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Mercy in the Streets
He Thought Jesus Could Never Love Him
By Joley Billa (Jan 5, 2007)
I want to share a true story about a man I met on the streets of Tampa, Fla. I'll call him "Donald."
I will never forget the first time I met Donald. My husband and I, along with a few friends, were doing what we did every Sunday afternoon for more than six years. We were feeding the homeless men and women who tragically call the street their home. We would all drive our own vehicles and caravan to four different stops around the downtown area.
Our normal routine went like this: We would pull in to a vacant lot and set up a temporary camp. We would unload tables and pile them high with all types of homemade food that had been supplied by many behind-the-scenes people from our church family, neighbors and others.
Then, for the next hour, we would feed approximately 150 people, mostly men, and we would talk, laugh, cry, and pray with them. We supplied them with clean clothes and even cut their hair and doctored their cuts and bruises. Then, like clockwork, we would break down the food and tables, and travel to the next stop on our route.
On the day I met Donald, we pulled up to the meeting place and parked. But instead of immediately beginning to set up the tables, we had to jump out of our vehicles and stop a huge fistfight out on the street. The fight was between Donald and a mentally unstable man named Jimbo.
I had never seen an outburst like this, and it was scary. Being a "chicken," I decided to stay in the car until the men among us were able to settle things down. Only then did I venture out. The first thing I did was approach Donald.
Curious, I asked him why he was so angry (he had threatened to break Jimbo's neck). He explained to me that Jimbo had called him a liar and that was the "last straw."
I tried, unsuccessfully, to calm him down. But Donald kept shouting out that after all these "church people" left Jimbo would be dead.
Heartbroken, I went to my car and began to weep. I could not believe a murder was about to happen and that I was powerless to prevent it. After a while, Donald knocked on my window and asked me why I was crying. I told him I was weeping for him because he had no care for another man's life or soul.
He tried to soothe my anxiety by offering to break Jimbo's legs rather than kill him. Though I found that a conciliatory gesture on his part, I explained that it was still unacceptable.
Confused, Donald looked at me as if I had two heads and said, "Lady, why do you even care?" I asked him to sit with me in the car, and I began to speak to him of Jesus and how much Jesus loves them both. I tried to tell him murder was a sin and that Jesus cared about that.
Donald looked at me and in a very matter-of-fact manner, stated that Jesus could never love him since he had killed 65 men in Vietnam and had committed other acts of violence since living on the streets. To him, Jimbo was just one more man he would kill.
Shocked, I just stared at him for a moment. Then, I asked him if he ever had any faith. He mumbled something about being Catholic a long time ago when he was a little boy but that his soul had become much too black and that it was way too late for him to embrace God.
I hollered over for my husband to come to the car and demanded that Donald get in the back seat. I never explained a thing to my poor husband. I just asked him to drive us to Sacred Heart Church. I told Donald that he was going to confession and that, yes, God did love him and that not only could God forgive him but — I was certain — would forgive him.
Unfortunately, because it was after 4 p.m. on a Sunday the church was locked. I was devastated, so I got right into Donald's face and, in my bossiest voice, told him that he must get to that church at noon the next day as I knew they had a Mass then and that after Mass he was to tell the priest that he needed to go to confession. I have to laugh now when I think of how Donald must have felt — but I gave him no choice!
Sadly, we had to leave him on that street corner all alone. But as we drove off to join the others, I prayed for Donald as well as the priest who would meet Donald. The entire week I prayed and even fasted a bit (I hate fasting). But by the following Sunday, busy again feeding the homeless, I had put Donald out of my mind.
I was praying with someone when I felt a tug at my sleeve. I turned around and saw this man looking frantic at me. I nodded and continued as before, but then he grabbed me again, demanding to be noticed. I looked closer at him as he said to me: "Don't you recognize me? I'm Donald!"
Indeed, I hadn't recognized him! The man I was looking at was clean-shaven and younger looking. He looked almost like the son of the old, dirty man I had dropped off at Sacred Heart.
He had tears in his eyes and said, "Look, here is my driver's license and work permit. I got a job this week, and you were right: God did forgive me, and I just wanted you to know that you will never see me here again. Thank you." And with that, he hugged me tightly, then disappeared.
Later, when I was finally home, showered, fed and in my nice warm bed, I allowed myself the freedom of tears. When my husband asked me what was wrong, I couldn't honestly explain it.
But I can now. The sacrament of Reconciliation is HEROIC love and we — all of us — are sometimes the only pencil God uses to draw the line that points home.
Ask for mercy
Completely Trust in His Mercy.
Joley Billa is a lay evangelist for Eucharistic Apostles of The Divine Mercy.