Transformation: From Walter to Doc

I met Doc during my first week of clinical training at the Training and Counseling Center at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in downtown Atlanta.  I had been “encouraged” to get my feet wet in a clinical setting rather than basking in the safety of the academy,  As my professor put it rightly, I was theoretically top-heavy.

So, from the rarefied air of the Center for Faith Development at Emory, I found myself in the mornings at a soup kitchen serving the homeless of Atlanta. It was a daily operation of serving sandwiches prepared daily by volunteers, served with gallons of coffee. This all happened in the Parish Hall of venerable St. Luke’s Episcopal, home of some of the wealthiest and most tony citizens of Atlanta. The soup kitchen’s daily operation changed the feel and the smell of the aristocratic church, wearing on facilities, tying up the space, and leaving a tell-tale urine smell for Sunday morning. I was to work with the street people in a pioneering model of delivering family therapy to an indigent population, while assisting with the volunteers in making sense of their experience. A rich mix of possibilities of ground-breaking work and potential disaster.

Into that environment, I blew in, looking for experience. The first person I met was a small, little man, looking more like Gandhi than an Atlanta businessman. He wore a plaid shirt that I am sure came from L.L. Bean or Land’s End, on top of a pair of khakis from the Buckhead Men’s Shop, no doubt. He had a stuttering walk, as his eyes blinked constantly, as if he was clearing his mind, every few seconds. Bald as a monk with tonsure, but tanned from his daily labor in his garden and weekend trips to Hilton Head, he cut a curious figure. Doc seemed a bit out of place, from my initial assessment, but I found that he was the juice that made the place go.

His real name was Walter, Walter Willis. He had been a co-owner of the preeminent jewelry store for Old Atlanta, named for his brother/partner, Charles Willis. He had catered to the wealthy of the city, showing his inimitable Southern hospitality to all his customers. That passion for service now was transferred to his new customers, the street people of Atlanta. Doc’s style of giving respect and showing care to the pilgrims who came through our line was the most important thing I learned there in this down-and- dirty world of people living inbetween.

I’m not sure what made the change come for Doc. Casually, he once told me he had gotten his fill of making money and spending money, and decided to use his time and energy for more important things. I never had the nerve to apply my clinical and psychological lens to his life, to try to  figure out what the hell happened to transform this man into the closest thing to a saint I had seen. I just saw, and marveled at the way he treated people and gave them respect. It was like I was afforded a chance to  see the Christ in flesh, a rare thing for a guy like me. To observe a changed man, transformed by life and spirit, and I got a chance to see the fruit of his labors in the dingy context of a soup kitchen.

At that very soup kitchen, we developed a logistical problem as our numbers rapidly increased with a downturn in the economy and the simultaneous release of patients from psychiatric hospitals due to rule changes on involuntary custody. We simply had to change the way we worked in order to feed the people who needed food. And so, we came up with the idea of two shifts, two times for people to be fed and served. This meant we would have to complete one shift, move those who had been served out to make room for a new group. The volunteers,  who were appropriately went by the appellation, the “church ladies”,  referred to the shift idea as two “seatings”, which I found both ironic and funny.

With the change, Doc and I became a team, out of  necessity. He was the heart, and I, the enforcer. I had worked as a glorified bouncer my last year of college at the hottest night club in town,  so I knew how to move people where I wanted, or needed them to be. Doc would get their attention, reminding them of our joy in serving them, reminding them of God’s love for them, reminding them that we hope they will come back tomorrow. But then, as sweetly as a Southern-cultured person could, Doc would tell them it was time to go. There were other people who needed to be served. Then, it was my turn. Move ’em out. How to do this without it seeming like I was herding humans? Doc would help, with his soft voice, but I had to move them out so we could serve more waiting people. It was a trick we worked on and did pretty well with our version of good cop-bad cop.

