by Perry Stearnes
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A young teen named Tommy showed up at a crowded shelter in Southern Chicago one cold December night. He went there to escape the cold and to get something hot to eat. While he was gobbling down his food, he noticed a priest walking around the tables talking with some of the others who had happened in. The priest was a tall, broad, black man who easily caught anyone’s attention that was in the same room.
After a few minutes, the priest made his way over to Tommy. “Well! A newcomer. What brings you to our humble place?”
“I’m not here to make friends, just getting something to eat.” snaps the boy.
“Ahh! Another one of those.” The priest snarls his nose, squints his eyes and says, “Well, hurry up, finish those potatoes and leave so someone else will have a place to sit.”
With that, Tommy slammed his spoon on the table and stormed out. “Who does he think he’s talking to?” he thought to himself. “He’s a priest! He’s not allowed to treat me like that.” He wandered off into the city still fuming from the way he was talked to.
The next morning, Tommy was walking down the street when he noticed a store with fruits and vegetables on the sidewalk. He looked around for a second and slowly made his way to the tables of produce. Just when he worked up the nerve to grab a bag of apples, he heard a familiar voice within the store say rather loudly “…and a bag of apples for my friend.” He peeped in the store and saw the priest standing at the checkout counter. The boy grabbed the apples and ran off, disgusted with being seen.
Later that day, he was enjoying one of the apples when he turned a corner to run into, who else, but the priest.
“I see you’re making the most of your little theft. Tell me, do they taste as good as the ones you actually pay for?”
“What theft? They weren’t stolen. You paid for them, remember?”
“That’s right; I did pay for them so according to the laws of the city you didn’t steal them. But, in your heart and in God’s eyes, you stole them. Just because you can justify it in your mind doesn’t make it okay. Most young people your age have learned that by now. How old are you…14? 15?
“I’m 16 and it’s none of your business what I think, feel, OR do. Why are you harassing me anyway? After the way you turned on me at the shelter, I thought you would be glad if our paths didn’t cross again.”
“The way I turned on you?! I came over to make friends with you and you turned on ME! The difference in us is I know how to forgive. We obviously live in the same neighborhood, so I’m just being neighborly.
“Haven’t you ever heard that good fences make good neighbors?”
“Fences? You’ve built yourself a 10-foot high stone wall! It’s been my experience that most people who do that are scared. What are you scared of?”
“I’m not scared of anything or anyone. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be left alone.”
“Nobody truly wants to be alone. Trust me, we all need someone. Maybe not today or even next year, but at some time we need someone. Besides, these streets can be pretty mean.”
“Well, I’m doing just fine by myself. So, take your high and mighty theories and preach them to someone who wants to hear them.”
The priest smiles and turns to walk away, but paused long enough to say, “I am.”
Once again the priest had the last word and Tommy hated it. “Man! I can’t stand this guy!” he mumbles as he leaves.
When the sun started falling, so did the temperature. Tommy started looking for a place to keep warm. He noticed a barrel at the end of an alley that had a fire burning in it. Relieved, he quickly walked over to enjoy the warmth. Shortly after he got there, he heard a gruff old voice exclaim, “What have we here? Someone wants to rent some heat from us.” Tommy looked around to see two rough looking older men approaching him. “How ‘bout it boy? You gotta pay for our heat.”
Scared, Tommy says, “I don’t have any money, so I’ll just get out of your way.” Tommy tries to walk around the men, but they quickly cut him off.
“If you can’t pay with money, you’ll have to pay with your hide.” With that, one of the men punched him and knocked him to the cold concrete. Tommy could feel blood running down his cheek. Before he could react, he was kicked in the stomach. Suddenly, he heard a different voice yell, “Hey!” He looked up the alley to see a man walking toward them. The man was carrying what appeared to be a long stick.
“Leave him alone!” he yells.
“We caught him stealing from us and we’re teaching him some manners.”
“Stealing what? You have nothing worth stealing.”
The two men backed away not wanting to feel the sting of the bat the stranger was holding.
“Come on boy. Let’s get you out of here.” The man helped Tommy to his feet and escorted him out of the alley. When they approached the lights of the street the man said, “You’re Father Rock’s friend, aren’t you?”
“Who?” asked Tommy.
“Father Rockman; the one who paid for your apples at my store.”
“He’s no friend of mine.” Tommy said with a bitter look on his face.
“You may not be his friend, but like it or not, he’s your friend.”
Tommy pauses for a minute then asks, “What’s his problem? He doesn’t act like a priest should.”
“How’s a priest supposed to act?” asked the man.
“They’re supposed to be nice and care about you. They’re supposed to understand and help people. He’s spending all his time harassing me.”
