Left: Andy Burnham in 1978. Right: Burnham today.
Looking out toward a sunny Autumn morning in Palo Alto, Andy Burnham described his moment of sheer terror: “It was like I was in the bottom of a well. If you’re not a drug addict this might be hard to picture,” he recounted, looking up at the ceiling. “Then the thought occurs to me: ‘you’ve overdosed. You thought you were going to a fun evening at a concert, and now you’re gonna die.’”
Those words echoed, rattling his skull during an LSD-trip gone wrong at a 1960s Grateful Dead concert. The well deepened, morphing back and forth into a circle of people huddled around him.
“That guy’s really loaded,” one would say, in a booming voice. Burnham’s own voice would respond, “you’re gonna die… gonna die… gonna die,” and suddenly, Jerry Garcia’s guitar solo and the joint getting passed around were as far off as sobriety itself. “If you start freaking out on an LSD trip… the depths of the panic, and the terror… it wasn’t ‘die, and go to a better place,’ it was just – I don’t know what it was. Just sheer terror.”
But those were the sixties, and that was Andy Burnham in his youth: full of long hair, far-out ideas, and deep insecurities. The Andy Burnham who recounted this tale was wise, reserved, and short on hair. Yes, Burnham had once been that young man, in that tumultuous culture – he claims to have spent twenty years in the sixties. But the man speaking in 2017 (in his late sixties, himself) had been sober for nearly forty years. The ostensible thrill of drugs and alcohol were gone. His life, however? No less full of surprises.
Surprises such as these: Today, Burnham is pastor at Peninsula Bible Church (PBC), in Palo Alto. He retold his Grateful Dead concert story in a small church office, as worship music from the late Sunday morning service echoed into the room.
“I had a bunch of pretty horrible years… but God used them for good,” he said looking up, once more toward the ceiling. Burnham has indeed come full circle: now serving as PBC’s Recovery Ministry pastor, his experiences lend a genuine compassion for the addicts he works with. “There’s a difference between sympathy and empathy… with empathy, you’re actually in some measure experiencing what it’s like to be them.”
How did an LSD-taking, binge-drinking hippie transform into a sweater-wearing social servant? Contrary to Burnham’s calm, sagacious aura, that transformation took years of doubt, insecurity, and self-destructive behavior. The path’s beginning is found not far from its end: in an idyllic and well-to-do Californian community, surrounded by affluence and expectation.
Born in an upper-middle class suburb of San Diego, Burnham had, by all accounts, an ideal childhood. His father was a community college president, the family lived in a ranch-style home with a swimming pool, and his parents provided everything in the way of food, shelter, and education. All of Burnham’s needs were satisfied from day one. But he was not.
In truth, he always felt that something was off – a nagging pang in his life, clawing at some shroud of doubt or insecurity. As it turns out, his issues sprang from the same well as his blessings. Burnham’s father held a doctorate from Columbia, and his parents expected no less than excellence: “It was a high-performance home. Achievement was king,” Burnham recalled. So, he spent his youth striving for validation; not only from society, but from his own family.
The pressures, however, were asphyxiating. Burnham would sometimes succeed, and other times fall short. Regardless of the given result – whether in an exam, sporting contest, or otherwise – his identity was built on a foundation of sand.
“The message I received was: ‘You’re not good enough. You’re not the son I really wanted.’” Denied any sense of steadfast security, Burnham was crushed by the weight of uncertainty: “I just didn’t like being me; I didn’t like who I was. There was this underlying discontent.” After graduating from high school in 1968 – at the height of Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement, and hippie culture – Burnham matriculated at UC Santa Barbara. Amidst cultural upheaval, personal insecurity, and the trappings of university life, his world began to change.
To begin, Burnham was elated to find that drinking gave him an unknown confidence around his peers; though the real Andy Burnham was still scared and insecure, the buzzed Burnham tossed inhibition to the wind. Soon afterwards, Burnham began smoking marijuana. Then he started taking LSD. Far from being a Chemistry major, he still performed “pretty much every chemical experiment I could, in my own body.” Yet midway through college, the partying and drug use forced Burnham to ask an intuitive question: how does one get drunk or high each night, while still doing well enough in class to keep it up?
“The strategy I came up with was to become a Philosophy major,” Burnham chuckled. Sure enough, he specialized in German Philosophy, and graduated with honors from UCSB. But even today, one finds few “Philosopher Wanted” signs on store windows; and with job prospects slim, Burnham moved to Berkeley after graduation. He sold street art on Telegraph Avenue, which earned him enough to eat, sleep, drink, and smoke.
In Berkeley, Burnham met Brigette – or Moonchild, as the hippies knew her – a German girl studying abroad at UC Berkeley. The two hit it off, and began an international back-and-forth lovefest. He would hitchhike from Berkeley to New York, just to catch a plane to Germany; she would then house him in her apartment, until his drinking got out of hand. The young couple eventually tied the knot and lived in Freiburg, Germany while Brigette finished her Master’s degree. Soon after, they became pregnant with their first child.
