Through a series of very unexpected and somewhat unfortunate events, he started coming to our church about ten months ago. For the last four months or so we’ve been studying the Bible together.
And I’m quite sure he drew the short end of the stick.
There is no way – absolutely no way – that he is learning half as much, or being half as blessed, as I am by our time together. So in that regard, I feel sorry for him.
But let me tell you about him: James used to be a drug-dealer in Bangor. Everything he did was to satiate his addiction to drugs and alcohol. Life was only about himself.
Then something happened. He was arrested and found himself in jail. That was all it took. “Going to jail was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he told me last night. It was right there, in a little cell in Bangor, Maine, where he hit rock bottom. He realized his life needed to change. He realized he needed to be freed.
That one night in jail is all it took.
For the next six months, as he lived in a homeless shelter, he did a hard detox – which he said was actually pretty easy compared to getting over the real root of his addictions. Getting rid of the emotional and psychological demons was another thing altogether. It took going to AA and joining up with other support groups to help him deal with those demons.
And then one night it happened, like someone turned a light on. He decided to stay in a hotel room for a week in an attempt to finally break free from the addictions. As he sat in that lonely hotel room, reading his AA book, something clicked: his past was his past. It didn’t need to be his present. He didn’t have to hang on to it anymore. He didn’t have to carry the weight of his history anymore.
Since his past didn’t need to be his present, he didn’t need to medicate himself in the present anymore in order to drown out the cries of his past.
And with the weight of his past off his shoulders, it was as though someone turned a light switch on and deleted his craving for drugs and alcohol. It no longer enslaved him. His taste for it was gone, never to return.
He has been clean ever since.
As awesome as this is, though, what inspires me even more is his new craving to help deliver people from the life he onced lived. It’s an all-consuming passion of his. He now works at the homeless shelter that once housed him as well as a soup kitchen.
What excites him the most is traveling the streets of downtown Bangor in a canteen truck, setting up shop a couple times a month and bringing food directly to the demographic that he used to be a part of. I’ve been with him on this mission and his compassion and excitement for these people are contagious. James is normally a pretty quiet guy, but when he gets with these people and hands them chilli or a sandwich, he lights right up. He cares for them, invests in them, wants to help them live a better life.
He’s also inspired me in other ways. He doesn’t own much – not even his own teeth – but he says he’s never been happier. He’s also thankful for his past because it helps him better relate to and sympathize with those he’s now trying to reach. And just last week, after I backed into my neighbor’s car and I had to call James to let him know we would have to cancel our Bible study, he said to me, “Hey, just remember: you can’t change the past. What’s happened has happened. Don’t let it own you.”
Whether fully understood or not, James knows – and more importantly, lives – the Gospel. And his burden to reach the down-and-outers of Bangor – a city that, though fairly small, has big-city problems with lots of drugs and homelessness – inspires me to be a better person and a better pastor.
And I can’t help but wonder how many Jameses there are in Bangor and in the world who are one night in jail away from finally being free.
Will we be there to point them to the One who can bring freedom?
James’s story reminds me of something I read just yesterday from another “AA” book – Acts of the Apostles – which I have just started reading again: “The church,” Ellen White writes, “is the theater of [God’s] grace, in which He delights to reveal His power to transform hearts” (p. 12).
What a thought! And what a reflection of James’s story. He’s been transformed – and now he wants nothing more than to be a conduit through which God’s grace can transform others’ hearts.
As we were about to end our Bible study last night, he shared a simple thought with me that often seems cliche but in his mouth seemed profound. “I figure that if I can touch just one person,” he said, “then I can change the world.”
That’s what it’s all about.