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The story of my conversion

Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places

 Looking for Love  in All the Wrong Places  ING-021
26 May 2023

In the spring of 1986, my wife, Susan, and I hand the builder a $50,000 check to break ground on our new dream home in Tallahassee’s then poshest neighborhood, Highgrove. It is a natural next step in our life of upwardly mobile progress in the American dream.

Afterwards we attend the Saturday evening vigil Mass where we hear the Gospel reading of the rich, young man (Mk 10:17-25). Although the story has been read at Mass many times before, we hear it that night for the very first time.

At a restaurant dinner after Mass (the dinner which is to celebrate our new house) we discuss a new question: Did Jesus mean what He said?

The issue is so important to us and so challenging that we decide not to discuss the question for six months. Instead, we agree to each pray and study Scripture separately, searching for an answer.

At the end of six months, we have independently arrived at our answer: Yes, Jesus meant what He said. Thus begins a new journey that takes us down the ladder of possessions and social status, and into the mystery of His Kingdom.

In May of 1987, we and our children start helping at an inner-city soup kitchen, and in September we abandon our dream house and make that first step downward on the socio-economic ladder.

In the spring of 1988, Susan and I receive the release of the Holy Spirit. For me it is a megaton explosion of repentance, healing, and tears. Susan, who stems from an Irish/German/English heritage, experiences a much quieter but equally profound pouring down of the Holy Spirit. The very ground under our feet is moving. The Kingdom of God is breaking in.

In February of 1988 I attend a Christ Renews His Parish weekend at Good Shepherd Catholic Church of Tallahassee. My reasons seem obvious: as career has waned in importance, so have business-based acquaintances. This leaves a void that is craving fellowship. I attend the weekend retreat simply to meet men from my church. But God has more in mind.

The emphasis of the weekend retreat is Holy Scripture. One passage in particular snares my attention.

So do not worry, saying ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ for the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well (Mt 6:31-33).

At that time, my legal career requires me to draft or review financial guaranties and warranties all the time. Some are for a half billion dollars or more. I know where to look for loopholes.

The guaranty of Jesus in Mt 6 of the Gospel is iron clad. No loopholes. All that is necessary to seal the deal is for us to accept it. All that is necessary to accept it is to seek the Kingdom — not just any kingdom, His Kingdom.

I want to pick up that deal! So, I begin asking, “How do I seek the Kingdom?”

Our pastor, Father Michael Foley, has an answer for me: pray to see the world as God sees it and to see yourself as God sees you. I pray for that and ask others to pray for that for me.

The second week of May 1988 finds me in Baltimore speaking at a national conference of investment bankers — the bankers of Wall Street.

As Thursday evening approaches, I have a full schedule: 5:30pm meet potential clients at the lounge of the Harbor Court to discuss a project financing at Kennedy Space Center; 6:30pm cocktail party; 7:30pm dinner party.

I am walking the two blocks from my room at the Hyatt to the conference at the Harbor Court when a derelict approaches the man in front of me and asks him for a dollar. His tack in my direction tips me off. That derelict will hit me up next.

While reaching into my coat pocket for my billfold, I realize that two investment bankers from the conference are walking behind me. Shame and embarrassment strike me like a punch. They will see me giving money to this filthy beggar. What will they think of me? What will they say to other bankers about me?

I stuff the billfold back into its sheath and slide by the stinking bum without a word, looking the other way as though he is not even there. Later, while my 5:30pm business appointment drones on over drinks at the lounge in the Harbor Court, I find myself thinking about that derelict. I know what Jesus told us to do! I read the Scriptures on the weekend retreat at my parish.

Give to everyone who asks you (Luke 6:30).

I know God’s instructions, yet I deliberately disobeyed. Now, I cannot get any peace.

The potential clients and I wrap up late and head for the cocktail hour. But I slip away in the crowd and exit the Harbor Court through a back door. Everyone that I know in Baltimore is going to be attending that cocktail party. It should be safe now to look for that street bum. No one will see me.

After searching the Inner Harbor area, I find him lying face down behind some bushes. When I turn him by his shoulder, my eyes meet open sores on his face, neck, and lips. I shove two singles in his hand and turn to leave, but he doubles over in pain. I stay.

His name is Dennis.

No, he has nowhere to stay.

