Monday, December 13, 2010

Joseph's Christmas Story

As a stay-at-home Mom, I tend to err on the side of caution when it comes to unexpected knocks at my door, and generally don't open it. For some reason, I made an exception to this rule when a young man knocked on my door last week.

I was busy going about my day, wrapping the many Christmas presents and finishing up my holiday to-do list when the doorbell rang, suddenly. I looked out the window to find a young, clean-cut man in his mid-twenties, wearing baggy pants and a red and white striped polo button down shirt. Against my usual precaution, I felt compelled to speak to this young man. I opened the door, just a few inches and stuck my nose through the crack. "Can I help you?" I asked, not really wanting to buy whatever he was selling, but still feeling an urge to speak with him.

"Don't worry, Ma'am," he said with a big grin that told me he had been the class clown in school, "It's just a crazy black man on your porch. Nuthin' to worry about."

I immediately liked him.

He introduced himself as "Joseph" and showed me an array of extremely over-priced cleaning products that he was peddling. I indulged him as he worked through his demonstration. Afterall, he cleaned my porch windows and some of the mold off the sidewalk. When he was finished explaining why I couldn't let him walk away without first investing nearly $200 into apparently the best cleaning products available not-on-the-market, I opened my mouth to say "no thank you" and instead asked him, "What made you want to do this for a living?"

Joseph's voice lowered, his eyes softened, and he smiled. "Ma'am, I have a two-yr-old son I need to support. I dropped out of high-school so I couldn't find a good job. I went back and got my GED, but this pays the bills for my son. I travel to 25 states a year, but I try to get back to see my baby as often as I can." He pulled out his cell phone and flipped though an array of pictures of the sweetest little curly-haired boy with chubby cheeks and a big toothy grin. There were so many pictures of Joseph and his son together, it was obvious he cared deeply for this little boy.

Curious now, I asked him if it was hard to be away from his family for so much of the year. Jospeh laughed and said, "Yes ma'am, it is, but I call him and when I can't talk to him I read my Bible. That helps keep me from being lonely."

My ears perked up at the mention of a Bible and the pastor's daughter in me kicked into high gear. Joseph did not exactly look like the Bible-thumping type. "Do you read the Bible often?" I inquired.

"I do now, ma'am. I only became a Christian a couple years ago. You see, I used to be heavy into drugs. I was a gang-banger, a member of the Bloods." He raised his sleeves to expose a mosaic of knife wounds, gang tattoos, and violent images, many of which referenced the infamous street gang. I closed the door an inch or two. Noticing my reaction, Joseph backed up a foot or so. "You don't have to worry, ma'am. My violent days are over. I was raised in southern Louisiana. My Daddy ran off and my Mama did the best she could. I got mixed up with the wrong kids and started doing drugs. The Bloods came along and made me feel like I had a family and a place to belong. I thought that was cool until my girl got pregnant. I didn't want my kid to go through what I went through."

He paused as if he had said too much. By now, I was out on the porch with him, the door closed behind me. He had such gentle mannerisms, it was difficult to imagine him as a drug-pushing, gun-toting street thug, but the physical scars were beyond proof and the emotional scars wore heavy on his face as he told me his story. "What happened to cause you to change?" I asked.

"Well ma'am, my baby mama told me I had to get right with God and get clean or she was gonna take my baby. I didn't care about her God and I didn't want to leave my 'friends'. Then, Katrina hit. The dump I was living in was completely flooded. You couldn't even see the roof because it was covered in water. I lost everything I had, which wasn't much. I decided to leave the Bloods after that." Joseph said all of this matter-of-factly as I struggled to place myself in his shoes.

"Forgive my naivete," I told him, "But you're the first gang-banger I have ever talked to. I thought you couldn't leave a gang without getting killed or having to look over your shoulder all the time." I instinctively peered down the street, as if to confirm there were no low-riding muscle cars with dark tinted windows rolling up behind us.

