Just after parking my car this morning, I met Santiago “Joe” huddled under some small bushes at the corner of the parking lot, trying to stay warm on this bitterly cold day. I struck up a conversation with Joe and within a very few minutes I knew that this was a divine appointment.
Joe grew up in New Orleans in a very traditional Italian Catholic family. They went to mass every Sunday and celebrated all the holidays, so Joe always though of himself as a Christian, though he never had a personal encounter with Christ.
Just before he turned twenty years old, Joe went to war in Vietnam and there experienced things that would change his life forever. When he came home to New Orleans, the world was a different place than he had left. No, actually, Joe was a very different person who had left a few short years earlier. He no longer knew who he was or where he fit in his used-to-be world. He began treatments for PTSD and started self-medicating for his deeper hurts with alcohol and illicit drugs. In short order, his family lost patience with him, gave him a sum of money, and told him to leave, not come back, and never again ask them for anything.
When the money ran out, Joe found himself hungry and destitute. He went into a restaurant one day and asked for food. When they refused, he said, “Then, empty the cash register and give me all of it.” He was arrested, convicted, and spent the next years of his life in prison, more than twelve months of it in solitary confinement. When he was released from prison, Joe found that he had compounded his problems. Now, on top of his depression, his addictions, and his decimated self-image, he had a couple of felonies on his record. He spent the next ten years homeless and often pennyless.
Earlier this year, Joe got himself a room. He couldn’t believe how good it felt to have a place of his own. He was “very thankful,” he said. He never took it for granted for a single minute. Then, about three weeks ago, his nightmare resumed as he got his eviction notice. He showed the paper to me stating that he had violated his rental agreement by having overnight guests. Joe said, “I remembered what it was like on the street, and I couldn’t say no to a couple of my homeless friends. I let them stay.”
Joe went to the VA Hospital where he was given twenty Ativan for his stress. He took them–all of them–along with eight beers. “I had had enough of this *** world. I was ready to leave.”
I said, “Joe, you have to find something or some one worth living for.”
He said, “There is nothing and there is no one worth the hell I go through.”
And I answered, “There is one, Joe, and you need to run as fast as you can to the arms of Jesus. He’s waiting for you.”
He started to cry. “This is twice this year I have cried. What the h*** is wrong with me?” He paused for a minute, then said, “I’m going to tell you something which, once I have told you, you might not want to talk to me anymore.” Then he told me of the abuse he had suffered at the hands of one who called himself a “Rev.” “I hated that SOB,” he said, as he told me of the way he and others had been exploited by this “man of the cloth.” Tragically, Joe couldn’t separate this man from the God he claimed to represent. His heart turned against the man, the church, and anything that reminded him of the things he had suffered.
“Joe, please understand that man was an imposter. He didn’t present the real Jesus to you. Just as there are frauds in every segment of society, there are false Christians who misrepresent everything that God is about.” I talked with Joe for the better part of an hour, urging to forget everything he thought he knew about God and simply believe the gospel–the good news as I shared it with him.
Joe allowed me to pray with him. I said, “You need a coat, Joe, it’s cold out here, and I think I have one to fit you.”“You don’t have one big enough for me,” he said. But I opened the trunk of my car and said, “Do you need a 2x or a 3x?” I had some excellent, brand new coats to choose from.
“God did send you to me!” Joe said.
I said, “Joe, you haven’t seen anything yet! Just love God and let him love you. He has been longing to show you how much he cares about you.”
Joe said, “Can I hug you?”
“Absolutely!” We’ll be talking soon. Joe promised he would see me Wednesday in the park and again on Christmas Day. I love this life.