Yes, he is very sick.

I dare not take him into the Hyatt where I am staying, so, I maneuver him to a park bench near the harbor and tell him to wait until I return for him. He promises to wait.

I dash to the Hyatt and into my room, simultaneously hunting for the phone book and shooting off a quick prayer for God’s help.

My first few phone calls go unheeded. Someone finally answers the phone at the rectory of the downtown church of St. Vincent de Paul. They direct me to Christopher House, a rescue mission of some sort. Christopher House is full, but they direct me to the Baltimore Mission.

The day I arrived in Baltimore, I asked the hotel concierge for a map of the downtown area. He handed me a walking guide and circled in red the areas that I should avoid.

As I trace the directions to the Baltimore Mission on my little hotel map, I realize that the mission is located about six blocks into the forbidden red circle. Well, it is not dark yet and we will not be walking.

I retrieve my rental car from the valet park and go to pick up Dennis from where I left him. He is gone.

After almost twenty minutes of cruising back streets and alleys in my rental car, I find him. He is quite busy at that moment — busy getting rolled by two very large teenagers in an obscure alley.

While laying on the horn, I screech the car to within two feet of the underage linebackers. I jump out quickly, pulling my billfold from my suit pocket and flashing it like a badge while yelling some gibberish authoritatively. For all I know, I may have been speaking in tongues.

The assailants throw Dennis against the back wall of a garage and, holding their hands in the air, yell, “It’s cool man. Hey, it’s cool.”

They disappear.

I run around to the other side of the car and partially lift, shove, and pour Dennis into the passenger seat. He is a mess.

When we arrive at the Baltimore Mission, a staff member escorts Dennis inside for an intake interview. And then Dennis stumbles abruptly back out the front door of the Mission. Dennis had left the detox at the mission just three weeks ago and the minimum return time is 30 days. He is not allowed to stay.

What am I supposed to do with him?

The staff direct me to a public hospital. As I trace their directions on my little hotel map, I realize we will be going many blocks further into the forbidden area that I have been warned about. I begin to feel deeply afraid.

As soon as I can see the parking lot at Church Hospital from the street, I know it is too far from the hospital entrance. I pull up behind an ambulance at the entrance, use a fireman’s carry-type maneuver to pry Dennis out of the car and steer his dogleg limp into the emergency room.

The city policeman at the entrance watches us with amusement: the overweight, prosperous attorney decked out for cocktails and the filthy, longhaired derelict in tatters.

The receptionist is not at all amused. She is all delivery.

With her nose tilted back just enough, she assesses Dennis and me with a curt glare and a cursory sniff. “I need his insurance card.”

She is not the only one with airs. My juices are starting to flow, too.

“Dennis, do you have insurance?” My voice betrays more than a tinge of sarcasm as I resort to passive-aggressive assertiveness. He has none of course.

I tell the receptionist and anyone else present that I will pay for his bill, whatever it is. I present three American Express Gold Cards and two VISA Cards and a signed blank check. This is not charity. I am in a bind and willing to buy my way out.

“I am sorry,” she smirks, “We cannot take private pay. We can only accept patients with insurance.”

I know the logic without asking. Once the hospital takes Dennis as a patient, it will be responsible to fix whatever is broken — whether my money covers it or not. So, the high-priced hospital lawyers have told the staff not to accept any patients unless they have insurance. That way the hospital will be paid for whatever unforeseen medical care is required.

With tail between my legs, I gather up my $150,000 in plastic available credit and throw myself on the mercy of the cop.

“What am I supposed to do with him?”

He has no idea. He calls dispatch and they give me directions to North Gay Street, to an indigent detox facility.

I half-lead, half-drag Dennis back to the car.

In all my worldly wanderings I never contemplated what kind of neighborhood an indigent detox facility would be in.

After Dennis is strapped into the car with his head leaning against the side window, I pull out my little hotel map and trace the new directions. The map is blank for the area we are headed into. We are going way past the forbidden zone. We are bound for the do not even think about it zone.

As we work our way up Broadway, it feels like all the people standing on the curbs and sitting on their porches are staring at us. When I make the turn at North Gay Street, with many blocks still to go, I know I have never been in a neighborhood like this before in my life. My teeth are banging together. This is a new depth of fear.