I have thought a lot of those days as I reflect on my time in the church. Clearly, St. Luke’s became the model of what I church could and should be. It was my Camelot, as I watched literally change the city with its message of grace and programs of compassion. I’ve carried the spirit of that place with me throughout my career as a priest.

There at the St. Luke’s soup kitchen, I listened, over the sacrament of peanut butter sandwiches and coffee, to the stories of men and women who wound up on the streets of Atlanta. Some came, fresh out of the service, carrying physical and psychological wounds. Some came, trying to get out of the bottle where they have been trapped. A man who was at the top of his game who woke up and decided to break out of his platinum shackles. A middle aged woman who had her fill of putting up with spousal abuse. A woman turned out after years in a psychiatric hospital with no place to go. And the children, who followed their parent, like a puppy who follows his mama, into the streets. I saw all types and conditions, as we say. My images and prejudices were pretty shot to hell by the time I finished up my work in that soup kitchen.

But the encounter that had the most effect was that of Doc. A man who had found a second  act, a new way of being in the world. Doc wound up being  a friend for life, serving on the committee of discernment that decided if I had the particular and peculiar constellation of gifts that would be a good “fit” for me serving as a priest. His imprimatur on my life, my gifts, was one of the most important confirmations I’ve received. I chose Doc as one of the lay people who would “present” me at my formal ordination. I wound up being with him as his priest when he died at Piedmont Hospital, and assisted in his funeral there at St. Luke’s. That Doc, he was a world changer.

I took Doc with me, in my memory and my soul. I wonder about how people make that transformation, how they negotiate the passage from one way of being to another. It’s been one of my perennial questions that I push around during my life. How does transformation happen?

There are a variety of models, all with a piece of the truth.

Jung popularized the notion of mid-life crisis, of a profound shift that occurs in a human when they awaken to the reality that the time they have left to live is less than what they have lived. When Jung was thinking and writing, it happened around the age of forty, the infamous mid-life crisis, where one’s mortality spins you off in a crazy pursuit of what you always wanted to do, but were afraid to tackle or risk.

Bob Buford popularized this concept for the evangelical Christian community in his book, Half Time, baptizing the craziness into a more noble tonality. Bob suggested that for many it’s a move from mastery to meaning. One spends the first half of life mastering one’s vocational skill resulting in success. But then, as normal success wears a bit thread-bare, one moves to other pursuits that are more noble, and brings significance to one’s  legacy. I like that, and I have seen countless good folk follow that pattern.

Recently, David Brooks has written about similar transformation process in his  book, The Second Mountain. Following the old two-phase image, the first mountain for a person to climb is that of the “normal” goals that our culture pushes, that of success, to be well thought of, to experience personal happiness. Brooks makes a powerful point that our current culture drives the preeminence of this first mountain, focusing on an individualistic pursuit of happiness. The problem occurs when the person arrives at the top of the first mountain of achievement and finds it unsatisfying, as if something essential is missing. In that moment, some people decide to change course, relocating their course to another mountain. Brooks calls this the Second Mountain. a journey whose focus is on service to the common good, not the self. He says there’s a shift in motivation, from self-centered to other-centered.

Brooks gives several observations as to how people move from the First to the Second mountain. One is a basic shift in awareness after one has achieved success and recognizes some emptiness there, an experiential living into the lyric,  “I can’t get no satisfaction!” For others, it comes when one falls off the first mountain through failure, when something happens to their success or reputation that disrupts the normal. For others, it comes through an unanticipated intrusion of suffering that brings with it a existential question of the meaning of one’s life.

The truth is some continue on with the individualistic,self-based projects right up until their final breath, content to go with the flow. And some who fall off the mountain by failure or suffering, falling off the First mountain into the valley, remain there broken. Brooks focuses on the folks that are “made” by going “down in the valley” and emerge with a new vision, a new point of view on  life. His claim, which is personified in his own journey that he winsomely recounts, is that this second mountain moves one beyond a shallow happiness to a deeper joy.

