Every Thursday my wife, Julie, and I would rush home from work, grab some lawn chairs, an ice chest full of water and sodas, and head for our meeting place in the city. For a couple of years, a group of us met in a rustic open air pavilion which had formally served as train stop. Our little Thursday night family consisted mostly of the homeless scattered around town as well as students from the local University. We quickly discovered how much compassion and love the students had for the poor, the broken, the hurting and those deemed unlovable. Armed with only an acoustic guitar and the dim light from a Coleman lantern, we sang songs together trying our best to express our love to God. We told stories from the Bible, we prayed, we listened, we loved. If I could best describe what we experienced, it was raw, it was real and it was totally awesome!
Willie and Dee were regulars among our group. Willie tended to hang back in the shadows and just listen. Dee -mostly fueled by alcohol- was loud and boisterous. The couple made their castle out of a tattered nylon tent, placed strategically amongst the trees and out of site.
Safety being their main concern, this culture is under constant threat from other street people as well as park police. Every night, brown bagged tall boys and a few tokes would gently tuck them in.
One particular night, and this is where the story gets a little fuzzy, Dee apparently woke during the night with a craving for Dr. Pepper. Willie, kind as he was, lovingly obliged Dee by getting up and traipsing toward the store. Whether he was in a sleeping stupor or perhaps just intoxicated, no one really knows. Willie wandered into the path of an oncoming train.
We got the call about 5:00 A.M. that something had happened and if we could please come immediately to the hospital. Upon arriving, we found a few of our rag tag family in the parking lot, weeping and screaming and completely overcome with grief. All that we knew to do was pray. So we did. We all joined hands in a huge circle in the middle of the parking lot and we cried and we prayed. We said, “Lord please don’t let death take Willie apart from knowing your Son.” I learned something that morning as I held hands and prayed with drug addicts, thieves, alcoholics, abusers and abused, hurting people of all kinds. I learned that love and compassion still lives among the broken.
Willie had no family, so Julie and I were called back to talk to the surgeon in charge. He was a mountain of a man, in his seventies, well educated and well seasoned. After twelve hours of surgery he seemed a little dazed as we probed him for information. All this man could manage to say, over and over again was,
“I do not know how this man is alive.”
A large portion of Willie’s skull cap was removed due to swelling. His collar bone was crushed. His shoulder was separated and his arm was shattered. His ribcage was completely separated from his body. His pelvic area was crushed and his hip was separated and completely crushed to pieces.
Even more, both of Willie’s legs were cut off by the train. Now my thoughts began to echo that of the surgeon, “How could Willie still be alive?” It was at that moment I remembered our rag tag, parking lot prayer meeting. God’s mercy surely endures forever!
We were told Willie’s recovery in the hospital alone would last one to two years if he even made it at all. So all we could do was trust in the Lord and take one day at a time. Many of the University students took up a banner for Willie, spending hours in the waiting room singing songs of praise and praying. Step by step we began to see God’s mighty hand of healing and grace at work. We would simply ask the nurses and doctors, “OK, what’s next?” We would pray and God would respond. Things like Willie had lost his swallow reflex and could only be fed through a tube. He could barely talk, only in a slight whisper but we knew he needed solid food to gain strength and besides, he was hungry. So we just asked God to restore his ability to swallow.
The next day, my phone rings, “Hey Jeff this is Willie. I just finished eating real food.” Mouth wide open, I murmured, “Praise God!” Somewhere in the midst of all this, Willie had an encounter with the Son of God. Many times we would quietly sneak into his room thinking he was asleep. Eyes closed, huge smile, Willie would be reciting over and over again, “I love you Jesus, I love you Jesus, I love you Jesus.”
Three months had passed when we got the news. “Willie is being discharged from the hospital and going home.” Willie and Dee moved into a small trailer, a little worn but it was home. I wish this was the part where I could say, “happily ever after,” but unfortunately a lifetime of woundedness, selfishness and addiction overtook the couple again. “Even when I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, You are with me.” Our lives with Willie and Dee seemed to move in different directions. Hope and trust told us they would be OK.
A few weeks ago, my wife ran into Willie and Dee at the grocery store. Hugs and tears and laughter all around, it was a glorious reunion! Julie said they both looked good and healthy and happy. There was something new and different about them. They were finally free. They said there was no more drinking or drugs in their life. In fact they were taking care of their grandchildren and even buying them a birthday cake decorated with a nativity scene. Dee’s soul was at peace and her heart was full of joy. Willie had new legs and a new life. So their story continues and what I have gained from all this is, life matters.
Their life matters and your life matters. A smile. A kind word. A simple prayer.
Please know…your life matters!