Dennis, even in his stupor, is aware enough to be scared. He keeps asking for assurances that I will not leave him here on the street. I assure him that he has nothing to worry about. Surely, the indigent detox facility will accept him. They do not.

I stand at the door turning fifteen shades of red and purple as a lowly bureaucrat explains that they do not accept people who just show up at the door. They cannot even tell us if they have a bed available for him. Their rules require an advance phone call from the prospective patient.

Dennis will have to go to a phone, call and request a bed. Then they will tell us if a bed is available.

“What am I supposed to do with him?”

“That is your problem, buddy” is the answer as the door slams shut.

We climb back into the car and pick our way back down North Gay Street. Dennis begins to cry about his life and about what will become of him; about how he has sunk so low that no one will take him.

I promise Dennis I will not leave him until we find a place for him to spend the night. That is when I remember the church of Saint Vincent de Paul. They must have a phone.

While balancing Dennis on the edge of the broken concrete step with one arm, I lean on the rectory buzzer with the other. Father is not there but the fellow that answers the door takes us to the phone.

I dial the detox facility and hand the phone to Dennis. His request is barely intelligible, so when he looks up and mutters, “They said yeah,” I grab the phone and ask the lady to confirm it to me.

It is true. They can take him, but not until 10:00p.m. It is only 9:00p.m. I hang up the phone wondering how to spend an hour.

Dennis answers my unspoken question. He starts heaving.

We steer him into the bathroom and then the fellow from the parish excuses himself. As I am holding Dennis upright over the toilet by the back belt loop of his pants, I realize how dirty and sickly he is. My mind floods with thoughts of aids or typhus or hepatitis or other diseases. My stomach tightens with revulsion.

During the brief interludes between business over the bowl, Dennis talks about God abandoning him. I ask if he wants to pray. He nods. I help wash his face and we pass through the rectory entrance into the 150-year-old church of St. Vincent de Paul. It is pitch-dark except for the candles in the sanctuary. We are alone.

I steer Dennis to the front row pews where we kneel together in the light of the blue votive candles. I stand next to him with my hand on his shoulder — mostly to ensure a safe distance between us.

I start to lead him through the words of the Our Father but it feels empty, flat, meaningless.

In my head I think, “Lord, where are you? This is not working.”

In the next moment Dennis breaks into hysterical tears, sobbing uncontrollably and crying loudly over and over again, “God, don’t let me die like this! Please, God, don’t let me die like this!”

In the midst of his sobbing, he wraps his arms around me and buries his face against my shoulder and my neck. I freeze in horror, filled with panic.

He is filthy and diseased.

He reeks and is drooling all over me.

His tears and saliva are running down my neck.

As I am about to pull his arms from around me and shove him away, in the back of my mind I hear myself whisper, “Jesus, help me.”

It all vanishes: The fear. The panic. The terror. It all disappears.

Without my thinking it, my arms are holding Dennis, and my hand is on his head. I pray out loud for him and for his healing, and I cry with him.

I am too broken, too full of fear, too worried about my survival, to hug Dennis. But Jesus can hug Dennis with my arms if I allow it.

We stay together in the church for the rest of our time.

I drive Dennis back to the indigent detox facility at 10:00pm. As the big guy is walking him down the hall, Dennis stops, turns, and comes back to me.

“Thanks for caring about me,” he hugs me one last time.

At 10:25pm I am back in the Harbor Court Hotel. The professional entertainment, a Ronald Reagan impersonator, is just finishing and the crowd is gravitating into the ballroom for cocktails.

Everyone is decked out nicely and the conversation is familiar: vacations to New Zealand and Europe. Best places to shop. Big deals and big profits. It is all very familiar to me, but I feel like a stranger in a strange land.

This is the world that I have treated as reality for years. But only 15 minutes away is Dennis. I realize that this is the world as God sees it.

All this hoopla that I have treated as reality is only an illusion. All my material trappings are invisible. God sees my spirit — a troubled, broken spirit that is just as sick to God’s eyes as Dennis’ body is to mine.

As I look around at the gowns, jewelry, and champagne, I hear my own voice in the back of my thoughts screaming out, “God, don’t let me die like this! Please, God, don’t let me die like this!”

All those prayers have been answered.

Like a thief in the night, the Kingdom of God has broken in.

Dale S. Recinella