Bruce B. Maxwell
After the tragic motorcycle accident of his brother, a young man of 18 years dropped out of high school and set out from his hometown just north of New York City to journey across the United States. He traveled across the country, where he met a young girl from California and together they journeyed with their spiky long hair, two dogs, and backpacks. Together, they were searching for their purpose. For 10 months, they lived as wanderers, as wayfarers, hopping trains, sleeping where they could find empty space, and meeting other young travelers who were searching for their purpose too. The young man took to the road to continue his process of healing in spaces where he could cope with his grief of his brother’s passing.
After 10 months of silence from his son, the young man’s father received a call shortly before the Thanksgiving holiday from his son. Overjoyed to finally hear that his son was returning home, he made arrangements to bring a small plane to the nearby Carlisle Airport. Chaplain Bruce B. Maxwell had the fortune of driving the couple to the airport. As Bruce finishes his story, he recalls a moment he will never forget- the moment that the father embraced his son after months being away from each other. As Bruce finished the story, I could feel the power behind the months of pain that the father and son spent grieving apart from one another.
Chaplain Bruce B. Maxwell feels it is his purpose, to be of presence for pilgrims journeying through Breezewood. Whether they are truck drivers, travelers, or lost wanderers getting settled in a local motel for a week, two weeks, or 2 months, he is there to be a listening ear, be of help, or provide the time or energy for whatever is needed in the moment. Sometimes they come off the bus, on a bicycle, or on foot. He meets wayfarers who are healing and searching for their purpose, much like the youngsters who journeyed across the United States.
Just 15 minutes earlier, we had walked into Gateway Plaza, a travel center popular among truckers traveling on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Nestled in the small town of Breezewood, this area is popular for travelers journeying from the west to Washington D.C. or Baltimore, Maryland. With just a few gas stations, fast food restaurants, and a handful of hotels and motels, this small town has a constant stream of people coming in and out.
For the past 15 years, my father and uncle have owned a few small businesses in this town and have come to know the town people very well. For years, my father has shared stories of “extreme work and extreme forgiveness” of some of the beautiful and generous souls who live in Breezewood. I have grown up hearing stories about one of these souls. After years, I finally had the chance to meet him.
Bruce’s story in Breezewood doesn’t start until 1992. He joked, that he “married into Pennsylvania”. He is married and has 3 talented children who are 6, 14, and 15 years of age. He was born in West Virginia and grew up in upstate New York. His father is a retired college professor and his mother is a retired professional musician who played in churches for most of her career. His grandfather lived through the Great Depression and always said to him, “If times get bad, education is something they can never take from you.”
Bruce also had a brother, Blair, who was a very passionate man that lived his life surrounded by the arts and music. From a very young age, he was disgruntled with the dichotomy of life and what he would see in the world: greed, selfishness, and consumerism. He lived a number of years in Europe deployed in the military, and later as a teacher in a Montessori School in Italy. In 2004, Blair passed away from cancer.
It wasn’t until he was 18 years old that Bruce had an “awakening” of sorts. At just 18, he told me, “I began to see the world with different eyes and a different heart” as he pointed to the left side of his chest. It all began when he was traveling by bicycle around the Great Lakes and Wisconsin. He was in a laundromat with a few friends and his brother when a gentleman approached them and asked Bruce his name. Bruce replied and the gentleman said, “Did you know Christ died for Bruce?” For two days, Bruce had a feeling he couldn’t comprehend, but he felt enveloped in a continuous presence of warmth, clarity, and brightness.
When he came back, he was exploring and thus, he turned to scriptures for understanding. He wanted to know more about this part of himself that was hungry to know more. However, he followed the path of completing his undergraduate studies, became an engineer, and received a job at Xerox. For two years, he did this job, but felt he needed to respond in some way to this ‘hunger.’
He didn’t understand how he would respond until his calling came to him in the form of pain during his parent’s divorce. Through the pain, he realized he needed to be where people were suffering. He felt called to be in a ministry of some kind, so he began theology school in Ohio. As a student he worked in a homeless shelter in downtown Dayton, Ohio. His experiences there gave him sensitivity to the people who were living on the streets or in multiple homes (an aunt’s home, cousin’s home, or other homes here and there). It gave him a sense of understanding about survival and during that time, poverty became redefined for him.
