John Sawyer – Robious Corridor’s 2014 Person of the Year
Reposted with permission from Chip Gregory ("John Sawyer – Robious Corridor’s 2014 Person of the Year," Robious Corridor, December 07, 2014, http://www.robiouscorridor.com/john-sawyer-robious-corridors-2014-person-of-the-year/).
There is a theory that the entirety of history is essentially the biography of Great Men, the story of how a select powerful few defined the destiny of the many. And while on some grand scale there is truth to that, most of us don’t live our day-to-day lives as though our existence is determined solely by the actions of the world’s leaders. Instead we plod along, building our own personal histories, crafting our own story to be passed down through coming generations. The rarest of all though is the person who exists in both planes, that tells an individual tale while touching the lives of numerous people around him. In many ways, those are truly the people who shape history because those are the people we meet and remember as having been real. They are the people that call out the best in each of us, that encourage us and inspire us. More often than not, you don’t even recognize how much they’ve done for you until you step back and take a broader look. And, also unfortunately, more often than not, they’re powerful influence goes unheralded. Not this time. The staff at Robious Corridor Magazine decided that, in naming our Person of the Year for 2014, we would honor just such an individual. If any of you know John Sawyer (as I suspect many of you do), then you know he embodies exactly what we’ve been talking about.
Right now, if you visit the website of BridgingRVA.com (one of John’s many charitable involvements) you’ll find a video chronicling the efforts of that group, being led by John himself, to deliver 100 beds to 100 children in need of a comfortable place to sleep. During the inspiring video, a part of a quote appears briefly on screen. Here is the quote in its entirety: “We don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.”
Small acts. Multiplied, maybe not yet by millions, but certainly within this community. That’s how John enacts change. And while he’d probably be the first to discourage the use of the word, I do think that quote gets one thing wrong… those small acts… those are just as heroic as the ones most would consider more grand.
Take for example one particularly frigid night last January—and I’m not talking Richmond’s normal level of cold: the forecast was for a low of 6º F. Knowing he was one of the pastors of Bon Air Baptist Church, Channel 8 called John hoping he might be able to offer them some info on where the homeless in the community could find warmth. John wasn’t aware of any shelter, but that didn’t stop him from finding a way to help. He gathered some of his fellow church members, friends, family members and loaded up the back of a truck with blankets, water, hot coffee, and snacks and headed off to a local homeless camp in the woods to offer the supplies to anyone who might need them. His actions were much appreciated by those who were out there suffering through the bitter temperatures. But when asked about his efforts, John was his normal humble self, saying, “We’re just a bunch of regular guys that care about this community.”
That’s just the kind of thing that John sees as being his responsibility as a part of this community. You see, he grew up in Chesterfield County, the fourth of five children. He now has a son, step-daughter and son-in-law and 3 grandchildren. So he knows a thing or two about being a part of a team, about the need for support and the need to offer help. And since he’s been here his entire life, he’s got a vested interest in devoting himself to making our community a better place. But couldn’t a lot of us say that? Yet very few us step up the way John has.
Ten years ago John was working in the agricultural and horticultural industry. He worked with professional growers from Maine to Florida. He was well liked and his career was what anyone would consider successful. Still he felt there was something missing, or more specifically he felt like there was more he could be doing, like there was more to accomplish. At that time he was involved in his local church and had been recognized by church leaders for his natural ability to motivate others. He was asked to consider joining the ministry, and it seemed that maybe this was the change he’d been seeking. So starting in 2006 he began his journey, eventually earning his Masters Degree in Ministry Leadership in 2012 from the seminary at Gorge Fox University.
It was there that John would first hear the Latin word communitas from one of his professors—and that word would help shape the way John went about his ministry, dictating what has become perhaps his defining message: that community can form around an idea, a task, or a challenge, drawing people together who might not have otherwise interacted. It is through that sense of communitas that things like BridgingRVA.com came about.
