One Christmas Eve, I entered the Airport Chapel and caught a glimpse of what appeared to be a large man on the floor, balled up, face down in a fetal position. Occasionally, I observe people on the floor, someone praying or a homeless person trying to sleep. But something was peculiar about this body.
As I approached, I could see his massive biceps ripping out of his red, Affliction shirt. Every inch of the skin on his arm was part of a canvas of tattoos. Across the back of his neck scrolled a large, red tattoo with the word "BLOODS" inked into his skin.
I was frightened and cautious as I reached out my hand to touch the arch of his back. I felt his body convulsing as a result of his hard sobbing. The touch of my hand on his back set off an intense emotional eruption. He was crying so hard, I thought he might hurt himself. He was gasping for breath between the exhausting wrenches.
I waited several minutes to allow the bawling to subside. With my hand still on his back, I took a knee and leaned over to whisper into his ear, "I'm Chaplain Cook." Then, I paused and pondered what to say. "God loves you, and I love you," I continued. "You are obviously very upset and in a lot of pain. I care about you. How can I help?"
It took a few minutes for him to respond, but eventually he blubbered, "I have messed up so bad," followed by a few more sobs. He finally turned his head toward the wall and I could see his chiseled jaw and a high-and-tight crew cut. "I can't believe I have screwed up my life like this," he said.
After he calmed down a little, I prompted him to come into the office and tell me his story, which he seemed eager to do. He told me he was a decorated Marine and that he had fought in Kuwait, and the Iraqi war. He said he had been discharged with honors about six months earlier and decided to settle in Los Angeles. He said that he picked up the tattoos and his Blood brothers in LA. He told me that he was a cleaner, which meant he was sent out by the gang on dirty business.
He began to cry again. "I have done so many ... I can't ... the horrible things I have done," he said. "I can't believe I have hurt so many people. I have killed people. I am a trained killing machine."
Looking at his hulk-like physique I could visualize his ability to inflict harm. I hesitated probing into this area for fear of discovering some felony or homicide. It was not clear to me whether he was referring to his past combat days or his present gang warfare.
Then he told me the events that led up to him finding the Airport Chapel. He and a set of Bloods had been out on some job. When they returned to the crib, they were full of bravado.
He said, "I got cocky with the gang leader and he hit me with a bat. When I got up, I ... beat him almost to death. The guys didn't look to happy with me, so I left to get a drink. I got word at the bar that my leader put a hit out on me. I knew it was a death hit. So, I took what money I had and I bought a one-way ticket to Atlanta on the next flight out. I got to Atlanta at 11:50 p.m., last night and I have been in the chapel all night."
I asked him, "Do you believe in God? "
He said, "I used to believe. My mom and dad are Christians. We used to go to church all the time back in Annapolis, Md. I know they love me, but ..." He began to cry again, only this time it wasn't from guilt. His tears were love tears. He was remembering love.
He continued, "I love my dad, and when I joined the Marines, he was surprised. When I came home from Camp Lejeune, my dad was so proud of me. ... But I can't go back." he said.
I remembered my own return home from basic training. I can remember walking down the driveway toward my dad. I remembered how much I needed to feel his love and how much I wanted him to hug me and, yes, even kiss me. It is one of the most important events of my life, and I can say, "Thank God, my father didn't let me down." He hugged me and he kissed me and he told me how proud he was of me.
"Why can't you go back?" I asked him.
He stuttered, "When I got back home from Iraq, I had a fight with my dad. I did the same thing to my dad that I did to my gang leader."
The ex-marine blurted out: "Something happened to me in Iraq; I forgot who I am; I lost my way and I can't go home." He looked up at the ceiling, and said, "Jesus, can you help me?" He started to tear up again. He surprised me and leaned over on my shoulder and began to cry.
While he was crying on my shoulder, I whispered to him, "Why don't we pray to God and ask him to forgive us and help us find our way home?"
I prayed and he followed along in short repeats, "Father, forgive me, help me find my way home to you and to my family ..."
At this point, he took over and began to pray of his own volition. "... I am so sorry Jesus, save me, save me, save me."
He didn't say any more, but the quiet presence of the Holy Spirit filled the room. I could sense in my spirit that God was doing a miraculous work in this spirit. The young man began to utter soft praises to the Lord, "Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus ..."
Then he looked at me, full of a peace, and a joy that I recognized. And he hugged me. Ouch, did he hug me.
My spirit was also in a sacred celebration. He was home. After a few minutes of deep breaths, I asked him, "What is your name? He said ,Jones, Sgt. Brian Jones.
Then I asked him, "What are your mom's and dad's names? He told me their first names. I was already looking up the number on the internet.
He cautioned me,"I can't call them. I haven't spoken to them ..." I interrupted with the phone in my hand. "I will call them and I will be the mediator."
The phone was ringing and a woman's voice answered. I introduced myself, "This is Chaplain Chester Cook at the Atlanta Airport and I have been talking to Brian ..."
She interrupted, "Brian? Is Brian with you? Is Brian there?"
I tried to answer her, "Yes Bri..." She interrupted, "Please let me talk to him. Please?"
I held the phone out toward Brian and said, "I think it's your mom, she wants to talk to you."
I couldn't hear everything, but I could tell that mom was very happy to hear his voice. I saw Brian begin to weep as he talked. Then, I heard what sounded to be his father's voice. It was an emotional moment. I could hear Brian say, "I love you, too, dad, and I am sorry."
While they talked, I checked online airfares, fearing the worst. But to my surprise, there were several flights that afternoon and the fares were around a hundred dollars. I asked Brian if I could speak to his parents. I asked them if Brian could come home for Christmas. To which they both replied, "YES!! How wonderful."
I told them all he would be home by dinner time on Christmas Eve. And I booked the ticket.
Brian was home -- and going home for Christmas.
If you have any comments on this column, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.