Monday, December 7, 2009

My friend's legacy lives on.

At the request of one of my church members, I went to the hospital one Monday morning to visit a patient—a man I had never met. He was a gang member who had been shot in both feet in a failed assassination attempt. I was curious about his story but not completely shocked about his situation. I had often ministered to gang members. I accidently left the post-it note with his name and room number in my car so I approached the nurses’ station knowing that it was unlikely they had another patient who had been shot twice, “I’m Chad Mitchell. I’m looking for the guy that recently had his feet shot.”
Admittedly, I don’t exactly dress like your typical pastor—no shirt and tie for me! On that particular day, I wore baggy jeans, a black flat-billed baseball cap, and a black Adidas jacket so I probably looked more like another gang member than a pastor to those at the nurse’s station and my name didn’t mean a thing. The charge nurse abruptly answered, “We don’t have anyone in here with that description. You need to leave!”
I didn’t really think much about her reaction; I just went to my car and found my post-it note and went back into the hospital. Much to my surprise, Albert Cadena’s room was only a few feet from that very same nurses’ desk! Why did she tell me they didn’t have him on her floor? I saw the number on his door and walked into the patient’s room and introduced myself. Albert replied, “Yeah, Tony told me you were going to swing by.”
In a split second, several nurses rushed though the door and filled his hospital room. For the life of me I couldn’t understand what was happening as one of the nurses yelled over to Albert, “Are you okay?”
Albert grinned and replied, “Yeah, it’s cool! He’s a pastor!”
All the hospital staff breathed a sigh of relief, “We sure are glad; we were about to call security! We thought he was the suspect!”
After a few chuckles at my expense, the commotion died down as Albert’s protectors left the room and he began to share about what had happened to him and I became engrossed in his story of violence and grace…

One day, Albert walked into an unfamiliar house with some acquaintances. As he entered the home, a strange feeling overwhelmed him. He glanced at the floor and it was completely bare. For some reason, the carpet had been ripped out. He looked on the left side of the room and noticed that all the furniture had been shoved into a corner. And even more confusing to Albert, all the belongings had been covered in plastic. A guy swaggered over to him and said, “Albert, I think you need to leave now.”
Even more confused, Albert went to the front door to leave but it had been nailed shut. He turned to go out the back door, and a man carrying a 12-gauge shotgun stood in the doorway. That guy ran up to Albert and shoved the shotgun against his stomach. Reacting solely by instinct, Albert grabbed the end of the barrel and pushed it toward the floor and instantaneously, Albert’s life changed forevermore. The assassin pulled the trigger and shot him in the left foot. Immediately, the gun fired again and the bullet struck Albert’s right foot. Falling to the barren floor, Albert began to fight for his life in a pool of his own blood. All his acquaintances and the shooter fled from the scene. Albert never knew for certain who dialed 911 but in a matter of minutes which seemed like hours in his agony, policemen burst through the door. EMT’s rushed him to the nearest local hospital.
In the emergency room, Albert was quickly examined by two doctors, blood was drawn and tests were performed as the physicians sought the best solution to save him. Without hesitation, one doctor hastily assessed his injuries after hearing what had happened and seeing the blood tests. He was callous and cold to the consequences of violence because he saw a gang member high on cocaine—a waste of time and energy. He told his colleague, “We have to remove his feet.”
The other surgeon, after examining Albert’s injuries and the test results, saw not just another addicted gang member but a husband and a father. That doctor saw a man whose life could be changed by grace and he offered hope, “I think I can save his feet.”
Given only seconds to choose, Albert was forced to make a fateful decision that would change the course of his life either way. One doctor held no hope that he would even survive unless his feet were amputated and the other offered only the slightest hope that Albert could survive with both feet intact and months of painful recovery ahead, but it was hope nonetheless. That doctor walked up to Albert’s bedside and asked a question that would forever impact Albert and those who hear his story, “Albert, your blood has a high level of cocaine in it. I am about to ask you a question. I want you to be totally honest with me. Are you going to change your life?”
Stunned by the question, Albert asked him, “What do you mean?”
The surgeon continued, “Well, the other doctor just wants to cut off your feet and be done with this situation, but I am willing to try to save your feet if you are willing to change your life. So let me know if you are willing to change your life or not because if you don’t want to change, I’m just going to let the other doctor cut off your feet.”
Albert knew there was only one answer and he made a promise that he meant with all his heart, “Doc, I will change my life.”
As soon as the words were out of Albert’s mouth, the surgeon set all the cogs in motion in an all-out effort to save the life and the feet of a drugged up gang member who may or may not live up to his promise. Grace suddenly interrupted Albert’s life. Do you get that that? Grace interrupted—butted right in to all of Albert’s plans and expectations, even more importantly right in the middle of satan’s plans to destroy Albert’s life. Albert wasn’t looking for Grace, didn’t expect it, didn’t ask for it and certainly didn’t earn it; yet Grace—that is, Jesus Christ—interrupted. He intervened and presented Albert with an offer he couldn’t refuse and he accepted it. That day, Albert chose hope and received grace. And the changing power of grace is why I showed up at the hospital that day to hear this story. God had orchestrated our meeting so that in the days ahead of us, He could use me to show Albert how grace could really change his life forever and to walk with him through some of those changes. We became fast friends and brothers that very day.