After school, he didn’t feel called to join a traditional Christian church. Instead, he felt a calling to travel out west and live as a vagabond. He lived out of his Subaru for 6 weeks. People asked Bruce, “Where are you going? What are you doing?” He would respond by saying, “I don’t know…I’ll let you know once I get there!” During those weeks, he wrote poetry and read parts of Genesis which told the story of Abraham who traveled from his home territory to the promise land in Israel. Through this story, he felt integration to his own story.
At the end of his journey, he ended up back in Ohio and eventually in Pennsylvania where he was able to articulate all that he had come to understand and realize. “To my belief”, he wisely told me, “all of the fears and insecurities we often bring upon ourselves are not real…we are taken care of no matter where we are or what is going on”. He told that we are given the resources, brain power, and whatever else is needed. This realization was a message of providence for him. It is a message that he will never forget because “it gives us a sense of peace…that no matter how rocky the road gets, it’s okay.” With this, on the inside, he feels cared for and loved.
During his time traveling, he felt he had reached the answer to his life question. During my time with Bruce, we spoke a lot about the power of travel and reflection. It gives an immense amount of clarity that many cultures around the world understand. Bruce shared that it is the Native Americans who do a Vision Quest and the Amish who encourage youngsters to take time to search and decide if this is the type of life they would like to live. To live a happy, fulfilled life, reflection is the key. To be able to answer questions such as, “Why are we here? What are we doing?” is incredibly powerful. As Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living”.
The answers he got while traveling, he feels, were what he had been preparing for all this time. He had a soft spot for individuals who suffer from illnesses of the mind. He told me that sometimes medication helps in the healing process. Bruce has and currently is working with many who are dealing with or currently coming off of opiate addiction. “Those are stories I can’t give you an ending for. They are not done. I would like to hope they all find happiness, but for some I don’t know”.
Just the day before I was sitting in his office, there was a woman who was ordered off the bus for saying incoherent things on the bus. “She was a beautiful soul, but very troubled”, Bruce shared. She was on her way to Pittsburgh, searching for a new life. She wanted a new phone number and a new address, away from her bad habits and the people she had been surrounding herself with. “She was trying to run away, but she couldn't run away from herself”.
There was another woman who had stayed in Breezewood for 2-3 years. She looked about 47 years old. She had friends and families around the area, but continued walking. People would try to help her, offer her a place in their homes, but she would sleep outside or in parking garages instead. For a number of weeks, she slept outside of a Breezewood gas station in the extremes of Pennsylvania weather. She was an angry woman of about 80 pounds who seemed to be suffering from a mental illness. One day, Bruce told me, she left Breezewood and continued walking.
Many people are just walking to find themselves, to find their purpose. Sometimes they are moving, traveling because they know something needs to change in their life. So, the question that came to mind was this: When we feel lost, confused, and acknowledge something needs to change, how do we respond? “There are two schools of thought”, Bruce shared: “Do we think ourselves into a new way of living or do we live/act in our life to a new way of thinking? What comes first? A little bit of both, I would think.” From this, we discussed that it isn’t what you do, but it is the spirit and the energy you carry as you do those things. You can wash a car your entire life and remain happy doing it. It isn’t what you do, but it is how you do it that makes all the difference.
In the societies we live in, the greatest problem we are suffering from is that we are starving on the inside. We have attached to materialism, but have detached from our families, from our societies, from the people around us. Humanity is diseased because we seek other things we think are important. We do things to satisfy our desires. We as humans do not realize how an object can distract us. We attach too much meaning and then do “funny” things to protect it. “Sometimes…” Bruce told me, “There is something within us that is selfish. I want…I want…I want…From this we make decisions that are destructive to ourselves and others”.
Bruce realizes the beauty of people’s journeys and the connection that all of us have. He has met individuals who seem to be like angels, whose stories really empower him. Individuals who are of peace and purpose, who are walking the earth and trying to build bridges to share love. He feels as though his job is to not hoard the love, but to share it.
I asked Bruce if he had any last words for me. He kindly replied by saying, “Keep yourself grounded and centered on who you really are and what is really important to you”. At the end of those two hours, I was reminded yet again, that I need to look no further to find the magic and beauty of humanity.