“Let me ask you something. How did you meet Father Rock?”
“I went to the shelter to get something to eat. That’s where I found out what kind of person he is.”
“Well, if you found out what kind of person he is, then what’s your problem with him?”
Puzzled, Tommy replies, “What’s MY problem? What’s HIS problem? He yelled at me the first time we met. He didn’t even know me and right from the start he’s coming down on me.”
“Wait a minute. Let’s go back a little. You met him at his shelter right?”
“How much did he charge you for the food you ate?”
“So, he gave you a free meal in a warm shelter?”
“Then he kept you from being arrested by paying for some apples you were trying to steal. Now, where in this story do you see him harassing you?”
“Hold on a minute! You’re not gonna make me the bad guy. He stops me on the street to give me a hard time. He said being alone is bad and that I’ll need somebody someday. I let him know right quick I didn’t want to hear it.”
“Sounds like he cares to me. And, as far as not needing anyone, it didn’t look like you were doing so great a few minutes ago.”
Tommy fires back, “You’re just like him! Neither one of you understand!”
The man replies in a firm voice, “It’s you who doesn’t understand. Trust me, Father Rock understands more than you can imagine. If you would get off that “pity train” you’ve been riding and take the time to talk to him, you would see that. It’s only going to get colder tonight, so it would be a good time to pay him a visit. The shelter’s just a couple of blocks away, so get your butt in gear before you either freeze to death or run into some more of your friends like the ones back in the alley.”
The man walked away and suddenly Tommy felt alone and scared. He sure hated the thought of going back to the shelter, but the alternatives looked even worse.
When he reached the shelter, he stood outside trying to imagine the type of confrontation he and the priest would have this time. He couldn’t take much more ridicule from that man.
“Hey!” came a voice from a storage shed beneath the brick steps in front of the shelter. “I sure could use some help with these blankets. I can’t seem to get them to walk inside by themselves.”
It was the man himself. Demanding, sarcastic, and intimidating all at the same time.
“Do you ever let up?” asked Tommy.
“Do you? I don’t see how you can walk around with such a heavy chip on your shoulder.” answered the priest.
Tommy walked over and grabbed some blankets. “Maybe I wouldn’t have such a chip if someone would treat me with a little more respect.”
“I’m glad you finally realized that. You should start right away; the sooner the better.”
“Start what? Didn’t you hear what I said?”
“I think I heard you say you want to be respected. You can’t expect me or anyone else to respect you if you don’t respect yourself.”
“I’m fine with me! I’m doing just fine by myself and don’t need…”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah! ‘I don’t need anyone telling me what to do or how to act.’ “I’m my own man.” “I can make it fine on my own.” Sorry son, been there done that; bought the t-shirt. The problem with it is, it’s all a lie! You’re lying to yourself boy.”
“The name’s Tommy, not “boy”! And just because you have other helpless people coming to you doesn’t make me one of them!”
“Who said anything about others? I said I’VE been there.”
This took Tommy by surprise. How could a man like Father Rock know what it’s like on the street? “What do you mean, ‘you’ve been there’?”
“I’m not called “Rock” just because it’s short for Rockman. I got that name because when my gang and I ran these streets, I was so cruel and hard core, they called me that.”
“You were in a gang?”
“I ran the gang. People did what I said, when I said to do it. Everyone in this neighborhood was scared of us. Remember the old guy from the store? His name is Mr. Floyd. His son was my best friend…until he got killed. His name was Joseph, but we called him “Pretty Boy Floyd” after the gangster.”
Tommy was speechless. Father Rock was nothing like he made him out to be. “You said he got killed. What happened?”
“We were running low on cash, so I decided he and I would relieve a convenient store clerk from having to make a trip to the bank. I was big and bad so I decided I would go in while Pretty Boy stood watch outside. After I got the money, I ran out the door. When Pretty Boy was getting in the car, I heard a gunshot. The guy I just robbed had a .45 and was mad. A bullet hit Pretty Boy in the neck. I panicked. I rushed to the hospital, took Floyd in and ran, figuring I would go back to see him after things cooled down. The next day I heard he died.”
“That’s bad, but he knew what he was doing. He took a chance and it didn’t work. That’s not your fault.”
Father Rock turned to look at Tommy. Tommy noticed the grim look and the tears rolling down the priest’s face. “He was only 13-years-old. He looked up to me and wanted to be like me. I was teaching him everything bad in life. He should have been home with his family, not sneaking out at night to learn how to be a thug.”
“Man! I couldn’t deal with that. How come Mr. Floyd thinks so highly of you now? I would hate you if I were him.”
