On most mornings, as the sun rises over Tampa Bay, Florida, there is usually one man who is there to greet the new day.
He is alone when he takes his seat, always on the same park bench. But before long he is joined by others, strangers who seek out his reassuring company and empathetic ear.
Al Nixon first started going to the park bench to be alone and chill out before work. Watching the shimmering waters of Tampa Bay through tall palms just after sunrise helps clear his head and keep him centered for his day as an employee of the city water department. But what he undertook as a simple self-care ritual has turned into a greater mission in his little corner of St. Petersburg, Florida.
A Ripple Effect
One day, a woman he had never seen before approached him with a comment that would radically shift his perspective. “Every day I come here,” she told him, “I know everything is going to be all right when I see you.”
Al spent several days ruminating over that encounter. “And then it dawned on me,” he said, “to maybe look at this through a different lens. It was a spiritual thing.”
“To some degree we’re all responsible for each other and we’re all connected … It only takes small, seemingly inconsequential actions to make a big difference in a person’s life. If it takes just sitting and smiling and opening oneself up to change lives, that is a beautiful thing that has so much purpose.”
Passersby noticed his steady and predictable presence, and many started taking a seat beside him on the bench, sometimes just to sit quietly in the company of another, but often to open up about their troubles, their heartaches, and their life questions, big and small. Al bore silent witness to their pain, their loneliness, and even their joy at the arrival of a grandchild, falling in love, or sending children off to college.
He came to believe he was called to his bench by divine appointment. Eight years later he rarely misses a morning, always perching in the same breezy spot. “I didn’t see a choice in it,” he explains. “It’s this thing within you. You just know you have to go.”
Carrying Out the Divine Calling
Al has become such a beloved fixture that “Al’s Bench” is marked by a plaque bestowed by his multitude of grateful friends and followers. Around town he is known as the “Sunshine Mayor” for his advice and encouragement, but mainly for shining his inner light by listening.
“To some degree we’re all responsible for each other and we’re all connected,” Al says. “It only takes small, seemingly inconsequential actions to make a big difference in a person’s life. If it takes just sitting and smiling and opening oneself up to change lives, that is a beautiful thing that has so much purpose.”
Al offers something for which many people hunger—someone to hear them without judgment. He has discovered that some people are lonely, in need of human connection. Others find comfort by unburdening their hearts. He figures over the years he has served as a confidant to thousands of people. Sometimes folks queue up in a line and wait for their turn to talk to Al.
“Anything we do by faith is a ministry, and we’re all responsible for our own ministries,” he says. “You smile as you pass people by. That’s a powerful ministry.”
He decided to continue his service during the Covid-19 pandemic, even if it put him at risk, because the yearning for human contact was so great.
“You have to be open,” he says. “You don’t have to say much. If you truly care, they’ll see it in you.”
Al says he believes God is working through him, and that compels him to show up almost every day, including weekends, carrying out a calling that came to him “in spirit” at the age of 13, when an inner voice told him, “Tell humanity I love them.” That same love has washed back to him through the hearts of the thousands of people he has reached through his park bench ministry. He gives the same advice to various people who may be struggling to understand that love begins with loving oneself.
“I tell people when they wake up in the morning to look in the mirror and say to themselves, ‘Oh, my goodness. I get to be me today. I’m so happy to be me,’” Al says. He adds, “Doing that on a regular basis will show you who you are, and then you start improving the person who you are, and you can be happier every day after that.”