Personal Story from the author of these blogs about how saving love met him in the darkest year of his life.
I thought that for this post I would shake things up a bit. I have been meaning to share with you some personal things, brothers and sisters.
Almost twenty-one years ago I sat in my car on my birthday, late August, homeless. I was in the church parking lot of St. Kevin’s parish. The little red booklet, “Handbook for Today’s Catholic,” was open for reading. Feverishly, I absorbed it with my car light on. I had only just returned to Catholicism and experienced Eucharist hours before. The day before was before Reconciliation. It had been over a decade since my last Confession, which had been my first, in fact, at 14.
Y2K was on everyone’s minds, in South Florida and everywhere else. I was twenty-five years old and every member of my family was dead. One year before, while the Titanic sunk again in movie theaters, both my grandmother and mom died within months of each other. Their lives had been sheer hell for the latter half of the 90s. 1998 was the worst. I struggled to get water on in our Miami home. Electricity was disconnected often. Mom and grandma were in and out of hospitals with major health problems until their deaths. Grandma died in an Emergency Room, mom at home.
My father had been dead since 1987. He died on his 39th birthday. I found him that way. The night dad died, mom had a stomach bug and was in the guest bedroom. Earlier that evening, my dad and I were up watching the new FOX TV eating sandwiches I prepared. At around 11 pm, he climbed the stairs one final time, and I was behind him. He stopped, turned to face me, and asked me to take care of my mother in a strange, knowing way. I promised. I failed utterly at that promise—how could a 13 year old only child care for a bipolar manic depressive with schizoid tendencies and proclivity for suicide attempts?
In 1998, my poor mother died in her bedroom of lung failure, gasping for air, at 50 years old. She had been an artist, writer, and consummate teacher. Mom was a poet, a pianist, and a brilliant, kind woman, that kind of person that would give you her last dime to help you. But she had been very sick, and her meds hadn’t been working for years. I had become her codependent.
Homeless at 25
So back to my car. It’s 1999. September is just days away. Y2K looms. “The Phantom Menace” is still disappointing fanboys and man-children at the nearby Dollar Movie. America is the land of winners and homeless people are thought of as pieces of $h!t—twenty-one years later and that last part is the same.
Could be worse. At least this piece of $h!t has his car.
But which parking lot to sleep in? When you are homeless and sleeping in your car, you begin to see signs in well-lit parking lots. Somehow you missed these signs before. Towing signs. “No Loitering” signs. “No permission to be here” signs.
And what about restrooms? As they say, “When you gotta go, you gotta go.” Police regularly checked on me that year, woke me up, scared me silly. I never got arrested, thankfully, the half-year I was in my car. White privilege is very real, my friends. Yet being homeless of any skin tone is hard. Say I had to pee and left my car, walked to some bush to “take a leak.” I could be arrested for publicly exposing myself. Then my record could read “sex offender.” Thankfully that never happened. I often slept by the 24-hour bowling alley.
Light in the Darkness
On that late August Saturday night back in 1999 I was homeless in my car. But I was lit up with God’s forgiveness and healing.
Just two nights prior I was inside a local bookstore considering dark options. Things were bad. Aloneness had never felt so lonely as that Thursday night. Church wasn’t even on my radar, and hope was far away.
Then, to my surprise, into the bookstore walks that crazy guy from college, the one who always wore the Tau Cross.
Personal Encounter with Crazy Catholic Guy
I was an honors student back then, off and on due to many of the personal, family matters I shared above. For about two years on campus I would run into this weird guy every six months or so. He always wore that Tau Cross. Him and I would talk, always keeping things light. He was a nice guy. I placed him in the “Nice, but Crazy” box in my prejudiced mind. Never really wanted to talk with him much.
Now I really, really wanted to talk with him, just share time with him. And like always, he wanted to share with me. So we sat with coffees and talked. He knew I was down. He knew things were bad. I felt I could open up, and so I did. The conversation went on.
Then he said, “When was the last time you went to Confession?”
