St. Stephen’s is the only church and church family that I have ever known. It was my father’s family church and the only church that he would attend. My mother (insisting that we attend church) called his bluff, and we drove from the Red Lion/Bear area every week for Sunday School and services. Back in the late 1950s, that was a trek. For the better part of a century, nearly all of the Gooden family baptisms, confirmations, weddings & funerals have been conducted at St Stephen's.
Even so, I have always had difficulty accepting the mystery and spirituality of our faith. I absolutely believe that if we follow the tenets set forth by Jesus, the world becomes a better place. (Love Thy neighbor..., Do Unto Others...) It’s the mystery and myth that I struggle with. Having said this, I would like to share the one time in my life when I first hand experienced God’s healing power and Grace. Some of you have heard the story before and know how difficult it is for me to share this, but I have been meaning to put it on paper for years before time takes it from me. Please believe me when I say that this is exactly as I remember.
My son Forrest died on June 8, 1995, in a tragic accident while crossing the Rocky Mountains. When they recovered his body, they also managed to recover some of his belongings. One of the items returned to us was the small metal cross that he always carried in his left pocket. It often came out when he reached for change. He said that it not only gave him a reminder of his faith but a chance to witness to others if they should comment. I kept that cross on my dresser at night. Every morning it would go into my pocket with a thought and often a tear for my son. My expectation was that I would have that cross in my pocket on my last day and even after.
My daughter Heather went to the College of Charleston in the fall of 1996. After a few weeks, the college was evacuated as Hurricane Fran was fast approaching the Carolina coast. We managed to get Heather a flight home, but the closest airport was Newark, NJ. As we waited in the crowded, hectic, terminal for her arrival, the flight was repeatedly delayed. I left Sue reading her book and went into the terminal bar for a beer. The bar was jammed with uniformed Marines toasting one another, our country, and the success of their mission. It was raucous and very loud. Even though the bar was over-crowded, there was one open seat, the second to the last seat against the wall. As I sat down, I realized why this seat had been open. The last seat was occupied by the strangest looking man I have ever seen. He was small, Asian features, a hunched back, scarred face, and wearing a hooded black monk’s robe. He sat on the high stool, bent over and staring down at the bar. As I settled in and ordered my beer, I was keenly aware of his presence. He was mumbling, and as I glanced in his direction, I noticed that he was crying. After a few uncomfortable moments, I turned to him and asked if he needed any assistance or if he wanted to talk.
He raised his head, looked at me, and proceeded to tell me this story. His westernized name was Steve. He had been born in Viet Nam and lived with his family in a farming village. The village was attacked and his family, along with most of the villagers were killed. He was rescued and placed in one of the many Catholic orphanages. The orphanage was evacuated in advance of the end of the war and the impending North Vietnamese onslaught. The staff and children were loaded on a boat. Before the boat could exit the dangerous waters, it was sunk. Most of the children and the nuns drowned. Steve and a few others were rescued by a French ship. He was taken to France and placed in another Catholic orphanage school run by a Monastic order. Here he remained for several years. He eventually took the vows of the order and became a Monk. He was sent to Montreal, the North American center of his order. He was then sent to Oakland, CA, to work with gang members. Apparently, there is a large Vietnamese street gang presence in Oakland. His life experience and his ability to speak multiple languages enabled him to establish relationships with the gangs.
As he was counseling one of the gang members, he made the acquaintance of a Vietnamese woman, the older sister of the gang member. As time passed, they fell in love, and he felt joy and hope, two things absent from most of his previous life. His monastic order did not approve of or allow marriage. His vow included celibacy. He was instructed that he would have to renounce his vow and face the “spiritual penalty” or end his relationship and return to Montreal for “counseling” and reassignment. He chose the latter, leaving his love and his work in Oakland. Steve was on his way to Montreal, feeling as if his life was over. After all that he had been thru, he could not understand why God had punished him yet again. He truly did not want to live anymore. His despair was the most complete I have ever witnessed.
What happened next is a mystery. Without forethought, I reached in my pocket and pulled out Forrest’s cross. I shared with Steve the story of my son’s wonderful life and tragic death. I don’t know how to describe it other than “I was being told to give Steve that cross.” I didn’t want to do it, but I had to. Pressing the cross into his hand was the most emotional and spiritual release imaginable. It was as if God entered Steve and released him from his pain. He broke into a huge smile, he straightened up, he threw his arms around me, and he cried with joy. So did I.
I should also mention that while this was transpiring I became aware that the entire bar was silent and still. The marines and other customers were quietly sitting - not staring at us, not embarrassedly looking away - just sitting quietly. Steve and I talked for a few minutes more, and I returned to the gate feeling that I had experienced God’s love and maybe even a miracle.
- Gary Gooden