Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The day I picked up a hitchhiker.

(Original story from 2013, update below)


On my way home from work I did something I almost never do, I picked up a hitchhiker. There have been only two other times that I have done something like this. In the first instance I noticed a man walking in the cold carrying a gas can. I remembered seeing a disabled car a mile or so back so I felt that it was safe to pick the man up. In the second case I saw an elderly woman whose truck had broken down along the side of the road and I had no fear of picking her up.

However, this was a different case. This was a middle-aged man wearing jeans and a t-shirt and he was not carrying a gas can and I had not seen any disabled vehicles. I pulled to the side of the road and began to back up. The man started jogging toward the car so as not to miss his chance.

He was wearing worn out grey-black jeans and a grey t-shirt. The top of his head was covered by a light covering of curly grey hair. There was a reddish-grey goatee hanging from his chin and in his left ear was a small diamond earring. His hands were dark with dirt or grime and his tennis shoes worn to practically nothing. We exchanged greetings and I slowly pulled my car
back into traffic.

This man in my passenger seat stared straight ahead and didn’t say a word. I was feeling rather nervous about this so I asked him if his vehicle had broken down or if someone had forgotten to pick him up. He turned and looked at me and said nothing for a moment. He then began to tell me his life story. He began by telling me that when he was fourteen he had killed a man. He killed the man just to watch him die. He then spent five years in a detention center which hardened him against the world. When he was released from the center, his life was a wreck. He could no longer show his face in his hometown. He turned to drugs and alcohol and a life of self-destruction. He hated himself and what he had done and believed he was beyond forgiveness.

Years later he found himself back in his hometown with his wife and two children. He came back when his father died and became very close to his devout Catholic mother. Eventually he came back to the faith of his youth and began to live again.  However, he could never forgive himself for what he had done.  And many of the people in the town could not forgive him either. In fact members of his own parish refused to shake his hand during the “sign of peace”. He went to Confession often.  He spoke with many priests but he still could not forgive himself and in fact he felt he was not worthy of that forgiveness.  He truly believed that God had forgiven him but he could not forgive himself.

One day a deacon in his parish invited him to help with the prison ministry program. The deacon wanted him to tell his story and how Christ had brought him peace and mercy. He agreed to give the talk but in his heart he was uncomfortable because he still carried an unimaginable burden and had yet to experience peace. Yet, he wanted to do whatever he could to help those men in prison. He agreed to help and made plans to spend a weekend at the prison.

On the first evening he was setting up a room with cookies for the prisoners when another man entered the room to help him. They both worked at their task making small talk when my hitchhiker noticed that the other man had the same last name as the man he had killed when he was a teenager. He felt flush and weak-kneed. He tried to push it out of his mind but he couldn’t.  That fateful day came rushing back to him. He remembered the look on the man’s face as he fell to the floor. The detention center and all of its filth filled his mind. For the next twenty-four hours he could not shake either his memories or the thought that the man on the prison ministry team may be related to the man he had murdered.

On the next day of the retreat my passenger told the prisoners his life story as he was now telling me. Some of the prisoners reacted positively while others were indifferent. He could tell that many were there simply because it was a chance for a change in routine.

Later that evening, while arranging cookies for the prisoners, he found himself working with the man he had met the previous night. Once again he felt flush. He couldn’t concentrate on the simple task of setting out refreshments. His head began to spin as he approached the man and with words that seemed to come from someone else he asked if was related to the man he had killed. The man paused for a moment as if trying to catch his breath. He replied that he was indeed related to the man and that the man my hitchhiker had killed was his cousin.

In a tearful exchange with the man helping set out cookies, my passenger confessed that he had murdered the man’s cousin. He then begged for forgiveness. The two men sat down facing each other with tears streaming down their faces. They looked deeply into the other’s eyes. The hitchhiker cried out from the depths of his soul for forgiveness while the other battled with the temptation to hate him. A long period of time passed when finally the man stood in front of the other who was now my passenger. A look of indescribable peace came over the man and he simply said, “I forgive you.” The two men embraced and they both wept.

The very next day, which was the last day of the prison retreat, the hitchhiker relayed the rest of the story to the inmates. He also told them how the man he had met setting out cookies had tried for over a year to get onto the ministry team but had not been able to help until this particular weekend. He relayed to them the healing power of God in its fullness and how no one is beyond the mercy of God. In the end there was not a dry eye in the place. Leaders of the Aryan Brotherhood and the Black Panthers embraced and wept. Sworn enemies in that place of concrete and steel forgave and asked for forgiveness. God’s mercy swept over that room on the last day of the conference.

When my hitchhiker had finished his story we were both in tears. It was difficult for me to drive. He turned to me and said that he hoped that I wouldn’t think any less of him now that I knew this story. I turned to him and told him that I didn’t think any less of him and that I still considered him a close friend.

I ask the reader to forgive me if he or she feels led astray or deceived, but the hitchhiker that I picked up has been and still is a very close friend of mine. He is a fellow a parishioner and a wonderful man. I have taught his children in the parish religious education program and been involved with them in the youth group. I have helped him build his house, work on Knights of Columbus projects, and pro-life newsletters. However, I never knew about this part of his life. I never knew of the burden that he carried day after day, a burden that many of us could never imagine. So in that sense, I did pick up a stranger on the road that day.

This man, I’ll call him Kenny, has now dedicated all his free time to prison ministry. He not only visits prisons but churches as well. He visits churches and relays the story of his life and the story of God’s never ending mercy. He works very hard to raise awareness to the fact that those men and women locked away in prison are still sons and daughters of God. His ministry is to those who have all but been forgotten, to those who are truly out of sight and out of mind. However, his ministry is also to those of us on the outside. He ministers to us by reminding us that we have a responsibility to care for those in prison. (Matthew 25:36) He reminds us that even though the prisoners may be guilty, and guilty of horrendous crimes, they still need the love and mercy of Jesus Christ. They need to learn how to accept the mercy of God and how to forgive themselves. His ministry also reminds us that even though many of those men and women deserve to be in prison for life they should still have the opportunity to choose Heaven.

Kenny’s story has given hope to prisoners without hope and has been the source of a great awakening in the needs of prison ministry. I am currently working on a book, in novel form, about his life and ministry to be used in his ministry. Please pray for him and for this project that it may bring healing and bring many souls to Christ.

UPDATE: Kenny died suddenly of a heart-attack nearly a year ago.  Please keep him and his family in your prayers.  I do plan to finish the novel and continue his story.

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