Like so many of John’s ideas, BridgingRVA.com probably first began as an idea discussed over coffee at a certain Seattle based coffee shop’s Polo Place location. From there it grew to be a small group of friends meeting on Sunday nights. John wanted to find a way to bring people together, regardless of their religion, gender, or lifestyle to tackle community projects. Unfortunately, most charitable groups end up being rather homogenous, as the members are drawn from one place or group. John wanted to open that up. He wanted to give anyone with a genuine desire to help others a group that they could be proud to be a part of.
That’s how John executes the projects. This idea was simple: deliver 100 beds to 100 children in need of a place to sleep. But even simple ideas don’t always get off the ground… but if John’s around, they do. BridgingRVA.com was able to amass a group of 65+ people, many of them strangers (at least at first) to accomplish the task of collecting the beds, loading and unloading, delivering them and setting them up. The entire project was quite an undertaking. But the beautiful thing is that the children who received the beds were not the only ones who benefitted from the efforts. Everyone involved gained a sense of communitas.
As his loving wife Lee Ann explains, part of the reason John is so willing and eager to help others is because he understands that everyone’s life is a journey. He has been very open regarding his history with the disease of alcohol addiction. And after 23 years of living an alcohol free life during which he has remained involved with the recovering community, walking along side many that struggle with addictions of various kinds, John saw the value that a supportive community can play in restoring a person’s life. John wanted to offer a place for recovery that was safe, restorative, and affordable.
More than that, he wanted it to offer hope. Out of that dream, The Bridge House was born. Quite simply, The Bridge House is a “transitional home” between becoming clean and sober and being fully engaged in mainstream life. John recognized a need in the community and set up a place that men can call a home and be proud of, while still receiving the kind of support that they need in those first months and years.
It’s amazing to consider that John has done all of this while still working to expand his worship community, the Bon Air Baptist Church – James River Campus (JRC). It was just eight years ago that John, along with 40 other adults, set out on that journey, beginning by meeting at James River High School on Sunday mornings. Now after 8 years of unloading chairs and tables before Sunday service, and reloading everything after, the JRC is developing a permanent site. Keeping together a worship community that has served at any given time as many as 300 people and has baptized more than 100 while operating without a permanent home has been a challenge to say the least. And none of it would have been possible without John’s unflappable resolve. But now the group is reaping the benefits of their focus and commitment. The new facility is expected to be ready by early 2015.
This is just some of what John has been able to accomplish (so far… because we’re sure there’s more to come). It’s a testament to John’s influence and universal appeal that everyone we reached out to for input on this story was not only willing but enthusiastic about offering us an anecdote, endorsement, or testimonial about him. We didn’t hear, “He’s a good guy.” Well, we did. But that’s not only what was said. Folks went on from there to tell us how he’d baptized their Grandmother at 90 years old, or how he’d helped them through dealing with a friend’s terminal illness, or family tragedy. One story in particular, about him helping a member of his Thursday Night Men’s Group check something off of his bucket list (getting to drive a Model T) was particularly touching. People were excited to gush about everything John has done for them, for their families, and for the community at large. We found ourselves weeding through it all, forcing ourselves to choose what to include, hoping to paint some portion of the image that is everything John has done.
So why did we choose a Person of the Year for 2014? The mission of Robious Corridor Magazine is to shine a bright light on this special place we call home… where we live, work, and go to school. We always look to highlight the unique and exceptional people in our inter-connected neighborhoods because in doing so we help create an even tighter knit community. Choosing our 2014 Person of the Year was quite an undertaking. The big idea behind it was actually two, colliding, bigger ideas. For those who don’t know John Sawyer, we wanted to introduce him. For those who do know John, we wanted to celebrate him.
But one thing was certain—we wanted to select someone who made the people around him better. You may have noticed the presence of the word bridge in many of the projects that John is a part of. And while that theme was probably meant as a nod to the connections we form as we build communities, in a lot of ways it could be seen as a reference to John himself. He connects people. He supports. He helps bridge the gaps in humanity and in ourselves that many of us are not even willing to acknowledge. And it is for that reason, and for so many more that he is our 2014 Person of the Year!