Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Ryan Mifflin: A Man Agitated (by Jon Bair)

Last fall, Greenville College student Jon Bair wrote the following feature about me for his school newspaper. I re-read this tonight for the first time in a few months and was struck by how, at the time this article was written, I was at a unique and difficult chapter in my life. I'm still at a unique and difficult chapter...but I'm not sure it's the same one.

As I read this tonight, it seemed like a nice contrast to my previous post. I feel like my blog posts recently have been schizophrenic...angry and frustrated at times, joyful and full of praise at others...always searching. But that's life, ain't it? I don't know what's going on in life right now...but I'll keep seeking. As much as I hate to quote a contemporary country music song, I love the phrase "It's an awful, beautiful life". Indeed.

Ryan Mifflin: A Man Agitated

Sipping an unflavored latte even at 10:30 at night Ryan Mifflin’s bulky frame envelopes the 70’s era upholstered loveseat and contrasts the accompanying “vintage” carpeting in the back part of his hometown’s recently opened mom-and-pop coffee shop. He has a near infatuation with black clothing—not in overwhelming quantities, just always sporting something black. Today it’s a black hoodie (sans the strings), at work it may be a black button-down dress shirt and matching tie, while at all times he has a black gunmetal watch fastened to his wrist. One would never expect him to have a heart as big as his frame, nor would any casual acquaintance expect this small-town man to have interviewed President Obama, nor would anyone realize he’s also a founder of a non-profit.

He wears many hats, but—

“Daddy, I love you,” interjects his three-year-old daughter.

“I love you too,” Mifflin sincerely returns.

—none of them are more important than his dad hat.

One peak inside his office shows where his heart is; the walls are blank and sterilely white—looking no homier under the cold, eye-wearying overhead florescent lights. His desk is filled with papers going in every which way while in a corner a wooden filing cabinet holds newspapers folded in sundry ways, a picture frame that still shows the original stock image provided by its manufacturer, and a Valentine’s Day stuffed bear dressed in an… adorable…bee costume, toting a heart bearing the text “Bee Mine.” Clever.

No, his heart’s not at the office—don’t misunderstand; he likes his job, but loves his daughter, Kate. Above and behind his computer’s monitor, tacked to a pincushion board is a museum-worthy collection of her art. They go on daddy dates all the time; their favorite starts with a late breakfast at St. Louis Bread Co., continues to the St. Louis’ Loop and it’s famous music store, Vintage Vinyl, where Kate is a kind of celebrity, and finishes at Starbuck’s. And like Ryan, Kate, even at three years old, is beginning down a road of question asking.

On their way to Vintage Vinyl one Saturday, she asked if they could go to a homeless outreach in the city that was coincidentally started by her father.

“How [could] I not take her?” he asks.

He recounts a story of when she was only two years old and asked if she could give away a toy to a “homeless friend.” Not knowing whether she really understood what she was saying, he asked her, “You know if you give it to him you can’t get it back, right?”

“Yeah, I know.” She answered. She understood, not unlike Ryan who remembers struggling with the issue of racism when he wasn’t much older than her. He didn’t understand it and just wanted to know why.

“Tell me why. Tell me why.”

Even today his unrest of sorts hasn’t died. He explains that he hates apathy, “Don’t just say how bad the world is—go do what you can. That’s my thing: motivating people to go out and do something.” This “go out and do something” principle is one he holds dear and lives by.

While leading the college group at his church, they began asking some of the tough questions that have stirred in his heart since that first encounter with racism so many years before. What about poverty? As a man a follower of Christ he knew something had to be done. He had had enough of just sitting around.

Thus, the Dirty Roots Revolution was born. This young father, hospital PR guy, husband, radio host, began leading a group weekly to give food, toiletries or clothing to the homeless of St. Louis. One thing led to another and the next thing he knew he was being invited to speak in different states. The ministry was exciting, fast-paced and getting big—fast. It all climaxed when he got a call from a church youth group in Indiana. They wanted to go on a missions, service trip and wanted him to put it together.

A week of his life, then, was spent giving a youth group an intense, apathy-killing look into the problem of poverty and responding to it as Christ would have them to. Then it was time to give it all up.

His heart was in it. He was looking for ways to do it full time… when he had to stop. He describes it as “burning at both ends.” Somewhere the two ends had to meet and for him it was following the youth group’s visit. Something had to give. He knew it. His wife knew it.

He tells in a somber voice that he had “to leave [it] on the table. It was tough, ’cause, I mean, it was my baby.”

However, he knows God was involved the whole way, describing it as being “like God said, ‘I asked you to do this crazy thing and you did it. And it’s a good thing. And it’s kinda big. And now I’m asking you to leave it.’ ”

“ ‘Will you do that?’ ”

Throughout the whole process, his wife has been by his side. Married in 2002 their marriage is the perfect description of completing each other with his wife calling herself “the women of [his] dreams,” but it started with a hate-overcoming miracle. Ryan hates talking on the phone giving a description that demands his own words:

“You cannot write an explanation to detail how much I hate talking on the phone. I hate talking on the phone with a white-hot passion that burns like the face of the sun.”

Yet, it was through the telephone that he met his wife. His story involves two phone calls, the first being from his aunt. You can just imagine her calling and saying something like, “Ryan, so a real lovely girl I know is moving down to Greenville and is looking for a church—she’s really pretty—and I told her about you. She’ll be giving you a call to ask about your church and all—oh, Ryan, she’s really nice.”

This wasn’t the first girl his aunt had tried to hook him up with and he admits to feeling a little more than skeptical, but he was going to do what she asked, help a friend of hers find a church and tell her about his. Then Amber called. Ryan claims it’s a near miracle if you can get him to talk on the phone for any more than 5 minutes, which would be just the right amount of time to tell her what she needed to know, but after two and a half hours of conversing, Ryan knew something else: there was something special about this girl.

The very next night he was paying for her dinner at St. Louis’s classy Spaghetti Factory and they were married within the year. While Ryan provokes people out of apathy and into action, Amber looks at the individual, always seeing hope. This belief in and love for the individual human being grows out of her hero: her father. He lived for years in a life of substance addiction, but went in for recovery at the age of 48—he succeeded. He poured into her and helped stop the cycle of addiction, and not only in her life, but many others as well. Though now she is a traveling day spa of sorts, selling in-home spa treatments, she spent years working with recovering addicts.

Though not her profession now, one can’t help shake the almost tangible sense of empathy she exudes. Ryan is bothered by problems and moved to right them, while his wife complements him by being moved by love into investing in people’s lives.

And now this couple is in a place of transition: Ryan’s not giving up his day job to serve the poor and homeless fulltime and Amber’s working in a pre-school, but they are faithful—waiting, loving, serving, agitating.

Sitting in their comfortable living room with its beiges, greens, and browns, dark wood, wicker furniture, and large comfortable sofas Ryan still more envelopes the sofa. Except this time he doesn’t stand out; rather, he fits in. He complements the script painted on the wall: “Have faith” and “Hope.” Yet, tonight he can’t stay for long, it’s nearly time to go to the radio station, and maybe raise some issue that has for too long needed addressing.

Photo by Miranda Caulkins

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