Frat Friends Forever: Monk and Lawyer with a Disability Agree on Almost Nothing, But…

By Andrew N. Berk

So a lawyer with a disability and a Catholic monk walk into a bar…

What would be considered a bar joke for some is actually a description of a night with a friend for me.

In an era where the only difference between American politics and a WWE match is the amount of spandex involved, the time is right for me to tell the story of why I have regular phone conversations with a Catholic deacon.

It all started in…a fraternity. I was in college at UC Berkeley looking for attendants to help me eat, dress, and all those other necessary tasks of living. Thanks to a friend, I sought out new employees at the Pi Kappa Phi fraternity house. It was in that rowdy den of fun and brotherhood that I met Brother Justin.

He wasn’t a deacon back then. His name wasn’t even Brother Justin yet. He did want the job though and had the skill to lift me from my wheelchair into my shower chair without my head landing where my butt should be.

We became fast friends. Four to six hour long marathons of playing X-Wing Alliance soon preceded assistance with going to bed. Our agreement to play “just one game” turned into late night gaming binges. We also spent a great deal of time talking about everything from politics to girls.

I ended up pledging Pi Kappa Phi because of an event that I never thought would happen, but that’s another story. One of my brothers describes our fraternity back then as “like Animal House, but worse.” Brother Justin and I fit right into that scene, and there were many memorable stories. Out of respect to Brother Justin’s and my professional lives, I dare not recap the details here. Needless to say, our activities were not something you could do in church.

Our relationship continued after I left college, though our paths diverged somewhat. He became a teacher and I ended up going to a law school with its own cattle ranch. No more seeing each other every day, no more Death Star runs at 2 in the morning. We still kept in touch, though, and had some adventures.

One of our most fun moments together after college is a story that is safe to share. Every year, my house participated in Bay to Breakers, a footrace across the width of San Francisco. After finishing my second year of law school, I rewarded myself by borrowing a manual chair, tying myself to it, and doing the 12K race with them.

I learned a very important lesson from this marathon. There are a lot of steep hills in San Francisco. Manual wheelchairs do not like steep hills. This lesson became very apparent to me when my chair went up on two wheels while ascending one of these hills. As always, Brother Justin was there at the most unlikely and helpful moment. He, my attendant, and many other brothers averted what would have been an awesome wipeout and pushed me to the top of the hill. The reward was one of the most memorable experiences of my life.

At the hill’s summit, we looked around us to see almost the entire city. For a moment, the noise and bustle of the race disappeared and we were left standing in a moment of zen. I was glad to share that moment with Brother Justin, our brothers, and our friends.

Soon after that, Brother Justin took a wrong turn, literally. While trying to find a church, he went the wrong way on a street and ended up the National Shire of St. Francis in San Francisco receiving it as a sign that he should finally make the trip out to visit the group of Franciscan friars in NYC he had been considering joining. As he described it to me once, he felt like he was finally where he was supposed to be. Soon after, my wild fraternity brother became a monk and took the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Just last week, he was elevated to the position of deacon.

While I was in the itinerancy of my life, Brother Justin’s new found path took him near and far. I received many calls from half-working phones in slums. We frequently communicated while Brother Justin was on his three-year mission in Honduras and Nicaragua. Our conversations took on a religious aspect, with me trying to understand and support Brother Justin’s decision. They were also filled with many of our old conversation topics. We would go from debating the existence of a divine being to comparing the velocity and shield strengths of A-Wings and X-Wings. True, there was a new facet of my friend’s life that I had to learn, but he was still the same guy I met so long ago—minus the partying and other unmentionable chicanery.

Brother Justin and I may have the whole mutual respect thing down, but our fellow countrymen… not so much.

Brother Justin visited me soon after I emerged from my itinerancy. That night, we did walk into a bar. It was a truly interesting sight. Brother Justin, sporting a foot-long beard, bald head, and traditional Deacon robe, strode through the door next to me in my business casual attire and heavily modified wheelchair. I was waiting for the punch line, but instead I received a night with old friends. Pi Kappa Phi brothers living in the area joined us for a night of catching up. Unlike the old days, we did not get kicked out, but all of us still experienced the bonds of a life-long friendship.

Do Brother Justin and I agree on everything? Certainly not. He is pro-life. I am pro-choice. We have opposing views on the value of organized religion. Finally, there’s that little disagreement on the existence of an all-knowing, all powerful, omniscient being. Instead of using our differences to drive a wedge between ourselves, we engage in lively and friendly debate. We are also still in firm agreement that the Lord of the Rings is awesome.

Brother Justin and I may have the whole mutual respect thing down, but our fellow countrymen… not so much. Some people doggedly insist on flying the Confederate flag, because nothing says unity like the Civil War. Others are irate when transgender folks walk into the bathroom, because obviously we all go into public bathrooms to see others naked. One guy has even made a presidential campaign out of insulting women, Muslims, people with disabilities, and the entire population of Mexico. Certainly sounds like a kind and tolerant country to me.

In these contentious times, a bar joke like Brother Justin and me is a symbol of hope. I truly believe that all people can bridge the gaps of life changes and disagreements, but we genuinely have to listen to one another. If nothing else, we can all read Lord of the Rings together. It’s better than the movies, even the extended addition.

One in a series of personal Perspectives. We invite writers and readers to submit their own essays—inspiration can come from California magazine or California Magazine Online stories, the news, or issues of the day. Read more:

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