Brooks goes on to talk about a journey into the “wilderness”, a process that follows the contours of transformation that I have talked about previously in my blog as following a three-fold pattern that is built into human experience. I encourage you to dig into this book as it is rich in observations and wisdom. I will be revisiting this in future weeks.

This is what happened to Doc. I don’t know the particulars, but I do know that the life of the confirmed bachelor, bon vivant lifestyle proved to be less than satisfying, moving Doc to his ascent of the Second Mountain. It is here, serving and living with the street people of Atlanta, that Doc found joy. He once told me it was his Heaven, those moments in that smelly gathering space of humanity.

Where are you on the journey? Does the two mountain image work for you in naming where you are in your journey? It does for me. I have been captured by this image of moving into a new way to give of myself to a bigger reality than my own empire of self. Part of it is a natural evolution of consciousness or awareness of my self, the life I bought into, the mountain I was climbing. And, some of it comes as a result of failure, of falling, of losing my way which forces you to question how you are doing life, what price you have paid unknowingly, what compromises you made. For whatever reason, I find myself on the Second Mountain, climbing again but in a different way.

I am thankful that I had a Doc to show me the way, a pioneer who led the way.

I have often reflected that my method of life was a native wisdom to get myself next to the best of the breed in order to learn how to do something well. When I wanted to be a scholar, I put myself with the best scholars of my time. When I wanted to be a therapist, I hung out with the best therapists in the community. When I wanted to learn to pray, I connected with the spiritual giants of our time. Learn from the best.

Unknowingly, gracefully, I wound up with a man of the Second Mountain, who showed me a way of being in the second act of life that was full of service  and joy. Thanks Doc.

13 thoughts on “Transformation: From Walter to Doc

  1. Wish I could have met Doc. I wish I had mentors on this second mountain trail. I can read, I can act but few are left to fill the role of mentor to walk along side. So I’ll stumble along the path of the second mountain grateful that I am no longer on the first.


    1. Thanks for reading and responding. As an older man, mentors are now dead. I was thinking about my academic mentor this morning over coffee and how much I wanted to ask him a question. I am finding collegial groups helpful, and long walks beneficial. I was blessed to have Doc. We made several boat trips from Hilton Head to a little island to listen to Gullah musicians and taste their incredible seafood. Doc enjoyed life. I try to follow his lead.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I get it.He chronicles a huge change in himself in a later chapter, A Strange Turn of Events. He struggles with the normal ways of embracing religious tradition feels familiar to me. He eschews quick, easy answers. I think he has undergone a profound change and his thinking around culture reflects it. Take a look.
    Thanks for reading, Trevor, and for responding.


    1. Too long for an answer/opinion in a comment section – but in short I’ve followed Brooks and others for years and I see him as a systemic part of the problem. Then and now.


      1. I followed him as well. As noted, I have seen a definite shift, not to where I am, but reasonable, and I’m taking what I can get in terms of dialogue partners. I don’t want to take your time, but I would be interested if you want to explain in another format. Again, thanks for thinking.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for this, David. I sang in the choir at St. Luke’s during my time in Atlanta and my therapist was on the staff there. I have so many memories of that parish and its many amazing ministries.
    Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward is another excellent resource for spirituality in the second half of life.


    1. No, but I get his daily reflections and have listened to him give a talk about the Universal Christ.


  4. On this topic I find myself to be the eccentric rebel, the perpetual mountain climber of life’s many opportunities and challenges, the one criticized for never sticking to anything (or any one thing in particular), and the individual faced with unending critical health related challenges. I have known individuals who wear the golden watch of long term loyalty with justified pride, and I admire those who have successfully lived life through two careers, for whatever motivation. You present an interesting topic with a somewhat predictable outcome, and then there is the one who fails to meet any of the anticipated outcomes. Yes, the space is limited and a lot of fodder for another time. Thanks Padre.


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