The Incarnation of the Son of God is one of the greatest miracles in history; yet most of the world missed it. We read in John 1:10, “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.” The world missed it, of course, because Jesus arrived not in the birthing chamber of a royal palace, but in a dark, malodorous stable. He was welcomed not by royal servants, but by uneducated shepherds and his unwed earthly parents – under the cloak of scandal. As a toddler, He was a refugee. In his final years, He was homeless. It makes sense, then, that Christ continues to enter the world by way of people and places that so-called polite company either avoids or disregards. Here is a story that pulls the curtain back on this incarnational reality and reveals that Jesus is still Emmanuel, God With Us, in the dark and hidden places of the world. It’s a story about my good friend Marshall, who is one of my personal heroes. He has given me permission to tell his story here.
May 9, 2003
“You know what it is. Give it up.”
Eight seconds ago, he was just a guy Marshall was about to walk past. Now, he was the anxious junkie with dilated pupils pointing a revolver at his forehead – a gun so old that its nickel plating was chipping off and its bullets were covered in a layer of green corrosion. Marshall laughed and said, “I got nothing. Besides, you’d be better off trying to rob a stage coach than trying to rob me with that thing.” The man with the gun noticed Marshall’s bracelet and pulled it off his wrist.
Marshall continued, “You sure you want to do this? Don’t you know I know you from the neighborhood?” The gunman’s body stiffened. Marshall realized then that the guy was getting ready to shoot him, so he grabbed the gun and pushed the barrel down toward the ground. The man squeezed the trigger twice to no avail, but on the third attempt, it discharged a bullet into Marshall’s left thigh. Enraged, Marshall picked up his assailant and slammed him onto the ground, knocking him out.
Both men ended up receiving treatment for their respective injuries in neighboring rooms at the same emergency department. As Marshall waited for a doctor, police officers obtained his description of the encounter. Terrence Jones,* the man who shot him, was subsequently arrested and charged with aggravated assault.
After he made it home, Marshall’s fury began to subside. He was no stranger to the dehumanizing effects of addiction, or to the complex matrix of deprivation and trauma that so often predisposes people to it.
It Came Upon a Midnight Dreary
Two decades before his run-in with Terrence, when Marshall was 26 years old, he found himself identifying the body of his abusive, alcoholic mother after she jumped from the 17th floor of an apartment building. The night before, she had asked him to come see her, and he had chosen not to. For close to a decade afterwards, he anesthetized the emotional fallout of her suicide with a combination of alcohol, weed, and cocaine. In 1992, his substance abuse led to a bar brawl and an assault charge. Although he was granted first-offender probation, the incident ended his career and tipped the scales toward greater self-destruction. He ended up trying crack for the first time. That’s when addiction took over. For the next five years, his life was dedicated to earning money as a means of feeding his addiction to drugs and sex. He stopped reporting to his probation officer and went off the grid.
In 1997, he hit rock bottom. He had become homeless and had been sleeping either on the streets or in abandoned houses for over two weeks. His six-foot-three-inch frame had dwindled down to only 127 pounds. He had already approached 23 different churches in the English Avenue and West End neighborhoods of Atlanta for help, but none of them had programs available to assist him. He was starting to think about taking his own life.
One day, he happened to be walking by a building where a Noon Day meeting of Narcotics Anonymous had just concluded. Several addicts in recovery spotted and approached him. They told him that if he wanted to get clean, there was a woman named Carol Jean at the Central Presbyterian Church Outreach and Advocacy Center who could get him into rehab. He just had to get himself to the church first thing in the morning if he wanted to be seen.
With a fierce determination driven by desperation, he made the 3-mile walk from his neighborhood, “The Bluff” – infamous for being “Atlanta’s roughest ‘hood” – to the church’s location downtown. He was the first in line at 5 a.m. the next morning.
Carol Jean delivered and got him into an outpatient treatment program. She also secured a bed for him at a shelter. Unfortunately, when he arrived at the shelter, people were getting high there; so he returned to one of the abandoned houses, even though the floor was full of urine and feces and it happened to be next door to his dealer. In a strange twist, when he ran into his dealer and told him he was starting rehab, he took Marshall out to eat to celebrate the new chapter in his life. “I’m glad you gettin’ clean,” he said. “You helped me buy my new Cadillac.”
Marshall is celebrating 18 years of sobriety this year.
Return to Nazareth
After four years in recovery, Marshall turned himself in to the authorities he had been running from for almost a decade, to face the penalties for his parole violation from 1992. The judge was lenient and sentenced him to 6 months of confinement in the Fulton County Jail, of which he served 4-1/2 months before the remainder of his sentence was commuted. He was released on March 15, 2002.
