I was brought up in an Italian Catholic home. I don’t recall going to church with my family as a child, but my grandmother was always praying and taught me to pray. Beyond that, we never really practiced our faith as a family.
I was enrolled in a parochial school in 1969. This was shortly after Vatican II and things were confusing in those days. In grammar school, we had mostly “old school” Dominican nuns and were fed a steady diet of fire and brimstone. I remember feeling that God was waiting for me to slip up so He could send me to hell. If I was lucky, I could look forward to a few centuries of purgatory for swearing during recess. In junior high, things were different. Matters of faith were reduced to singing “Kumbaya” around the campfire and striving toward a “warm fuzzy” feeling about God.
By the time I was confirmed, I knew enough externals to follow along with the crowd and fake it. The fact is, unfortunately, I was never properly evangelized. Yes, I was told, “Jesus loves you,” but no one introduced me to Jesus. Further, His love was presented as being conditional on my behavior. At age thirteen, I suffered the loss of my father. As a result, I developed a rebellious streak. I was not truly open to what little evangelization I was receiving. It was not long before I fell away completely from the Church.
At age twenty, I was using drugs. I discovered cocaine, and it became my drug of choice. I was addicted. A year later, I nearly died of an overdose. (I had snorted roughly a half-ounce in 24 hours.) As a result — out of fear of death — I stopped using for short periods of time. During those “dry” periods, I would seek out different kinds of highs by starting new jobs or even businesses. After the ventures would become successful, I would find the success as empty as the high the drugs gave. So, over and over again, I’d return to my drug of choice, cocaine.
In 1988, I started to do more and more of the drug and wound up in debt by the end of the year. I had finally hit rock bottom. I knew I needed to change and that I was powerless to do so on my own. As I look back at this period of my life I can see the hand of God allowing this for my own good. Through this experience I was confronted firsthand with what my addiction was doing to me and to other people.
One of my friends had recently overcome his addictions. He had become a “born again” Christian and left the Catholic Church. One evening he shared the gospel, as he understood it, with me. He told me that Jesus loved me unconditionally, that I was in sin and needed to repent. I could not blame my addiction on anything else but the choices I had made. If I wanted to be free of this pain, I had to take responsibility for my sin and place my life in Jesus’ hands. He also made it very clear that he was, and would always remain my friend, whether or not I became “born again.” He assured me that, like Jesus, he loved me unconditionally. He left me with a Bible and that was the end of the conversation. I placed the Bible on the shelf and left it there for a couple of months.
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