A month later, Albert was dismissed as a patient from the hospital with orders to continue rigid and painful outpatient rehabilitation treatment for months afterward. The very next Sunday after he left the hospital, Albert entered through our church doors to attend a men’s recovery class and our Sunday worship. He still had his feet although he couldn’t quite comprehend God’s full measure of grace. But he was willing and determined to change his life nonetheless. Just two Sundays later after my sermon, Albert met me at the altar and surrendered his life to the Lord. His life-changing journey began. That very day, grace won. Christ took the violence that satan had intended to destroy Albert’s life to save it… for eternity. He picked up all that Albert left behind at the cross and used it to bring him grace, salvation, and restoration. And He put it all into action immediately!
A week later, evidence of real change in Albert became concrete when I answered my phone and heard his voice on the other end, “Chad, I gotta tell you what just happened! Remember, I told you that the police still haven’t caught the guy?”
The man who had attempted to kill Albert had never been arrested. Hopeful, I answered, “Of course I remember…Did they finally catch him?”
Even as a pastor, I wasn’t really expecting Albert’s next words, “No, they haven’t but I just saw him! My family and I were eating at Mr. Gatti’s when all of a sudden, I look to my right and there he is! There the guy that shot me sat eating pizza!”
Thoughts raced through my mind. Since the moment Albert had contact with the police about the shooting, they had cautioned him and asked him time and time again not to retaliate. In the weeks since I had met him, I came to discover that his criminal history file was inches thick due to his involvement in gangs, drugs, and violence. Albert had been ingrained with the vengeful ethics of “blood for blood” to maintain his honor within the gangs. Ever since the shooting, the police had continually requested that he do something that went against his hardcore code of vengeance. They were calling him to tread unfamiliar territory and do the exact opposite of what he had become his nature and reputation in the gangs and the streets of Abilene. As all this cycled through my thoughts, I couldn’t wait any longer for the answer to my burning question. I interrupted him, “Albert, what did you do?”
No doubt, the very same thoughts replayed in his mind in the seconds that followed. I had to ask him again, “Albert! What did you do when you saw him?”
In a shaken and quiet voice, he simply answered, “I did nothing.” Even I, a pastor who believes in the power of grace, was stunned. Just a few short weeks before, Albert would have taken the life of the assassin who had attempted to take his without a second thought. But in the midst of his own helpless suffering, Albert Cadena had been forced to make a vow to live differently. In just over a month, this violent gang member’s heart really had changed. He took the grace he had received that day in the emergency room and showed mercy to his own attempted murderer right there in the Mr. Gatti’s Restaurant.

