With his eyes closed, Jose Ferran Jr. placed his hand on Eric Sollenberger’s shoulder and began to pray over him as the two stood on the sidewalk outside of the former Strawbridge and Clothier building in Center City.
The men — separated by more than two decades in age and several inches in height — didn’t notice the curious stares of passersby and those coming and going from the department-store-turned-office building at Eighth and Market Streets.
When asked later if they were hesitant to share such an emotional moment in such a public space, Sollenberger shook his head.
“Actually, everybody should see that. That right there is completely normal,” he said. “We have to live being the City of Brotherly Love as opposed to just using the words.”
Sollenberger, 47, and Ferran, 23, had just left an orientation for recovery advocates at the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services (DBHIDS). During the training, Sollenberger, who has been in recovery from a heroin addiction for six years, shared with Ferran that he was in pain from a host of previous injuries relating to work and car accidents.
When they got outside, Ferran — who survived a gunshot to the arm in 2011 — felt moved to pray over Sollenberger, and asked if it would be OK to do so.
“When thoughts come like that I just go for it because that’s what the world wants,” Ferran said. “The world wants us to be ourselves. The world wants us to find hope and inspire and tell our stories.”
In fact, it is the art of storytelling that connected the men in the first place. Sollenberger, of Mount Airy, is a managing partner and facilitator with UrStorytellers, a group contracted by DBHIDS to provide training for recovery and faith-based communities on how to share their stories with those in need.
“It’s about telling your life story and being able to use your story to help somebody else by using the right pieces at the right time,” Sollenberger said.
Ferran works with Healing Hurt People, a hospital-based violence-prevention program at Drexel University’s Center for Nonviolence and Social Justice, which is how he met Sollenberger. Healing Hurt People works to help kids between the ages of 8 and 18 who are wounded by guns, knives and assaults in the city.
Before Ferran was hired as a peer intervention specialist with the program, he was a client. He was a smart kid growing up in North Philly, but he started getting high and selling drugs, and joined what he calls “a squad.”
“I don’t want to call it a gang, but you know, there was violent stuff,” he said. “I was basically trying to fulfill a need. I was trying to be somebody.”
Ferran almost didn’t get the chance to find out who that somebody was. At just 16, he was shot in the arm. It was then that Healing Hurt People came into his life and helped walk him through the process of healing — and growing.
“We live in North Philadelphia. Trauma is normal to us,” Ferran said. “People will say ‘Nah, I don’t get flashbacks’ or ‘Trauma is not real.’ I was the same way. But I can share my story with them about how it affected my body and how it affected my health and reduce that stigma.”
Ferran, who wore a gray shirt with gold lettering on the back that read “Give the earth what it wants,” looked at Sollenberger, who was dressed in a shirt, pants and sneakers with neon green designs of vines and snakes he’d painted on himself.
“We’re different, but we’re connected through this way, through storytelling,” Ferran said.
Sollenberger nodded, and touched his own shoulder.
“Your prayer did help my shoulder relax,” he said. “There are benefits to positive energy.”
Ferran smiled and said he had to run to catch the bus to class at Temple University. He’s studying to become a social worker.
Eric Sollenberger: “Because Philadelphia is my home and I’ve been in many other places in the United States and I plan to travel more but I still love coming back here. The history that’s available here and being able to walk through areas that were battlefields in like the 1700s is pretty amazing to me.”
What’s been a classic Philly moment for you?
ES: “There’s been quite a few. I was able sing at the Robin Hood Dell in front of approximately 5,000 people — Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City” — for a contest called Recovery Idol. I did it for four years and got to sing on some stages and play with some pretty amazing musicians. So that was definitely a highlight.”
If you had a wish for the city, what would it be?
ES: “I wish that people would put down their hate, mistrust and assumptions about what somebody else is about and just look at somebody for who they are, accept them for who they are and there would be a lot less problems, violence and offenses happening. I’ve seen those things not be present for periods of time in a multiple of places. My wish for Philadelphia is that we just all embrace each other and have that be the norm.”
Know someone in the Philadelphia area whose story deserves to be told — or someone whose story you’d like to know? Send suggestions for We the People profiles to Stephanie Farr at firstname.lastname@example.org or call her at 215-854-4225. Send tips via Twitter to @FarFarrAway.
Want more We the People?
- Last week’s profile: Teacher Matthew Kay founded a slam poetry league for Philly students and he’s written the book on talking about race in the classroom.
- From Feb. 7: Nakia Maples, who is known online as the “Philly Plant Guy,” has more than 200 plants in his South Philly home.
- From Jan. 31: Rich Friedrich is in charge of making the 10,000 wings needed for Philly’s annual Wing Bowl event.
- From Jan. 24: Sunny Bear is a Philly dog with more than 41,000 Twitter followers who channels The Art of War.
- From Jan. 17: Brothers Joe and Vince Lattanzio tackle the Eagles’ dirty laundry at their South Philly dry-cleaning shop.
- From Jan. 10: Every Wednesday for 27 years, Kurt Martin has played the piano at the Lits Building food court.
- From Jan. 3: At 88, Elaine Peden, who secured honorary U.S. citizenship for William and Hannah Penn, crashed a VIP event to meet Joe Biden.
- From Dec. 27: Bucks County native Tracy Locke is one half of Girls Gone Green, a Philadelphia Eagles song parody duo.
- From Dec. 20: Every Christmas season, Benjamin Franklin impersonator Robert DeVitis gets into character to ring the red kettle bell for the Salvation Army.
- From Dec. 13: Hip-hop Grandpop Matt Hopkins busts holiday dance moves at City Hall.
- From Dec. 6: People pay $1 just to take a photo of Anthony Smith and his dogs, Noodles and Diva. Smith takes his well-dressed dogs to events around the city in his bicycle basket.
- From Nov. 29: Danie Ocean, a musician with a rare eye disease that’s left her legally blind, is one of the founders of a co-op music studio that requires its members to do community service.
- From Nov. 22: Nearly every day for 17 years, oil painter Mark Campana has hauled his easel from his home in South Philadelphia to Rittenhouse Square to paint scenes in and around the park.
- From Nov. 15: Haircuts 4 Homeless barber Brennon Jones continues to serve people who are homeless at his new barbershop, which was given to him by a stranger who was inspired by his mission.
- From Nov. 8: Street performers Eli Capella and Seraiah Nicole create music in real time that’s inspired by the people who pass them on the streets of Philadelphia.
- From Nov. 1: John Sebastian, the maintenance director at Reading Terminal Market, was a steel drummer who toured with a Caribbean orchestra and jammed with Jimmy Buffett.