One day in Washington Park, I saw a dark-skin husky black man with dreds, sitting on a bench with his friends. He had his brown paper bag beside him and he looked over at me, as if he wanted to ask me something. So I walked over and we started a conversation, and as it turns out, a long friendship. James was drunk when I met him, and later told me he hadn’t been sober in over thirty years. He woke up in the mornings with a pint or two and downed those for breakfast. He kept a pint with him throughout the day. Since he couldn’t hold a job in that condition, he made his living “hustling”, selling items in the park. He was a very quiet man, but everyone in the park knew him from over the years. He stayed in abandoned buildings, or on a bench, or wherever he could find a spot.
We would get together for coffee once in a while, and the conversation would usually turn to spiritual things. He would nod and smile and agree with me, and say what he thought I wanted to hear. But he told me later, that was just because he wanted company, and he really didn’t believe in all that stuff. He had always thought that all that religious stuff was just a way to control the masses. Many of his friends believed but he thought it was only “because they got nothin’ else.” Life was so oppressive that they had to believe there would be something better some day, or else there was no hope at all.
After we began talking, he had been trying to find out the truth and started reading his bible. His motive had actually been so that he could argue with me and show me where I was wrong. But the Holy Spirit was working, and one day he said to me, “It’s true! It’s really true!” He was shocked and excited. I’m not sure why he had such a revelation, but I was excited for him, too. After that, he had a sincere hunger for more truth, and I brought him spiritual books and tapes for him to study.
James was still drinking steadily, but one day he approached me and asked me to get him into a rehab. I agreed, but then he said, “Not today. In a couple of days.” I told him “Whenever you’re ready.” A few days later, he said he was ready, and we headed to a local detox/rehab. On the way there, he asked me to stop at the store. When he came back out, whatever he had purchased he had slipped into his backpack. I was wary of his chances for success, since I suspected he had just bought another pint. But I took him there anyway, and promised I would visit often.
A couple days later I went to visit, prepared for the possibility that he hadn’t made it, and was back on the streets somewhere. But he was there. And he was sober - First time he’d been sober in many years. He told me that he had bought a pint on the way in there, and was intending to sneak a drink once in a while in order to make it through. He had gone into the large dormitory-style restroom and brought the pint out of his backpack, lifted it up to his lips and was about to take a sip, when he glanced over to the wall. There was a portrait of Jesus, staring him in the face. It appeared Jesus was looking right at him and James felt as if he was about to betray Jesus by taking the drink. He felt guilt and sorrow for being so selfish, and he just couldn't drink it. He took the pint and poured the whole thing down the sink, promising Jesus he would try his best to quit. And with God's help, he did quit. That was over five years ago, and he hasn't had a drink since.
Once he got out of the rehab, he got an apartment at one of the most seedy disreputable places downtown. I was afraid with the drugs, prostitutes, crime, alcohol and depravity in that place, that he might relapse into his old life style. But our pastor had bought him a CD player and the bible on tape, and he played it in his room daily.
One day, he noticed a prostitute outside his door, and when he asked what she was doing, she said she was listening to the tapes he was playing. So he began to leave his apartment door open a crack so she could listen. After a while he would go into the hallway and find several people had brought chairs and were sitting in the hall listening. Eventually, they began having a study group in the basement, with drug dealers, prostitutes, and felons with convictions of everything from robbery to murder, all listening to the tapes and having a discussion on the bible.
James has held down a full time maintenance job for four years. I don’t see him as often as I did, since he works on Saturdays when I’d usually be at the park. But he is still my good friend and I know God has a special calling for him.