Buzzy transformed lives through his own conversion

Peter Finney Jr.    St. Stephen Church on Napoleon Avenue was packed last Thursday, and that would have thrilled Deacon Richard “Buzzy” Gaien­nie to no end.
    With years of experience stacking desperate drug addicts and alcoholics cheek to jowl in Bridge House’s makeshift “cot room” – where 30 thin mattresses formed a geometric pattern, a lottery, really, of hope and despair – Deacon Buzzy knew that when it came to saving lives, there was no substitute for casting the widest possible net.
    Sure, Bridge House was authorized by the city to offer 100 beds in its long-term, residential recovery program. But what were 30 extra pieces of foam rubber when measured against saving a life?
    “I don’t know if it was totally legal, but Buzzy was always willing to push the envelope and do what we could to help as many people as we could,” said Else Pedersen-Wasson, executive director of Bridge House, before Deacon Buzzy’s funeral Mass Aug. 18. “What would happen is all our beds would be full, and we could never meet the need. Buzzy would be like, ‘Well, if they’re willing to sleep on the floor, let ‘em come in!’”
    Deacon Buzzy was 73 and had been chief executive officer of Bridge House since 1984 when he died Aug. 13 following an illness. As a recovering alcoholic, he knew the insanity of addiction and the collateral damage it could unleash on family and friends. His drinking had forced him to sell a third-generation car dealership, and his life had cratered.
    In April 1977, he found himself strolling in solitude among the oaks of Manresa Retreat House, wondering how he could have lost four jobs in two years, wondering how he could stay sober, wondering what was next.
    Buzzy’s life-changing story of sobriety modeled the metanoia of St. Ignatius of Loyola, whose life of dissolution 500 years ago spurred a religious conversion that eventually would produce life-changing miracles. Buzzy committed his life to Christ and to Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises on that retreat in 1977, and many of the men who benefitted from his conversion came to St. Stephen’s last week to honor him for bestowing new life on them.
    “I loved him,” said James Brewer, 57, who entered Bridge House, broken, in 1994. “I wouldn’t be alive today without him, much less sober. He had more hope and faith in me than I had in myself. I told him when I got there, ‘I’m hopeless. Y’all can’t help me.’ He just told me to hang in there. I’ll never forget that – never. The more you bothered him, the more he loved you.”
    Mike Walton, 61, spent 36 days in the “cot room” in 1996 before a regular bed became available. Walton viewed the cot room experience as a survival test to see who really wanted to commit themselves to recovery.
    “If you were willing to walk back and forth every day and put up your mattress, that would show some resilience,” Walton said. “We were side by side. You’d be stretched out and you’d be touching somebody else.”
    Walton was a native New Orleanian but had never heard of Bridge House until the day he went to court on a drug charge and the judge asked him a simple question: “Do you want treatment or jail?”
    “I said, ‘I’ll take treatment!’” Walton said, smiling.
    Along the way, Walton allowed Buzzy’s life story and spirituality to seep into him and effect a transformation.
    “The clients could just feed off his spirit in everything he did,” Walton said. “It was always connected with doing the right thing. It was a lot, because we were people who didn’t know nothing but how to do the wrong thing. He had that magnetism. He could just draw a person to himself. He was just like E.F. Hutton. When E.F. Hutton speaks, everybody listens. That was Buzzy.”
    Robert Ellis, 53, who is now a clinical administrator at Bridge House, came into the program in 2002.
    “My dealer and his girlfriend and their child were sleeping in my king-sized bed, and I was sleeping on a mat on the floor,” Ellis said. “I hadn’t paid my rent in six months. I had destroyed everything I had built, it felt like, overnight. The first six or seven months I was there, I felt absolutely hopeless, but nobody stopped paying attention to me or nurturing me.”
    Ellis is now pursuing his master’s degree in clinical psychology.
    “There are just so many more possibilities in life than I ever imagined,” Ellis said. “I’ve finally figured out what I want to be.”
    So did Walton, whose duties at Bridge House even included stomping down the trash in a dumpster out back. Now, the man who was mandated by the drug court to enter Bridge House for treatment works as a counselor for the men caught in the same circumstances as he was in 1996.
    “I was ordered into treatment by the city in 1996 – and now I’m working for the city!” Walton said. “What I’ve learned is that there are no bad apples. Everybody’s got a chance. All they got to do is want it. Buzzy told me this: ‘All the resources that are necessary for recovery are inside each one of us.’”
    Deacon Buzzy became the first non-Jesuit to preach the Spiritual Exercises at Manresa. He epitomized Ignatian spirituality by seeing God in all things – even in failure. The relapses, the false starts, the thefts, the fights among the men never seemed to faze him, Pedersen-Wasson said.
    “He’d tell me, ‘Else, you have to forgive them even before the day starts,’” Pedersen-Wasson said. “That conveys his spirit.”
    Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at pfinney@clarionherald.org.

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