An intelligent, beautiful wife, plus a child on the way, might seem an unstoppable force, capable of straightening out the most stoned philosopher. But unfortunately for this philosopher, alcohol had become the proverbial immovable object: “[By that time I had made a complete mess out of my life. I became an equal opportunity drinker; I was drunk all the time. You know, how can you have breakfast without something to drink?” Balancing the demands of alcoholism, a new marriage, and impending fatherhood, Burnham hit rock bottom. He felt, once more, at the bottom of a well; but this well was slowly filling, and Burnham would soon drown.
“When I’d get sober, then the self-hatred, self-loathing, self-contempt that I felt in high school, now was just massive. I was suicidal, I was angry,” Burnham spoke, looking back with the graceful sorrow of experience. In those sober moments, Burnham obliquely knew that all his binges, all his self-medicating, had been sham operations on a long-growing cancer of emptiness and insecurity. He never liked himself as a child; but as a man? “I felt like blowing my brains out.”
Burnham might have done so, too. But salvation came in an unexpected form: pursuit from, of all people, a “fellow LSD guy.” Right as he hit rock bottom, a friend whom Burnham often got high with in Berkeley started mailing him pamphlets of “Christian literature.” The druggie-turned-Jesus-freak had recently converted to Christianity, and wanted to share his life-altering faith.
At first, Burnham had none of it. As a child, he had heard no mention of faith in his household, nor did he have any desire for it. “I had no religious upbringing,” said Burnham, but this “LSD guy” probed his existing interests: “He said ‘Well, you’re a Philosophy major and claim to understand Western culture, but you’ve never read the book that’s had the biggest influence on your culture.’ And so, I started to read the Bible as literature.” Reading through a skeptical and uninterested lens, Burnham fully expected to gain nothing more than a better understanding of yet another dead philosophy. But as he arrived at the Gospels, he discovered the person of Jesus – who himself offered no philosophy, but a rather complex life, filled with piercing claims.
As a hippie, Burnham had always enjoyed the idea of a soft, cuddly Jesus: “I liked Jesus, I just didn’t like Christianity with its hypocrisy, its witch hunts, it’s Inquisitions.” Like many, he sought general truths exemplified in the man’s life – virtues of love, justice, and charity. What he was not interested in were specific truths. Nonetheless, something nagged at him; it was an all-too-familiar pang, in an unfamiliar context: “I had more guilt in my life than I could keep track of, and I knew I needed forgiveness. And I slowly started to realize: this isn’t just literature.”
In his reading, Burnham saw a person far more astounding than any philosophy. Here was a man healing the sick, and loving the downtrodden; yet here was a man flipping over tables, and admonishing political and religious rulers. In the center of it all, Burnham saw a promise: to give life, and give it to the full. So in 1978, against all odds, Andy Burnham became a Christian.
But back on that sunny Fall day in 2017, Burnham lamented that not all stories end happily: “My story is a good story, because the prodigal son comes home. Not all sheep come home.” Just thirty minutes earlier, he had finished leading a weekly service for recovering addicts around Palo Alto. He had the service all planned out, but then got the call: a young man in his thirties, whom Burnham had poured his heart and soul into over the past few years, passed away from an arm infection – likely incurred from shared needles. The man’s parents were distraught, and showed up to service that morning. Burnham scrapped his plan, and gathered those attending – pastors, homeless, and recovering addicts alike – in prayer with the grieving family.
“In [the parable of the Good Samaritan, it says the Samaritan had compassion, which in Greek actually translates to intestines. He had a gut-level reaction to the suffering of others.” It was Burnham’s own tribulations which produced his gut-level reaction that Sunday morning. He could have been that young man, taken too soon by his addictions. Burnham’s job is not easy – he faces derision, disappointment, and death on a regular basis. All the while, he sees himself in each heroin addict, in each alcoholic veteran. He knows their battles.
But he also knows that their battles are mere skirmishes, in the larger war for meaning and personhood which everyone fights in some respect. “We [in recovery ministry honor that you have a real problem – whether it’s addiction, sexual abuse, military trauma – it’s just that the solution you are attempting isn’t going to provide the relief long-term that you’re hoping for.” For Burnham personally, his addictions were the outpourings of insecurity and misplaced identity, his “beast in the basement.”
“Until we’ve tried to deal with that underlying stuff, that beast in the basement is just waiting to break out.” Knowing this, Burnham is cautious to declare victory in others’ battles with addiction. Oftentimes, he tells people that they are still, in many ways, their old selves: “I’ll get guys who have been sober for ninety days and the say, ‘I’m good to go!’ No, you are not good to go. A dry drunk is a person who has stopped drinking but hasn’t changed.” Burnham sees sobriety as a necessity for these people; but it is necessary as an anesthetic for a larger heart transplant
In 2006, Andy Burnham became a full-time pastor in PBC’s recovery ministry. The path there went through failed church-startups, a successful business, a teaching degree, and a move to Palo Alto in the 1980s. But one thing has remained constant: Burnham is wary of self-righteousness; because he has seen its destructive nature in himself, his culture, and in the church.