Tau-Man (let’s call him that) already knew I was a baptized and confirmed Catholic. If he had asked me that in the brief encounters we had shared on campus for the previous two years, I would have been annoyed and turned off, and found excuse to dip. But not that night. That night I was gripped by his offer. Inside, I felt something heavy activate and lock everything onto what Tau-Man told me. It was like a spotlight blazed, one intensely focused on this momentous exchange. Everything was in this sharing.
After some time, Tau-Man asked, “Can you meet me tomorrow here? We can drive to St. Kevin’s, a church nearby. You can talk with him.”
“Yes,” I answered.
And the following day, I did just that. We met again at the bookstore. Then we drove to St. Kevin’s. I was forty-five minutes with the pastor. A thousand tons of bricks came off my back. Healing came. Deep personal change occurred. And new possibilities came into view. Light broke through the shadows.
Hope and Messiness in the Months Ahead
By late December I would be back at school, employed, residing in an rental efficiency. But that was remote, still months away. In the Fall that followed by re-version experience, I would spend my fall in my car, taking three showers per week, helped by another friend. I would shower on Tuesdays, because of open-mic poetry at the Coffeehouse. Then I would shower and do clothes on Thursday, because I went to young adult group at St. Agatha with Tau-Man and his girlfriend. And I would shower on Saturdays because of vigil Mass in the evening at St. Kevin’s.
It wasn’t always pretty. The old people coming in for 7 am Mass didn’t appreciate the bum sleeping in the parking lot those occasions I chose St. Kevin’s instead of the Bowling Alley as my sanctuary. At Mass on Saturday’s, some were very welcoming, but one well-to-do family always looked disdainfully at me. Those days, I would go to a library nearby my old campus and make deals to write people’s papers—it paid for gas and food. My pastor got wind of that and was not happy.
One More Personal Story
I will share one more personal story from that time. This is about as personal as I can get. It happened about one week after I had returned to the Church.
After watching a movie called “Stigmata,” I spent a whole Friday afternoon in the religious section of the bookstore where I had my life-changing meeting with Tau-Man. The film had left a bad taste in my mouth. At the time, I considered it a cheap slam of the Church. I was so hungry in those days to learn about my faith.
Anyway, that evening two non-Catholic Christians were there, and we started talking. The found out I was Catholic. Then they proceeded to bash the Church and shoot Bible verses at me. They figured I was homeless, and they used that to their advantage. The two got into my personal space. They ranted on about hell and how sinners are worthless. Unless you’ve been homeless in this country, unless you have experienced that look people give you when they smell you, when they see you as worthless, you can’t know how powerless and small it is. And at the time, I was not well-versed in the faith or Scriptures.
Prayer in the Pit
The experience was devastating. Hours later, at the bowling alley parking lot, I was overshadowed by great depression and dread. Terrible feelings. So I prayed from my isolated and lonely car. I asked Jesus about where my father was, and mother, and grandmother.
Suddenly, peace fell over me. Cool in South Florida September. And then I heard something like children playing. Four voices spoke to me. My father said he was proud of me. And my grandmother told me something wonderful I can’t recall, but kind and loving. My mother told me she loved me. They were happy voices, carefree. They were safe. But that wasn’t all. There was a fourth voice, one more familiar than the others. It said,
“How can you think I would ever let anything bad happen to them?
I love them more than you can possibly know.
And I love you.
You’re going to be fine.”
And then, suddenly, I was back in my car, but this time in deep, unshakable peace.
Years later, I would share this with my teacher, Dr. John Pilch, over ribs and beers. We also shared tears over it. And that wise old man, one of the greatest Scripture scholars alive and a fellow dying inmate, affirmed what I will always know inside my heart: “It’s real.”
Back in 1999, years before I knew Pilch or understood what I do now about ASC trance experiences, a terrified 25 year-old boy got a slice of heaven in his home on wheels.
Many messy adventures happened to your Fellow Dying Inmate in the months and years that followed. I swore that I would never again be bullied by Bible-quoting anti-Catholics, and that produced some interesting results. I would be lying if I denied the negative impact it had, or the wrong decisions I would make twisted around my experience with the two men. Maybe I will share some more personal stories about those times, later.
These days, finding myself recently homeless again (this time, sans car) in the time of a global pandemic, those words of the Lord sing out to me—“You’re going to be fine.”