On the road again…
“Can you please help me bring my son to Communita Cenacolo?” I asked my friend, Mary Lou McCall, in desperation four and a half years ago. That request—and her unhesitating “yes”—took us on a road trip 600 miles away to St. Augustine, Florida, where we delivered my then-nineteen-year-old son, Christian, to a Catholic community founded to heal those in the grips of addiction.
That was the beginning of an amazing journey, wherein Mary Lou and I have driven thousands of miles together to over a dozen Community retreats, jokingly naming our selves “Thelma and Louise With Jesus” somewhere along the way. We hit the road one more time this past weekend to head to St. Augustine for the Cenacolo Fall Festival, where once again, we saw life, hope and profound transformation on the faces of formerly hopeless addicts and their families who, by God’s grace and love, have taken hold of their identities as beloved children of God.
With “Thelma and Louise” on my mind these past few years, I decided to watch the movie again recently. I was struck by the darkness of the story, and by the depth of injustice and despair that plagues the movie’s two heroines until the very end. Faced with the absurdity of their situation, Thelma and Louise opt to kill themselves, driving their Ford Thunderbird convertible off a cliff into the Grand Canyon.
Thanks be to God, that’s not the way our story went. Though Mary Lou and I both encountered darkness and even despair in our circumstances, we never considered going anywhere but in the direction of Jesus. After all, where else could we go? We believe and are convinced that He is the Holy One, and that He alone has the words of eternal life.
God, in His extreme mercy, met our belief with miracles. He has outdone Himself in generosity by granting us many incredible answers to prayer, starting with the way that Mary Lou and I reconnected in 2008 after losing contact for several years.
That reconnection happened during a dim time in my life, when I begged God to send me a friend. I didn’t just ask God for any friend, but specifically prayed for a friend who understood the devastation of addiction. Within twenty-four hours of that plea, Mary Lou McCall had left me both a voicemail and e-mail. She informed me that her son, Mackie, had recently met Christian at a rehab center, and that both of her oldest sons were struggling with addictions. She also shared that she, too, was in recovery. “Here’s my phone number,” she wrote. “I’m here if you need anything.” Blown away by the immediate answer to prayer, I called her that day. We’ve been joined at the heart ever since on this journey with our sons, as well as in the unfolding of own personal healings along the way.
It is difficult to articulate what God has done for us, but I pondered that reality with deep gratitude this weekend during the family retreat. Mary Lou and I sat together through talks, liturgies, praise and worship, dances, testimonials and plays, witnessing the transfiguration of not only poor, addicted souls, but their extended families as well. We heard story after story of people who showed up at Community just like we did—with their families torn asunder and their hope destroyed by the bondage of sin and addiction. And we saw in living color the power of the Resurrection, especially on the faces of the young men and women who have found not only deliverance from death, but true joy in discovering the love of God and the friendship of their brothers and sisters in Community.
Mary Lou’s eldest son Johnny entered Cenacolo in June of 2009 at “Our Lady of Hope” in Florida, one of sixty-five Community houses around the world. Exactly one year later in June 2010, Christian entered the same house. It was there that he and Johnny met for the first time, and there that they forged a deep bond of friendship. Though Johnny was transferred to a house in Italy five months after Christian’s arrival in Florida, Christian moved to Italy shortly thereafter. As God would have it, the two young men landed in the same house again, then slept side by side in adjacent beds for the next year. That experience made them closest of brothers.
The whole crew in Italy with Mother Elvira, Founder of Communita Cenacolo
Mary Lou and I just smiled and shook our heads. “Who but God could have possibly worked out our stories with such personal attention to detail?” we asked. Meanwhile, we kept driving twice a year to the retreats.
One year ago, Johnnie became a missionary in Liberia, where he lives in a Community-run orphanage that cares for twenty abandoned children. Neither the difficulty of the work nor the Ebola crisis has sent him packing, because he has learned the importance of sacrifice and keeping his commitments, no matter what the cost. Christian exited Community two months ago, moving to Wyoming to work on a youth ranch for troubled, addicted teenagers. “I know the work will be hard and they can’t pay much,” Christian said before he left. “But I want to give back for what I received in Community.” And off he went.
Our sons don’t want to be considered heroes and they don’t want any medals. They are struggling young men who found new life, and who want to give back to others what they have received gratuitously from God: faith, hope and love. Those are virtues that Thelma and Louise never quite got. Yet they are precisely the inherent qualities that give life meaning and call us to live with a purpose that is beyond ourselves—a purpose that drives us toward life, not head on into the valley of death.
As for Mary Lou and me, instead of letting the men in our lives drive us over the edge like the movie's protagonists, we presented our sons to "the man," Jesus. He is the true man, the God-man, who has conquered sin and death and who alone can make all things new.