MEQUON — It all started with the space between two dates etched on a gravestone.
The year was 1993, and Jeff Wenzler had just celebrated his 20th birthday. On that same day, Oct. 9, his older brother Joe died of a drug overdose.
It was a crippling shock to Wenzler and his entire family, who were out of town for a wedding and embarking on a shopping excursion when Joe suddenly collapsed. The family had not realized Joe was still using drugs to such an extent. He died in his younger brother’s arms.
Not long after that, still wading through grief, Wenzler found himself at his brother’s grave, contemplating the small, empty space between Joe’s date of birth and his date of death.
“I said, ‘That’s the story of all of our lives,’” recalled Wenzler. “I was starting to ask that question of, what is my space? What is my purpose? And I didn’t have an answer to it; a lot of 20-year-olds probably don’t. All of a sudden, I said, jeez, I want to figure out my purpose and leave my mark on life, because life can go so quickly. That’s when I started asking some questions.”
Within three months, Wenzler had packed up his heartbreak and headed to Guatemala to do service work while living in a missionary church in Milpas Atlas.
That first night in the country, he lay awake in bed, wondering if he had been too impulsive. He didn’t speak any Spanish, and though he had been raised Catholic – his father, Joe Wenzler, was at that time even studying to become a deacon – and service was an important part of the son’s upbringing, but he felt totally out of his element in Central America.
And so, in his confusion, Jeff began to write.
Twenty-two years later, the experience of losing his idolized older brother and that discovery of a new sense of purpose serving those less fortunate have inspired Wenzler’s first book, “The Pivotal Life: A Compass for Discovering Purpose, Passion & Perspective” published last November by Bay View’s HenschelHAUS.[su_pullquote align=”right”]“The Pivotal Life,” winner of a 2016 Silver Medal in the Spiritual/Inspirational Category of the National IPPY Awards (Independent Publisher Book Awards), can be purchased on Amazon, Book World in Mequon or through henschelhausbooks.com.[/su_pullquote]
Wenzler, who turns 43 this month, is the executive director of Pivotal Directions, which coordinates servant leadership trips for local young people to Jamaica and Guatemala. Wenzler is also a father of three, a motivational speaker and has a background in campus ministry and missionary work. One of two columnists who write the “As Dad Sees It” in Catholic Herald Family, he resides in Mequon.
“I started realizing that a lot of answers to life’s questions reside in some of the most dusty, forgotten, and abandoned places,” he told Catholic Herald Family. “‘The Pivotal Life’ is a collection of those stories for people to reflect on in their own lives.”
The memoir-style account follows Wenzler’s life from young adulthood to the present, focusing on eight particularly crucial moments that illustrate what he calls “eight points of the compass that can lead a person on a journey of living a life with more purpose, perspective and passion.”
“I do believe in pivotal moments, in tipping point moments, in life … that if we simply take a pause and ask God, ‘Where’s there meaning in all of this?’ I do believe, as a people of faith, answers will come. And they might not come in ways you think,” Wenzler said. “(We ask) just make this pain go away, or bring my brother back – it’s not going to happen that way. It’s going to happen in God’s plan.
“For me, I really truly believe I was specifically called to find answers in working with the poor.”
The book opens with Joe’s death and goes on to examine other “pivotal moments” from Wenzler’s life, like shaving the face of a dying man at Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying in Kingston, Jamaica, while leading a service trip as a graduate student at Boston College.
In another chapter, Wenzler describes his ex-wife’s difficult and uncertain pregnancy with their second child, Jonah. Doctors predicted a high probability of birth defects; one specialist predicted the baby would never be able to live on his own. Another doctor that Wenzler knew professionally advised him to “cut his losses” – meaning, abort the child.
“If Jonah crawls back into God’s hands from his mother’s womb, or if he crawls prematurely and awkwardly into our human arms, I will know that life was given a chance to exist, unhindered by any act of self-centeredness,” Wenzler writes in the book. Jonah was born in perfect health.
Wenzler’s father Joe is a deacon at Lumen Christi Parish, Mequon. He was the first of the family to read the book when it was still a manuscript. He was deeply moved by the stories his son shared.
“It was very emotional reading it. I think I started on a Sunday afternoon and couldn’t put it down, and finished it on Monday. That’s not like me; I’m not a voracious book-reader or anything,” the deacon said. “The whole book revolves around pivotal life experiences, and that’s what each of these stories are for him. I would say all of our lives are a journey filled with many pivotal moments or events. I think the book kind of tries to engage the reader to reflect on their own pivotal life experiences, and who they are, and who they can become.”
Though the book is infused with spirituality and makes allusions to his Catholic faith, Wenzler said it is not intended to be only for religious audiences.
“The greatest success I’ve ever had working with young people in a faith-based context, at Catholic retreats, as a youth minister, as a campus minister, has always been that I wasn’t a priest or anything – I was just Jeff,” he said. “And by sharing some stories, I think that kind of humanized me. People said, wow, this is a normal guy and yet he has this thing that hopefully comes from within, and that’s my faith. And then maybe the conversation goes more faith-based.”
The journey on which his life has taken him, he said, has taught him the importance of “preaching the Gospel through our life.”
“Through the act of service, of what we’re called to do in Catholic social teaching and justice issues, by putting that into action … the answers to all of our faith questions reside there; they reside in that space. So the pivotal life is doing exactly what the Gospel calls us to do.”