“A lot of times I’ll realize, the stuff that I thought I had worked through… I’m still struggling with at a deeper level.” Burnham’s love for God and his congregation provides the rock upon which his new identity is built; but he still feels that old, nagging pang. It claws at him, when his wife off-handedly criticizes his shirt, or when a heroin addict screams at him in front of the whole church. As a result, Burnham is far from sanctimonious: “You can’t go on thinking ‘Oh, well I’m all that,’ or ‘I’d never do that again.’” Instead, he fights against the converging source for many of his insecurities: pride. Pride born from a self-serving, status-obsessed worldview.
“It’s tough even as a pastor: am I doing this for the Lord? Or am I doing it for people to tell me what a wonderful guy I am?” People, Burnham notes, are so fixated on sustaining their pre-conceived self-images, that they will twist even goodness and love into pride – which itself becomes a consuming force, blurring the lines between the selfish and selfless. Whether religious or not, Burnham clearly sees “something in us that still longs to be worshipped as God.” And when we mistake pride and power for love and security, our culture amplifies those personal ills.
Looking out the office window, Burnham pondered his city’s relationship to addicts and the homeless. Having seen hypocrisy and self-righteousness in his own life, he cautioned against myopic apathy: “Palo Alto has a tremendous heart… but we’ve had experiences where it’s like, ‘We love the homeless but, please help them somewhere else.’”
Burnham was speaking of the many times in which he and others have tried to help those in need, but lacked vital community support. PBC struggled to develop a women’s shelter years ago, as issues like permit specificity and zoning logistics left women sleeping in the rain. On the one hand, Burnham completely understands: “If I have two kids and just paid $2.5 million for a house, do I want people congregating in the area who might pose a danger?” But on the other hand, he also feels deep compassion – or rather, intestines – for those enslaved by addiction. He once asked a woman in his congregation what the hardest part of being homeless was. She answered: “People no longer treat you like a person… You’re just a thing. People avert their eyes when they see you, they just pass by like you’re a tree.”
When we are all alone, in the comfort of our own minds, it is easy to believe lies. It is easy to believe that the homeless man on the ground, or the self-medicating person in our life, will disappear if we just avoid eye contact. But no; that homeless person sees us, quickening our pace; our friends see us, enabling their behaviors. When communities delude themselves into thinking their thoughts and actions exist in a vacuum, ignorance and inaction degrade our collective humanity. People espouse loving, humanist ideals on social media, while real humans die from their addictions or lack of shelter all around them. Burnham implores us to hold true to our ideals, and give steadfast love to our fellow human beings: “These are people, they are not rocks and benches. They don’t all fit the stereotype you might have of this violent and dangerous person.”
Burnham needed a spiritual heart transplant for himself; he thinks the heartbeat of Silicon Valley might need defibrillation. As such, his views are unapologetic: “There is no reason, financially, why somebody should be sleeping in the bushes in Palo Alto. Why in the world is that happening, given the socioeconomic wherewithal in this community?” Why? Likely because, when faced with the reality of suffering, communities like ours have three choices. The first choice values truth over love: we acknowledge our suffering peers, acknowledge our capacity to help, and go on content with our lives. The second choice gives love without truth: this is mere sentimentalism – preaching compassion and hope, but failing to take responsibility for the suffering of those around us.
The third choice is much harder. It holds truth and love together, un-diluted and unwavering, in stewardship and accountability. For this option, Burnham has hope. He knows Palo Altans are good people; he knows they have real heart: “We have a great history [of service as the city of Palo Alto, let’s move forward with that history,” Burnham urged, as echoes of worship music returned through office walls. The exhortation was for people to shift from being mere “viewers,” to real “doers,” and pursue the logical outworking of their sacred values – whatever their worldviews may be.
Andy Burnham is not overly-concerned for Palo Alto’s future; the drug-induced terrors of his youth are long gone, and he knows that all things can be made new. Yet, he is concerned for something. Burnham is no longer fixated on his self-image, no longer toiling for the false promises of praise and adulation. Yet, he is fixated on something. And though he battles his pride daily, Burnham no longer puts himself at the center of all things; he no longer seeks acceptance from a faceless crowd. Yet, he seeks something. In that wizened mind, inside the skull which once rattled with echoes of despair, somethings stirs; something which yearns to break out, giving life to itself and others. It used to be that beast in the basement, but is now something far greater which Burnham has found. The beast, he managed to lose along the way – though he is not sure where.
He did, after all, spend twenty years in the sixties.