Eleven o’clock on a Saturday, I found myself doubling back through the church parking lot in a frantic attempt to secure a spot for our big family van. Anticipating sparse attendance, I had left home with a bare minimum of time to spare, but from the looks of the overflowing lot my assumption had been wrong.
Conceding a legitimate space was no where to be found, I stopped the engine beside a landscaping bed and ushered my children out.
Seconds after we’d crossed the social hall, someone swung open the heavy church door allowing the music to escape.
Like a punch to the gut, the cantor’s familiar words reminded me of why I was here on this chilly February morning. “How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me,” she sang. Tears surfaced as I tried to absorb the reality of that line.
The Funeral of a Young Man
My children and I had traded our usual lazy Saturday morning routine on this wintery morning to pay our respects to the family of a young man who had died just the weekend before.
A casual acquaintance of my teens, I’d only known the boy from afar. However, his grandfather, whom he’d lived with for a time, was a staple figure in the parish community.
Adam was a notably handsome kid with an equally attractive demeanor, judging by the number of young people who’d come to honor his passing.
He seemed to me to be a quiet, easy-going teen with an air of seriousness. The last time I saw him, Adam sported a shaggy yet well-kept mane of blonde hair with features that betrayed his Russian birth.
The memorial collage portrayed him as a high school football player and recent graduate, as well as a son, friend, and big brother.
One of my oldest sons had taken a shine to him and hoped to get to know Adam better, but distance and schedules obstructed that intent. Seeing him in the midst of the teen chat circles, no one could have guessed his life would end so soon after.
Addiction Doesn’t Discriminate
I remember running into his grandfather one Thursday morning just after the weekday Mass. We were both sipping coffee when I learned that Adam struggled with addiction.
He had been sent away for treatment, but his grandfather seemed a bit reserved in his hope. Those primary years spent in a Russian orphanage had left deep scars which even the sincere love of his American family could never fully erase.
Not long into the funeral service the restless toddler on my hip caused me to retreat back into the empty social hall. Thankfully, the television which pipes in the Mass was turned on so I could continue to follow along while settling on a bench to nurse.
Sitting there with my now peaceful little one quietly satiating his hunger under my sling, I reflected on the Bible readings, gospel and homily.
A Stranger Appears
It was then, while I was deep in thought, that two men appeared across the expansive room.
The older, a white man in his later twenties, and his young companion, a tall black youth of about nineteen, kept in close step to one another. They stopped only briefly to watch the TV screen before heading toward the exit door beside me.
The older man passed quickly; however, my eyes met that of the younger man’s on his way by and we exchanged warm smiles.
Then, quite unexpectedly, he told his friend to ‘hold up’ while he began digging through the pockets of his hoodie.
He said,”I’ve gotta do a good deed for the day” as he stepped nearer to me.
Finally finding his sought-after treasure and reaching for my hand, he instructed, “You’ve gotta take good care of her for me.” With that he grasped my hand in his, placed the unseen item into it and kissed my hand as though I was someone worthy of some special honor.
I didn’t even have the chance to thank him or ask his name when he walked out of the door.
Green, Knotted Rosary
Turning my palm up, I found a green, knotted rosary (prayer string) coiled there. Now I own more than a few rosary bead strands, so I felt a twinge of guilt holding onto this stranger’s hand-tied, prayer beads.
Why had he chosen to give them to me, I wondered. What about an ordinary looking, middle-aged nursing mother made this beautiful, vibrant youth halt in his tracks to give me such a powerful and unmerited gift?
Recalling those words that met us on our way in that morning, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me, I couldn’t help but face my own wretchedness, my unworthiness, weighed against the sweetness of the stranger’s gesture; and in conjunction with the sacrifice which was about to take place inside the sanctuary doors.
Unloved or Unwanted
In his final days, Adam chose to live on the streets, though he was far from being unloved or unwanted.
He died out in the bitter cold just blocks away from the church in which he’d made so many friends. Had he come to the door, he would have undoubtedly been welcomed in like the prodigal son.
Unfortunately, while I don’t know Adam’s full story, I have watched the ravages of addiction enough to surmise that he may have judged himself as beyond all hope and charity, as a wretch unworthy of saving.
Using man’s scale, we too easily focus on the imbalances of life. We perceive our smallness, our brokenness, our sufferings, our sinfulness as beyond our capacity to endure or beyond Christ’s ability to forgive. However, faith has the power to shift that weigh, to transform our situation or our perspective on it.
I could have refused my hand to the unfamiliar boy and missed out on his gift; or I could have been influenced by my temporary guilt and returned the treasure, thereby, thwarting his good deed.
My willingness to trust and receive gave the stranger an opening.
Adam’s faith was still in its youth when God called him home, but I know that today he sees himself as God does and he is happy.
Fingering the rosary, I thought about how it would forever be tethered in my memory to Adam’s funeral and to that thoughtful stranger who entered my life for only a few minutes.
I reflected on how a connection, even though brief, leaves behind an imprint capable of altering our world. And I offered a prayer of thanksgiving for these two fleeting young men who allowed me to see the face of Christ.
May the souls of the faithful departed
through the mercy of God rest in eternal peace
This post was written in memory of
Adam Rinat Creep
June 24, 1995 – February 15, 2015