The Story Matters

Earlier tonight I walked over to my office at Oval Park to grab a few things. An old friend I first met at the Park in 2013 was sitting on his bike in front of Panaderia El Trigal. It turns out he's going through some serious heartbreak with his significant other. Having experienced those intense feelings in a former life, I couldn't help feeling for the guy. We talked for a bit, I grabbed what I needed from my office and headed home. I called him later on and we met up at the Transit Center to hang out. (Note: This is the same guy who shattered my office door and stole my bike when he was strung out on heroin). 

I learned more of his story than I did when I wrote this for Direct Magazine last December. He's Dennis.

“Once you hear someone’s story, you may not change your opinion, but you can definitely change your tone.” I can’t recall the sermon topic on this particular Sunday, but I remember these words from that sermon as clear as day. I immediately felt as if this pastor was talking to me: “Ryan, I know you think _______ about _______, but have you ever heard their story?” I’ve done a much better job since then reading someone’s book, not just judging their cover. As TOMS Shoes founder Blake Mycoskie said, “Facts are important, but the story matters.”

For example, when first starting at Oval Park, I quickly became close with a man I’ll call Dennis. Dennis is older than me, has tattoos up his neck and is missing most of his teeth but still has a beguiling smile. He’s also pretty fit and, quite frankly, intimidating. After a few days of self-medicating a bad spider bite, it was clear he needed some medical attention. While heading towards the hospital together, he began to open up his life for the first time. 

The facts of his story were this: he spent 15 years in jail for murder. 

The story behind the facts is this: he was seventeen years old and murdered the man who molested his 2-year-old daughter. 

This changes things, doesn’t it?

I haven’t changed my opinion about murder, but I have changed my tone towards Dennis.

It turns out his mother disappeared when he was six years-old. SIX! That's my oldest daughter's age. He thinks she left because, in his words, he was a "mistake" -- just straight unwanted. The man is 49 years-old and what happened to him over four decades ago is still affecting him. Suddenly his lack of drive to change his situation makes more sense: Why strive for stability if I was never supposed to be here in the first place?

While my desire to pray for him seemed insufficient in my mind, the words and truth that fumbled out of my mouth for him are like a pinball frantically ricocheting throughout his heart and mind. Truth is funny that way -- it's the light in the darkness -- and he needs it desperately.

Pray for Dennis. God knows his real name and his full story. And more than that, He knows the ending. 


Ryan Stillwater

Ryan is a longtime Visalian — a graduate of Redwood High School and Fresno Pacific University with a bachelors degree in Christian Ministries. Intrigued by the partnership between the Visalia Rescue Mission and the City of Visalia, Ryan began putting his vision on paper as VRM's Oval Venue Coordinator in August 2013, and has sparked the interest of many throughout the community. Ryan and his wife Amy (a Mt. Whitney High School graduate) have been married for seven years and have three amazing kids — ages 6, 4, and 4.