I said “Via con Dios” to a friend last month. After a year in Portland, John moved up to Vancouver, Washington to take a maintenance job at a mid-sized apartment complex. I didn’t want to see him go. For one thing, John was the MacGuyver who never got a hit television series. There’s nothing he can’t fix. For the last year, John has been the glue that held our technically challenged world together at Portland Teen Challenge. What a blessing it was to be able to simply keep a running list of all the maintenance problems and watch them quietly go away. It’s what he does.
But John also became a friend to me during that year. It was a relationship that got off to a rough start. One morning in December of last year, we had something of an altercation when I hauled a folding table down to his shop in the basement. I had finally had enough of the thing collapsing a couple of times each day. Every time it did, the sound of it hitting the floor would take the top of my head off. So I carried it downstairs and, still angry, deposited it unceremoniously on top of John’s work table. Unfortunately, there was a rather important item on the table underneath a cloth, which in my anger I had neglected to observe, and which I was now plopping a table on top of.
The item was a large wooden cross John had built for the center. To make it, he had salvaged some high-quality wood from a piece of furniture they had demolished. He took a small fluorescent light from a different fixture and built it into the back of the cross so that it would glow when it was hung on the wall.
Work was therapy for John. He often told me later on that the time he spent in the shop wasn’t just work for him, but a time of prayer. Something about working brought him closer to his Creator. He had a habit of working with his hands as a way of dealing with difficulties in his life. He once built a hardwood lectern for the chapel after learning that his father had passed away. As for the cross, he had begun building it as a way of thanking God for all He had brought him through.
Now some angry jerk was carelessly slamming a cheap folding table on top of the thing that had absorbed his prayers. No damage was done, but he didn’t take it too well just the same. He had some choice words for me. I apologized for being careless, but I must not have been all that convincing, because John followed me all the way back upstairs, giving me a detailed list of all my character flaws.
It took a couple of months and graciousness on both sides to work through the residue of that morning’s exchange. Each of us had work to do, prayers to pray, lives to live. The unpleasantness that had risen up between us soon faded. I may well have apologized again about throwing the table on his cross, and John made a point of apologizing for his strong words that morning. All was forgiven. As we worked through our interpersonal issues, I began to see that John was no ordinary person.
Before he saw the light, John lived a hard life. He was already a career drinker at an age when most people haven’t yet tasted their first drink. By the time he was 16, he had seen his first of five DUIs and committed a smorgasbord of other criminal offenses. His poor choices made him a frequent occupant at the local jail, but it wasn’t until after a stretch in prison that he set his sights on sobriety. For the next 14 years, John rarely drank, and each time he was reminded why he couldn’t drink. Still, the urge to drink never left him. Nevertheless, he tidied up his affairs, started his own business, bought a house, and after several failed relationships, met “the one.”
Kelly had a captivating smile, a solid work ethic and an adorable little girl named Alexis. Eventually, she and John were engaged. John built a lucrative business and settled down to be a good partner, father and provider. He had every reason to make it, but something was missing. Before he knew what was happening, his relationship with Kelly was falling apart.
After Kelly and Alexis left, it wasn’t long before he found his way to the bottle again. In just a few months, he lost everything he had worked so hard to gain: his house, his business, restored family relationships, his standing in the community and most of his possessions. He drifted down to southern California in a haze of hard liquor. He worked for a carnival briefly, but the work seemed too strenuous. His body was tired, and his eyes stung from the fumes of scorched dreams.
By the time he got to Los Angeles, John was homeless. He lived out of a shopping cart, collected recyclables a few hours a day and spent the rest of his time drinking in the park with friends. After breaking his hand in a fit of rage, he was soon washing down pain pills with vodka. At the end of one long, inebriated day, he toppled backward off a picnic table in a stupor, his head hitting the concrete. He woke up in the hospital two days later, where his doctor informed him he had suffered a subdural hematoma (bleeding of the brain) and would need surgery. After the operation, his doctor told him, “We weren’t sure you were going to make it. You’re a strong one.”
Strong or not, John had to have four craniotomies, the last of which was for the purpose of putting a steel plate in his head. He spent five months in a hospital bed and had to learn how to walk, talk, write and eat all over again. He required assistance even to make trips to the bathroom.
The hospital referred John to a recovery care facility in downtown Los Angeles, but the place was right on skid row. John didn’t like it there, so he left abruptly. Soon he was back to pushing a shopping cart, living each day for nothing more than an evening of drinking. But this time, he felt a weight of peril pressing on him. He knew he was at a crossroads.
