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Shriner Story: Meet John-Michael Phillips

Shriner Story: Meet John-Michael Phillips

Get to know John-Michael Phillips, a member of Ballut Abyad Shriners in Albuquerque, New Mexico, who started Cause-Players, a cosplay unit for a cause.
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Speaker 1:

I became a Shriner about six, almost seven years ago now, same thing that inspired me to become a Freemason was my grandfather. And as a way to reconnect with him, I joined Freemasonry. And after he passed, I always remembered him as being a Shriner. And my first thing to do was to get into the Shriners, just to be part of what he was part of. So one of the units I started was the cosplayers. We cosplay for a cause. Of course, that causes Shriners Children's. We dress up as superheroes, everything from Ghostbusters to Spiderman, Superman. We march in the parades. We actually advocate for anti-bullying and inclusion programs in our community by going to street fairs, going to schools. We've even been asked to meet Shrine patients in their schools and advocate for them at that level. And so it's one thing to be told being a bully is wrong or it's one thing to be told being inclusive is a good thing, but when Superman comes up and tells you it, it changes the way you do it.

Everybody in today's society, especially in my generation, say I want to be part of something bigger. Getting in the Freemasonry meant a lot, but getting into the shrine, I actually have seen things I've done make a change. And you want to be part of something that big. Being a Shriner has definitely changed me. When I got out of the military, I was lost. It's structured. People are held to a certain standard. You can look to someone who has rank over you and assume they could be your mentor. And when I got out, I was a young husband, I was a young father. I was 24 hours from the closest relative, someone I could rely on all the time. And getting into Masonry and the Shrine gave me mentors.

But we have a young guns group that's doing some newer things that are helping out with our young guys. They like to do things like October Fest, whiskey tastings, social hour for a purpose, not Social hour, for the purpose of just being there. If I wasn't a Shriner, I'd be lost. I was at a place where I needed the fraternity. I needed the brotherhood. It was one of those things where I didn't know how to act outside the military. It was such a part of my social life that I was clinging to everything and maybe overdoing it. You'd hang out with a friend, they'd be like, "Let's go do this. Let's go do that." And you kind of clung to them because it was your new social network, video games, hobbies. I felt empty. I didn't have a greater purpose.

And so my wife said it all the time. I got into Freemasonry. And well, it was a little boring sometimes. She said, "I have no problem spending an hour or two at the lodge with the other ladies while you're there. You guys plan stuff." And she's like, "You seem happier and less antsy." And when I got into Shrine, she honestly said, "I've never seen you more involved in something." And she enjoyed being around me that way and being passionate in that way.

It is hard to kind of think, what would I be? Becoming a Shriner has definitely made me a better man. I know we see it on the posters, it's out there. It kind of sounds like a line, but it's not. So having a young family, I do. And having a wife that wants to be active, I have two young daughters and we cosplay together. We dress up the car like a Ghostbuster car. We drive in the parade. We go to the Comic-Con. It can do multiple stages. It can do as a young man with nothing. It can do it as a young family man. You can do it as a man whose children are about to leave him, and you can do it as a man who's about to retire. There is a stage and a season in Shriners always for a man. The great thing about Shriners, Shriner's Children or the transportation Fund, it's specific.

A group of Shriners down in Tampa, a group of Shriners down in San Antonio, Cheyenne, Wyoming, or even Albuquerque, when we raise money, there's a possibility that each of those dollars is going to the same kid. We could all look on television and go, that kid is where they are today because of the brisket we cooked ,the apple orchards, things that we did. I had the ability to go to Galveston as a clown and read books afterwards in a suit with just a nose. And so there was a kid that had been burned at least 70 plus percent of his body, his face, his arms, and he was from Mexico. And we didn't speak the same language, but we spoke to each other and he would teach me things. And even though he was completely wrapped in pain, because he would stop every once in a while and stop, when I commented on his face mask and things of that nature, he stood up on the bed and struck a pose and did the arm things and just got so excited.

And we spent 15 minutes talking, or he spent 15 minutes talking. And I nodded very, very much so in agreeance with whatever he said. And I broke down multiple times because he had been in there for I think a couple of months. And mom was like, "This is the most excited he's been because he was a child who had a fandom of something. It was Mexican based wrestling." And he was excited that I was excited. He'd say a word and I would question it. Oh, I'd say the word back to him in a question. And he'd go, "Yes, yes." And he'd explain it. And it was so overwhelming. I came home to my wife and I said, "If I never do another thing in the world, I want to come back and just support those kids." And I tell the story to other people and they go, "I've been there too. I was there."

I've met men, 80 years old, 50 years old, 20 years old. And we all have the same aspect. I tell people, if I could try to describe it, it's like taking a breath so big that your lungs hurt because that's what it feels like to talk to them and know that they're excited for you when you meet them. That's the connection. This kid received treatment from the hundreds of thousands of Shriners who raised at least a dollar to help him out.

So one of the questions I'm always asked is, why superheroes? Why be a superhero? My daughter actually is probably the first one who came up with the idea that that was daddy's superhero outfit when you put on the hat. So it led to that, that and kids like superheroes. Our unit, the cosplayers, has a unique opportunity we do each year going forward. Now that we finally got chartered and got going, we're going to call it the hero in all of us. It celebrates children because children are heroes when they stand up against bully, when they stand up against diversity. And that's what our Shrine patients are. They're children of extreme situations that didn't ask for this. It wasn't their fault. And here they are having to embrace it. That's why I love going to the hospitals. But then again, the Shriners who are involved, they're also heroes. And I want them to know that too. You're not just a man who puts on a funny hat and drives a little car in a parade.

When a child sees this hat, it's your logo. It is your chess piece. It is when you stand to the wind and your cape falls back, you are a hero. That's why we say the hero in all of us. Shriners think sometimes that they're just fundraising. Shriners think sometimes that they're just showing up to help. A lot of them don't realize what they do in the long run, that they truly save lives. And I have the ability to say that because I've met ambassadors. I've met children from hospitals who say that. I actually had the luxury of meeting a woman who was 62 years old. And she said had it not been for Shriners, she was told as a little girl, not only would she never walk, but she'd never have the ability to have children. And when we were together, she introduced me to at least five of her grandchildren.

And a 62-year-old woman hugged me and thanked me for the work I did as if my work was the reason she was walking today. And it dawned on me that's not because she sees me as an individual Shriner, she sees Shriner as this superhero standing with its red cape flowing in the back, the fez ready to take on the world and save children. And so when a Shriner becomes a Shriner, that's one of the things you get to do. You get to be a hero and it's in you. You just need to put on the hat, put on your costume and go take on the world.