Joseph laughed out loud. I think he found my ignorance amusing. "Yes ma'am, that's sometimes the case, but after Katrina, all my boys just left so I left too. I Never looked back. My girl and I went up to Andover, KS, for a while. She's got family up there" We bonded for a minute over both of us having lived in central Kansas and knowing some of the same places. Jospeh continued with his story, "While we were in Kansas, my girl dragged me to church. It was some non-denominational church and I thought there would be dancing and rolling in the aisles. I did not want to go," he said with conviction, "but she said I had to get clean or lose my kid. So I went."

"What did you think," I asked him, hooked on his story.

"Well, ma'am, at first I thought they were freaks, but then something in me started listening and I started wondering about what my life might be like if I had happiness like these people. The third time I went, the pastor came up and prayed for me, put his hands on my shoulder, and told me Jesus loved me. I started to cry. Man, I felt stupid. Gangtas don't cry. But I did." He hesitated as if to see if I wanted him to continue. I did.

"That morning I asked Jesus to come into my heart," he continued, "and I got myself checked into rehab. I've been clean ever since and that was two years ago. I keep my Bible with me when I travel and I try to read it every day. I don't always understand what it says, but I try to live by it. Jesus changed my life. I have these tattoos to remind me where I'm from and the Bible to remind me where I'm going."

He was so passionate when he spoke about his salvation, I was very moved by his story. Stealing a line from a movie, I said, "I find this hard to say without sounding condescending, but I'm proud of you, Joseph. You can make a difference in someone else's life now."

"I'd like to go into ministry," Joseph said, "but I'm not real good at school and I've gotta work. I don't know how to make a difference. So I just keep on for me."

I looked at him a minute. I wanted to say the right thing. "Joseph, one day during your travels, you're going to run into another young man or woman who is at a crossroads in their life. Perhaps they will be facing the same dead-end path you were once on. You're going to be able to roll up your sleeves and show them that you have walked in their shoes. You will be able to identify with their pain. You will know exactly what to say and how to say it to reach them in the place that they're in. That's a gift. Embrace your tattoos and your scars. They are a part of who you were. Turn them into tools to use for Christ. You don't have to have a seminary degree to reach people for Jesus. In fact, you will be able to reach into much deeper, darker places than people like me ever could simply because you've been there yourself." He watched me, listening carefully. I felt we were connecting.

"Joseph," I went on, "someday, you will be to someone else what that pastor in Andover, KS, was to you. You will be the somebody that someone else credits with getting their life right with God. Cling to that and don't let opportunities pass you by."

His eyes welled up slightly, and he held out his hand to shake mine. "Thank you for saying that," he said quietly. "That gives me hope."

By now, more than 30 minutes have passed by. I fumbled for my wallet and handed him $40 for a single over-priced bottle of cleaner, which does actually work quite well. "Good luck," I said as I shook his hand. "Thank you, ma'am. It was a pleasure talking with you," he responded, politely.

With that, Joseph turned and walked down my sidewalk toward the next house, hitching up his saggy jeans and toting his bag of cleaner. He turned briefly and waved goodbye with a smile. As he turned his back to me, I noticed a small, thin black leather-covered Bible tucked safely in his back pocket.

I will probably never see Joseph again until we meet in Heaven, but I have not stopped thinking of this young man and what he has overcome. I have prayed for him several times since our meeting. I hope that some day, he will be able to use his past to help another, because in that act will come true healing for Joseph.


Bev Wilson said...

Oh, my sweet baby girl. I am so very proud to call you my daughter. Love, Mom

Jenn said...

What a great story. Sometimes the most unexpected knocks reveal the good that still exhists. I'm glad you spoke to him. People like you are what motivates others to better themselves!

Lori Hargrove said...

What an inpirational story. You are truly a gift from God yourself to take the time out and really listen to this young man. I work with your mom and I know she is proud of you! Lori

helen said...

You simply MUST write a book. I cannot see the screen very well from crying over Joseph's story. What a blessing!

Tiffany said...

This is what's called a 'divine' appointment! Which is why God thru the Holy Spirit gave you the discernment to 'open' your door! I love real stories like these! I'm glad you took the time to write about it :) Miss you guys~ Love, Tiff

Wendy said...

Sweet story, sweet friend. Enjoyed reading about your lovely encounter with Joseph.

Kerry C. said...

Wow .. amazing story. Jeni, what grace and blessing that came from your obedience to God. Bless you, Sweetie.