Albert ripped off the ribbon and wrapping of Grace like a kid at Christmas. In the weeks that followed his salvation, the people that loved Albert saw more and more changes in his behavior and in his attitudes as he put Grace to work in his life. He vowed to become a better husband, a better father, and a better man. He shared his story of grace and salvation with everyone he knew and even strangers he had just met. He was faithful in Sunday worship, our men’s recovery class, and our midweek men’s Bible study called Iron. He was brand new to the Gospel but He shared it more than many of us who have been raised on it. Albert’s purpose and passion was to be a testimony to Grace as, together with me and other men in his recovery group, we launched a new ministry team—B.A.D. (Born Again Disciples)—whose mission was to reach out to the gangs and the violent streets and neighborhoods of Abilene where Albert had lived his own past. We desired to share Christ’s message of love and grace so that those men could also be changed by Grace. Through Grace, Albert became like Paul and could just as easily have voiced Paul’s own words, “For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle…But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace to me was not without effect.”2
Do you see it? Throughout Albert’s story and every story woven with Grace, we see evidence that what satan intended to destroy, God used for good—to build up and to save.
My friend Albert had the desire to live the perfect Christian life but his old life didn’t suddenly just disappear. He started out great but as the “new” wore off, his past began to play tug-o-war with him. Turning his back on his old friends and life in the gang was an extreme challenge just as it is for any reforming gang member. And he was still healing from his gunshot wounds, suffering a lot of pain. His old friends and even enemies who resented or didn’t understand his new faith and his vow to change his life kept calling him back to his old ways and habits. We walked together side by side through much of his new journey—him and his family. Albert often gained ground inch by inch and sometimes he made great strides. And sometimes, the conflict with the old life and the new and especially with his old friends’ refusal to let him go would draw him back to his old life. But no matter where he stood in the moment, his salvation was very real and the desire of his heart was to be all that God wanted him to become. His struggle was also very real. Even so, Grace was doing its work, slowly changing Albert’s heart and his old way of thinking from the inside out although sin was working overtime, fast and furiously, to make sure evil didn’t lose. Out of his passion for the BAD Ministry, Albert continuously reached out to his old friends and acquaintances. Sometimes he was trying to help them up and other times they were determined to pull him down. Albert was a work in progress and his new life was not perfect.
No matter how long we’ve been Christian, we all fight this battle because of our sinful human nature. We have to hang on to hope with patience, determination, and perseverance. We can focus on our failures and mistakes and be overwhelmed. In doing so, we will surely fall. Or we can focus on Him and consciously listen for His voice at every turn and temptation.

On Memorial Day, I received a phone call. Albert’s body had been found in an alley. He had been shot in the face and the side. Suddenly, without warning, my friend and beloved brother in Christ was taken from us by horrific injustice. My life and the lives of so many of his family members and friends were devastated by his loss and we are forever changed by this one single act of violence. In the days that followed, we learned that Albert had gone to these murderous men in defense of another friend. The details and the whole truth of Albert’s death are still unfolding to this very day. It became very clear to all of us as we have faced our grief and pain that God saved Albert’s life six months before his death in order to offer him grace and redemption. Albert accepted and received grace and dedicated the rest of his life to save the lives of others. Through the willful and malicious intent of men’s vengeful choices, violence finally snatched Albert from this life. A wife is left without a husband, children are left without a father, a mother is left without a son, and I am left without a dear and cherished friend but Albert’s story and his dream still continues. By sharing his own testimony, Albert’s dream was to rid his neighborhood and the streets of Abilene of violence and crime as he shared the love of Christ and the mercy he had so graciously been given. Now each of us that knew and loved him—his family and friends, his Christian brothers, Mission Abilene and the B.A.D. Ministry are still determined to share his story and fulfill his purpose and the desire of his heart.
Evil thought he had gained victory the day Albert’s body lay in the alley but months beforehand, Albert’s fate in eternity had been sealed. “Will you change your life?” On the day Albert was asked that fateful question in the emergency room, he met Death and Grace face to face. He became the rope in their game of tug-of-war. But Grace wasn’t finished. It hadn’t completed its work. And in spite of Albert’s struggle with his old life and even his ultimate earthly demise, Grace still won. God saw his circumstances but He knew Albert’s heart. I think if Albert could have shared a last word with me, he might have quoted Paul, “However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the gospel of God's grace.”12
Our hearts break and our minds struggle to comprehend why violence abounds and lives are so unjustly destroyed or taken from us. It’s easy to give up hope in tragic circumstances but grace isn’t done yet! The restoration of grace doesn’t end on earth. Its completion comes with eternity.
At this very moment, Albert Cadena has entered into the presence of Jesus Christ. He is perfectly restored and renewed in eternity. I can only believe that he is also realizing even at this very moment that the last few months of struggle and change have led him to this very moment of rejoicing. Albert’s story still isn’t finished. His legacy continues in the many lives that have been changed and are continuing to change because of his testimony. Even today, his life story continues to touch lives and change hearts. Albert’s life may no longer be of earth but his story lives on through the lives of others. The same grace that interrupted Albert’s life has touched not just one, not just a dozen, but hundreds through our campaign to stop violence and injustice in our city. Grace restores not one life but many.

Live to Love.

1 comment:

  1. I thank God for Albert's life. Although I didn't get to know him, I know that his life is influencing not only the multitude affected by Stop the Violence, but mine as well. Thank you for your stand bro! Because of you and Albert, violence in Abilene and beyond has been dealt a huge blow. Well said bro!


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Live to Love.