

Brian would eventually move in to the YMCA on Chicago Avenue in the spring of 1995. During this time he met Sandra. Sandra would turn out to be a constant companion for Brian and they came to share a deep love for one another and they later became engaged. However, in 2002, Sandra started making poor choices and involved herself with negative influences and drug use. Brian had to break things off. It was another tough blow on Brian’s heart. Four years later, another blow would follow. George Weil, Brian’s father would pass away from a poor liver. The man had drank all these years and finally it took his life in the same house that Brian had grown up in and faced ordeal after ordeal with his father. The man who had caused Brian so much pain was now gone, but the pain, sorrow, and suffering from all those years was still there in his heart.

And so, at this point, Brian’s symphony was one that evoked much sorrow, remorse, and pain. However, there is beauty in the suffering. And in order to appreciate the peaks, one must go through valleys. In order to journey through the light, exciting melodies, the major keys, and the upbeat time signatures, one must take in and wade through the murky marshes of the slow, heavy, dark notes. It is a journey. It is a masterpiece. It is a symphony.

Imagine a stained glass window in an old cathedral. Full of broken glass. Random pieces that just seem pointless by themselves. Haphazard colors. No order, rhyme or reason supposedly. But shine the light on it. Let the golden beams of the sun be cast on it and what do you see? Beauty. Signifcance. Meaning. And that is what comes next in Brian’s life. The light is shone on the brokenness and out of it we find a masterpiece.

Brian was determined to pick up the broken pieces of his life. He enrolled himself in cooking school, fulfilling a promise that he had made to his dad earlier in life. As a kid, Brian wasn’t happy with the burnt eggs that his dad would serve up for breakfast and so he decided to do something about it and make his own eggs. The six year old was onto something. Burnt-less eggs were just the beginning. And now, a few years into his culinary schooling and a student at Kendall college, Brian is a incredible cook. In fact, for my 22nd birthday Brian gave me the best present I could ask for: a party catered by Mr. Weil himself. Ribs, pot roast, potato salad, greek salad. What more could a guy ask for?

In the Spring of 2010, Brian joined Chicago’s Beloved, a group that spends time with dear friends on the streets of downtown Chicago. Brian has played a vital role in the group, handing out sandwiches and blankets and building deep relationships with those involved. He has meant so much to that group in so many ways. In the Fall of 2010, Brian also joined a church community in Wicker Park called Missio Dei. During this time, God became more and more real to Brian. Light was shining on the broken places. “God gave me direction,” says Brian. “He gave me help.”

Brian’s dream is to finish school, become a personal chef in Chicago and start his own feeding program. There, those on the street could come in for a free meal and a Bible study and know that they are loved. I can’t think of a more wonderful dream.

I can’t even begin to describe the blessing that Brian Weil is in my life. I met Brian two years ago in the dining room of the YMCA one Fall evening. Little did I know what God had in store. Cups of coffee in Starbucks, time on the street with our friends, services at Missio Dei, meals full of laughter and stories. We have had so many good times over these past couple years. Words truly do fall short to describe how deeply I admire and appreciate the man and how much I cherish our friendship.

 Ludwig Von Bethoven. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Frederic Chopin. George Frideric Handel. All brought a group of instruments, a mishmash of metal and wood, together to produce a beautiful sound as they conducted and coerced refrain, harmony and tune out of each one. And all that simply with a wave of a baton. God, the ultimate Conductor and Composer Himself has unleashed a beautiful symphony as well. Far more beautiful than even Bethoven himself could muster up. Far more beautiful. Every part, every instrument, every sound in His complete and total control. With the wave of a baton He is able to create a complete masterpiece that transcends words. Brian Weil is that masterpiece.