“But, Mr. Floyd isn’t like most people. A couple of weeks after the robbery, I went to see him at his store. We both just stood there staring at each other. He didn’t know what to say and I COULDN’T say anything. I just stood there crying like a baby.”
“Didn’t you get in trouble?”
“Oh yeah! I called the police from his store and reported myself. They came and picked me up. I spent three years in a juvenile prison for the robbery.”
“That still doesn’t explain why he likes you now.”
“To be honest with you, it’s kind of strange to me too. In fact, while I was in prison, he came to visit me a few times. I kept waiting for him to explode on me, but he never did. I think he knew that he or the law couldn’t hurt me anymore than I was already hurting. To make it worse, I saw the hurt in his eyes every time I saw him.”
“Well, how did you go from being a gangster to being a priest?”
“The first time Mr. Floyd came to visit me; he brought me a Bible…Pretty Boy’s Bible. When he handed it to me, he said I owed it to myself to fix my troubled life. At first I took what he said as just someone else trying to tell me how to live. Then, he said I owed it to Joseph. That really hit me like a ton of bricks. That night I thumbed through the book and started noticing a trend. All the way through the book it talked of forgiveness, love, and sacrifice. It was at that point I realized why Mr. Floyd couldn’t hate me. Here was a man whose son is dead because of me, but because his faith was so strong, he could forgive and love me. I had never seen, much less felt, that from anyone else.”
Now Tommy was very curious about Father Rock’s change in life. “So, you’re saying because somebody forgave you and gave you a Bible that caused you to become a priest?”
“In a way, yes. You see, the more I read, the more I saw of me in the Bible. I was a sinner who didn’t give a single thought about other people. I was just getting through life a lot like you are. I didn’t think I mattered to anyone and nobody mattered to me. As I was reading, I realized it was much like that in the days of the Bible. Then this man named Jesus came along and started teaching love and forgiveness. He didn’t go to the righteous people of the world to teach it either. He went to people like me to tell them he loved them and they had a better life waiting for them. What you have to understand is, this was going on when it was almost a crime to have faith in something other than what the religious leaders allowed. In fact, it cost Jesus his life. God’s Son was sacrificed so others could live and spread his message of love and salvation. In my eyes, it was much like Pretty Boy. Mr. Floyd lost his son and because of it, I was given a chance to spread the message of Jesus.”
After hearing what a terrible person Father Rock used to be, Tommy wondered how he’s qualified to preach. “Since when do they make criminals priests? It’s kind of different don’t you think? After all, they don’t let bad people in Heaven.”
Father Rock asked, “Have you ever heard of a man named Dismas?”
“I don’t think so.” Tommy answered.
“He was a criminal. In fact, he was a thief. Back in those days, thieves were sometimes crucified on a cross. When the leaders of that time decided to crucify Jesus, they wanted to humiliate him in front of his followers, so they nailed him to a cross and hung him up with other “criminals”. This Dismas fellow was hanging there next to him with spikes nailed through his feet and hands. Instead of being filled with hatred and cursing his executioners, he turned to Jesus and asked for forgiveness. Jesus saw his heart and told him he would be with him in paradise that day. So, you see, there’s nothing you can do that’s so bad that you can’t be forgiven. Now that you know my story, let me hear yours.”
Tommy was starting to squirm. Hearing what Father Rock had to say made his problems seem all of a sudden small. “There’s not much to it. My dad left before I was born and my mother was a drug addict.”
“Yeah; she overdosed a couple of weeks ago.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Hasn’t the county found you a home?”
“They were going to, but I’ve seen how kids they “help” end up. I figure I have a better chance on my own. That is until tonight.” Tommy was rubbing the side of his face where he received his initiation to the streets earlier that night.
“I see you met some of our night citizens.” But, you look like you got off pretty light.”
“That’s because of your friend. Mr. Floyd showed up with a bat and got them off me. Then, he practically forced me to come here.”
“It sounds like he’s your friend too. I guess you and I have more in common than you thought.”
“I don’t think it’s that much.” Tommy said with a sarcastic tone.
“Well, think about it. We both were living on the street. We both were thieves. And, if that isn’t enough, we both learned of the plan of salvation because of the same man.”
Tommy realized Father Rock was right. Without even thinking about it, he learned the message of Christ. No matter what a person’s past is or their social status, Jesus hears, understands, and forgives.
Father Rock convinced the county to let Tommy live with him at the shelter. In time, Tommy proved to be a vital part of the shelter and the neighborhood. He went out to teach and help the needy throughout the community. When he wasn’t handing out pocket Bibles, he was handing out bags of “paid-for” apples.
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