He’s standing at the corner of 50th and Main waiting for the Rodriguez brothers, tight friends from his hood. As he watches cars pass by he tugs at the cuffs of his black leather coat and smiles – definitely a better choice than the gold coat he usually wears. He swipes the tip of his black leather boots, admiring their shine. And his Sansabelt pants are pressed with creases so sharp they’d cut glass.
With a comb in one hand and a slick move from the other, he smooths back his thick black hair, accentuating a clean-shaven bronze face. He dons a blue Italian knit shirt opened to his chest. And the sweet smell of Aramis underscores it all. He knows, he’s looo-king goooood!
It’s 1974. This 25-year-old man will join his gang at the nightclub they frequent. They call themselves the Midnighters. Their name alone gives the impression that they’d mix in a West Side Story dance battle against the Jets. But with their record of violence, court appearances, and prison sentences, the Midnighters are anything but choreographed dancers. They are intimidating and loud Mexican-Americans from Kansas City’s west side. And the presence of the Midnighters at this nightclub, located in a predominantly white area of town, is alarming.
Though the night has yet to begin, this man knows how it could end: in a fight, arrested, or with a lady on his arm. Little does he know, tonight on his lone walk home he’ll notice an abandoned book on the ground. He will recover the book and read the cover as if he’d never read words before, “The Good. News. Bible.”
This man’s name is Manuel. And he is my father.
I’m talking to my dad at the dining room table of his one bedroom apartment. He’s drinking his usual ice tea in a green cup, wrapped in a paper towel to catch the condensation.
“I still have that Bible I found all those years ago. And I never replaced it. Why replace it when it reads the same now as it did then?” My dad laughs at his little joke. “No, but really, that was the beginning of my life with the Lord. It took me some time to catch on. The Lord isn’t always attractive next to hanging out on the corner with your buddies. But I read that Bible from cover to cover regardless. And you know what? It was interesting! I thought to myself, hey, these Bible people are like me, always making mistakes. It took me a little bit, but I’m glad I read the Bible because it got me thinking differently. Life is worth more with God in it. And you know, some of the guys I ran around with are still banging. In their 60’s! Back in my day there were OG’s who taught you how to live the life. We looked up to them, we wanted to be like them. Some of my old buddies are OG’s now. The others, if they’re still alive, look old! They lived hard lives and you can see it in their face. But, as for me, I tell you, when the Lord wants to come into your life he doesn’t want anything else but you, and he doesn’t let go.”
If God was Kool Aid, then my dad was drinking it in gallons. His conversion moved him from street to pew. And in the 1980’s he became deeply involved with his faith through eucharistic ministry, prayer groups, and the charismatic renewal of the Catholic Church in Kansas City.
Last week I was back in Kansas City. My dad and I were killing time before a movie. Knowing my dad likes to read the Bible, I pulled out my phone and read aloud the first scripture reading for the day. Instantly my dad said, “Okay, what is God saying to us?” And with that simple question I discovered how my dad prays. My dad – the epitome of machismo at 25, the guy who could get any woman he wanted, the guy who wasn’t afraid to punch his way out of anything. The guy who, for some unknown reason, picked up a Bible and changed his life. The guy now, at 68, who continues to mourn the loss of his beloved wife. Who took a plane for the first time last month to see his son graduate with a Master’s degree, who always wants to give me money, even when he doesn’t have it.
Though the expression of my dad’s faith has changed over the years, he remains faithful to his nightly prayers. He goes up to his room, rests himself on his bed, opens the very same Good News Bible he found all those years ago, and prays. And then he thanks God for the opportunity to sit with him. It’s a simple prayer, but it’s the prayer of my father.
The cover image, from Flickr user Ben Salter, can be found here. The embedded image is provided courtesy of Manuel Botello.