His time in jail tested the limits of his endurance. “Being locked up can turn even decent men into animals,” he explains. “There’s nothing rehabilitative about it.” But he managed to stay on the path of recovery by not wavering in his commitment to bury his demons – one at a time. Not too long after he got out, he wrote a letter to his deceased mother in which he forgave her for all the ways she had wronged him and asked her to forgive him for not coming to her the night before she killed herself. A year later, he read the letter aloud at her gravesite. He made a promise to her that day that he would dedicate the rest of his life to helping others like them.
A week after the shooting, a couple of detectives paid Marshall a visit to have him complete the process of pressing charges against Terrence. Marshall told them he would not be pressing charges after all. Incredulous, they returned two more times over the following week, only to be frustrated by Marshall’s steadfast refusal to cooperate. They finally gave up.
Terrence remained in jail for 9 months after his arrest, unable to make bond, until his court date arrived in early 2004. Marshall appeared in court that day, but it was not to testify against him; it was to testify on his behalf. He begged the judge to have mercy on Terrence and to recognize his addiction as a medical problem, to send him to rehab instead of prison. He shared his own story with her and said, “Sending him to prison wouldn’t serve him at all. He’ll just be back out on the streets doing the same thing again when he gets out. He needs real help.” Moved by his testimony, the judge sentenced Terrence to five years of probation on the condition of his completing drug addiction treatment.
Relieved, Marshall helped Terrence get into one of the few residential treatment programs that accepted indigent patients. He visited Terrence a few times during his 14-month stay there and even ran into him at a few recovery meetings after that. The two of them became friends. Marshall found out that Terrence had essentially been raised on the streets, homeless for most of his life. He never finished high school, and he had been an addict for 3 decades. Through the work program at the treatment center, however, Terrence received skills training, found a stable job, and went on to become a functional and contributing member of the community. Now in his mid-60s, he’s been clean for 11 years.
Since 1999, Marshall has helped 864 people get off the streets. Motivated by his faith in Jesus Christ and a profound sense of gratefulness for his own deliverance, he finds joy and purpose in loving and serving people on the margins of society. During the day, he often travels to City Hall or the public defender’s office to advocate for vulnerable populations and individuals. At night, you’ll find him on the streets listening to their stories, connecting them to resources, offering HIV testing, and delivering blankets, clothing, and hygiene kits he has collected. With drug users, he utilizes the harm reduction approach, which recognizes that people in the midst of addiction may be unable or unwilling to stop using at a given time and offers non-coercive, supportive services to reduce their risk of contracting harmful diseases. He carries around emergency naloxone, an injectable drug used to treat heroin overdoses. I ask him if the people he helps ever express a desire to get clean on their own initiative. He chuckles, “Oh, they find me. They pound on my door at 4 a.m. and say, ‘I’m ready now!’ And when that happens, they’re ready.”
For Marshall, what he does is not a profession; it’s a way of life. He explains,
“To whom much is given, much is required. And I was given my life back. I’ve gotten to live two lives in one lifetime. How many people can say that? So it’s an honor and a privilege for me to help other people get their lives back.”
He speaks of having been given much, yet from a worldly standpoint, Marshall has very little. And his existence, like that of most of the working poor, is plagued by inconveniences, unexpected delays, and seemingly endless complications. Despite having a strong work ethic and an independent nature, his earthly circumstances carry a high degree of uncertainty. He’s often one paycheck or one event away from becoming hungry and homeless.** Yet somehow, fear is rarely a factor in how he chooses to live his life. It’s not that he doesn’t feel fear. He’s just not ruled by it. He is one of the few people I know who truly lives by faith – one day at a time.
Through Marshall, I’ve come to understand that there are different kinds of justice. Retributive justice focuses on punishing a single act, while restorative justice focuses on understanding, unraveling, and redeeming the many layers of injustice in a person’s life that led up to the act. It’s built on a foundation of faith, hope, love, forgiveness, and transformation. It’s so gospel. So Advent.
*Not his real name
** Marshall is currently going through a rough patch. He was hospitalized for meningitis October 30-November 2 and is still experiencing headaches, low-grade fever, nausea, fatigue, and ringing in his ears. In addition, he was diagnosed this week with a chronic illness that is complicating his recovery. Because he is temporarily unable to work, he needs financial support for rent, food, medications, and other basic necessities. He is currently applying for health insurance through the Affordable Care Act. If you would like to help, please donate at http://www.gofundme.com/marshallrancifer2.