He had been reconnected with some of his family members during his stay in the hospital. During one of those visits, John disclosed his predicament to his nephew, Jerry, who recommended a Portland program to him.
Now with murky prospects ahead, John felt his self-reliance tipping, and the idea of going into a program began to make sense. John borrowed a cell phone from a friend named Brad, who worked at the park. He began making calls to arrange transportation to Portland. He didn’t connect with anyone, but a little while later, Brad himself called and told John that he had a bus ticket for him and to be ready to leave at two o’clock. John thanked him and settled down to read while he was waiting.
While John was waiting for his bus, he was approached by a woman who introduced herself as Swan. They exchanged greetings. Swan spoke candidly to him: “I saw you from across the park. I could see that you have a troubled heart. God told me to come speak to you. Do you believe in Jesus?”
“Yes, I do,” John replied.
“Would you like to give your life back to Him?” she asked.
“Yes. Actually, I think that’s where I’m going right now.”
Ever since his Christian nephew had recommended Portland Teen Challenge to him, John had had an inkling that there was a divine pattern unfolding. Although Jerry hadn’t told him it was a Christian program, somehow John knew that he was going to Portland to get Jesus into his life.
That afternoon in the park was one of those moments when the rules of social discourse could be successfully broken. John allowed this lady, whom he had just met, to lead him in prayer, and he committed his life to Christ as the two of them sat together in the park.
John’s road hasn’t been smooth. I remember talking to him in November, just after his arrival at Teen Challenge. He was still half in the fog, and there was fear in his eyes. Perhaps he was dreading the hard path ahead, or maybe he was afraid Monster Alcohol would catch up with him again. The ensuing months were full of hardship. One of the greatest difficulties was submitting to such a tightly structured program as a man in his 40s who had called his own shots for most of his life.
Now, a year later, he speaks of his Savior with a heaviness of gratitude and wonder at what God has done in his life. His health and sanity have returned. A year ago, he was taking handfuls of pills each day for various medical issues. Now he takes nothing except a squeeze on an inhaler. His mind is clear. He has a good job and, in what he considers a celestial outpouring, he was given his first pick of apartments at the complex where he now works. John’s life has utterly changed in a single year.
Just before he left for Vancouver, John showed me a packet of letters he had received from Swan. She hadn’t forgotten about him, not by a long shot. What happened that day in the park was as strange and wonderful for her as it was for him, if that were possible. He has become rather like an adopted son to her.
As it turns out, Swan is a Sunday school teacher at a church in Los Angeles. Over the past year, while John was healing up at Teen Challenge, Swan was having her pint-sized students pray for him. Not only that, it was those children who were responsible for the stack of letters that John was now showing me. The letters are like a graphic exhibit of everything God has been accomplishing in John’s life:
“Dear John, How are you doing? Congrulations your gradulating from the treat center and god is proud of you and you should be proud of your self to. Your friend, Natalie”
“Dear John. I’m glad you are grauduating from the Treatment center Im very, very, very Happy you have a home. Sincerely, Mia”
“Dear John I am very glad that you are grauduating. And that you got saved buy God. God love you!!!”
“Dear John Hi how are you doing widl I hope. I know you been throw a rufe time. My name is BRE and when my teacher tell me you storys my heart pump up and down for you. I hope Jesus blesse you with a wife and a good family to treat you really really good. I hope you know that Jesus will allways love you Yours truly BRE BRE”
“Dear John, I’ve never met you but I’m glad your graduating, I’m so happy for you. I’ve heard your life turnd around lets be forever friends in our hearts. -Yours Truly, Aleeyah”
Children may be diminutive in size, but what huge hearts they have! Only a child could express sentiments like these without ever meeting the recipient. As I read the letters (and there were more than the ones I’ve reproduced here), I reflected that there is nothing quite like a friendly note from a child. The letters were covered with Christian stickers. Some of the girls had drawn hearts on the page. The mistakes in spelling and grammar were charming. The lopsided printing made me picture a little person clutching a pencil with rapt concentration, probably with her tongue poking out of the corner of her mouth. The forgotten signatures made me laugh. The expressions in them hit squarely. Of course they would. There was no question about motives or sincerity. Why can’t we stay children forever?
Jesus put it perfectly: “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Mt. 19:14).