Michael is a handsome, young Mexican American boy. I call him boy, because he feels to me like one of my kids. Michael has grown up with us in our Community at Joe’s Addiction. But he isn’t really a boy. He is a young man. Michael has a sweet personality. He teases and jokes and throws his arms around in a “gansta” kind of attitude. His smile lights up his face, and his multiple swinging metal chains and crosses light up his chest. 

Michael came to me this morning, excited. He reconnected with some long lost family through Facebook. They are in California. He asked them if he looks like his dad. “My sister said, ‘Yes with a whole bunch of those . . .” 

I said, “Exclamation points?” 

“You know, those lines with a dot at the bottom.”

I asked him where his dad is. (I was aware that the dad I know isn’t his biological dad, but I had never asked.)  

“In the pen,” he said.

“What did he do?”

“It was rape. He raped a woman.”

“Wow,” I answered, “That’s awful.”

“Yeah, he was on dope.” 

He went on to tell me that his dad left the family when he was young: “Went and knocked up some other woman. Got hisself some other kids. But we was his first childs. He just left. How do you do that?!” 

He spent the next ten minutes unloading a life of bitterness toward a dad who beat his mom, abandoned his kids and never once kept a promise. He has written it all in a letter that he is considering sending to his dad. “He owes me answers to my questions, and if he was standing here in front of me, I’d punch him in the face. I know he can take a punch, ‘cause he’s like me, but I just wanna give him what he deserves.”

A year ago, I was worried for Michael. He was skinny. His cheeks sunk in, eye sockets too big for his eyes. It’s a familiar look in our community. One day, I mentioned his recent weight loss. I wanted him to know I saw him. He smiled and said, “I been workin’ out a lot lately.” I smiled right back and said, “I’m not stupid. I know there’s nothing I can do, but you know I love you, man. If you ever decide you want to quit, let me know. I’ll help however I can. He held his wide grin tight and didn’t even avoid eye contact. He said, “I know.”

Today, Michael is clean. His cheeks are round; his eyes are clear. One morning last week, when I walked in the shop and greeted the ones sitting around the room, I said to Michael, “You’re looking good, man.” He grinned and said, “I know.” 

It’s been a tough road. Addiction is a warden that simply does not release its captives. My role as a friend and pastor to Michael has been that of cheerleader. Celebrating good decisions, rejoicing at achievements.

Today, Michael said, “When I was young, I said I would never do the things my dad did, but I did ever single one of them. Ever single one. God, I was stupid.” He lowered his eyes and shook his head. Shame is another warden that attempts to enforce a life sentence.

“But look at you now, Michael! You got off that path. You are doing so well. You have a whole life ahead of you—a beautiful life. And the Good News is that you are forgiven. Forgiven for all of it, man. You got to start over.” 

Slowly he lifted his head and that grin began to spread. “I am doin’ good, ain’t I?” 

“Yep. You are. You’re lookin’ good, too,” I smiled. 

“I know,” he grinned. Then he sauntered off, arms and chains swingin’.

(Michael gave permission for me to tell his story and even wanted me to use his real name. He's pretty proud of himself, and so are we!)