Wayne Fowler came striding into a Highlands neighborhood coffee shop recently looking the picture of health.
There was something close to a spring in his step and the hint of a smile on his face, both belying the nature of the trial his body is undergoing.
“I don’t look like a guy who has stage-four kidney cancer, do I?” he said.
No, he doesn’t. But the reality of his battle, one he’s been waging since July of 2010, is real, whatever his appearance.
So real, as a matter of fact, that Fowler has stepped aside as executive director of Hand In Hand Ministries, Inc., the missionary charity that he helped to found in the late 1990s.
“Oh, I have my dark moments,” he said during the coffee-shop interview in January. “It’s quite a reckoning to realize what’s happened. And the doctors are always very positive; they’ll give me the statistics when I ask.”
Whatever the odds, whatever the numbers, Fowler remains filled with the notion that he’s been blessed this far. He helped to create one of the area’s most successful charities, and he’s still filled with life — still breathing out and breathing in and looking forward to what comes next.
“Every day I see obituaries in the paper of people who are younger than I am,” the 61-year-old said. “You want to see people who are worse off than you? Go to the Cancer and Blood Disorders Center. When I see young people … that’s the worst. At least I’ve had a life.”
That life, active as it was in leading Hand In Hand, has been filled with doctor’s exams, surgeries and chemotherapy since cancer was discovered in Fowler’s adrenal glands two-and-a-half years ago. It has since spread to the liver and lungs and was thought to be under some control from the various therapies. Until last August.
“It metastasized to my rib cage,” Fowler explained. “They say I have a 20 percent chance to live five years. I’ve spent my time trying to determine when you start counting the five years.”
He said it with a chuckle, a sign of lightheartedness from a man who feels he’s fighting a good fight. He’s taking four pills a day now, and is being treated by doctors at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Hospital in Houston.
“I feel really good,” he said. “They tell me that five years ago had I been at this point, I would have been out of luck. But now I have a chance.”
The Fowlers, members of St. Agnes Church, are familiar with battles over health. Wayne’s wife, Sharon — herself a nurse — has been suffering with gastroparesis for the past 14 years or so “I’ve come close to losing her a couple of times,” he noted. The couple have two children, Joseph and Alyssa, and two grandchildren.
“I do believe there is a large connection between your mind and your well-being,” said Fowler. “The writings of Thomas Merton have meant a great deal to me, and I think (the religion of) the East has a lot to offer. I try to be compassionate and my brother, Joe (retired Father Joe Fowler) is my hero, that’s for sure.”
Wayne Fowler said he had a spiritual “reawakening” in the 1980s and returned to the church from which he had drifted a bit. “I figure the church is a big tent,” he explained.
It was about a decade or so after his “return” that Fowler visited an orphanage in Jamaica and came face-to-face with poverty on an unimaginable scale. That encounter moved him to seriously apply the message of the Gospels.
“We had a meeting about serving the poor in 1997 when about 80 or 90 people showed up,” he said. “I trace the birth of Hand In Hand Ministries to that meeting.”
Since those seeds that were planted by members of St. Bernard, Holy Trinity and a couple of other parishes, Hand In Hand has experienced dramatic growth. This year about 40 “immersion trips” — journeys that take local people to places such as Belize, Nicaragua and, closer to home, Appalachia, will be taken.
Bill O’Dea joined the organization’s board of directors “in either its first or second year of existence, I can’t remember,” he said recently. “I remember we were meeting in the dining room of the parish house at Holy Trinity, and Hand In Hand’s office was in the basement.”
Those early days were filled with the need for financing, O’Dea said. And once people took one of Hand In Hand’s trips, they became motivitated to help the organization find the funds to pay for its mission.
“I was in the Marine Corps for four years; I’ve slept in some awful places,” O’Dea said. “But until I visited Managua (Nicaragua), I didn’t know what a hardship was. When you read about the Gospel mission after seeing that kind of poverty close up, it just hits you in the face. You can’t get it out of your mind and you have to act.”
O’Dea credits Wayne Fowler and Father Joe Fowler with “having a vision and making it come true.”
“What they’ve done is open a lot of people’s eyes to the kind of need, the kind of poverty there is in the world,” he said. “People who get up every morning in a heated house, who flip on a light and have warm water for a bath and cold water they can safely drink, they need to realize how blessed they are.”
Hand In Hand Ministries helped O’Dea come to that realization, he said, and for that he’ll always be grateful to Wayne Fowler and the organization’s other leaders.
Hand In Hand now has Libby Smith as its chief operating officer. Marla Cautilli became the chief executive officer around the first of 2012.
“I tried to work part time but that just didn’t work out,” Wayne Fowler explained. “I can’t work a full day and I knew the stress wasn’t doing me any good, so I had to let it go.”
These days Fowler’s business card says “writer.” He’s produced a first novel that writers Sena Jeter Naslud and Brett Lott have read and liked.
“It’s another stage of my life and I’m encouraged,” he said. “It took a year for me to let go of Hand In Hand; it’s very personal to me and it’s always difficult to watch somebody else raise your baby. But Sharon and I knew it was time.”