Growing up in the turbulent decades of the sixties and seventies (am I actually that old?), it was difficult if not damned near impossible to give a wide berth to drugs. Popular music and movies celebrated indulgence in weed, acid, heroin, barbiturates (uppers), amphetamines (downers), and later cocaine. Today, gateway drugs (yes, they still exist) are doctor prescribed pharmaceuticals, stolen or sold on the street, like OxyContin, and they are just as devastating to our country and community as the stuff I was exposed to when I was seventeen in what seems, and is, a lifetime ago.
But the gods of the cohort, yesterday and today, seem to demand it. How can you possibly fit in and be accepted by your peers when you are a young adult unless you bend and submit to the will of the “cool.”
Bullies do not just exist on playgrounds. They get into your head. They circumvent religious belief, even, if not especially, in Catholic schools and colleges, because what better places are there to claim dominion.
Individualism, freedom of intellectual thought, morality, and self-determination are all victims of the cohort. This is what the culture war is all about and always has been. Because we are patsies for whatever money-driven corporate mogul or sophisticated ad-exec decides we should be and then make us into what they want us to be for profit. Or, and this is just as powerful, a click of “cools” decides to leverage peer pressure to insist on a status quo that is only under their domain. History is replete with patsies. Ask any reformed gang member or drug user.
I was fortunate to have as my best friend a juvenile diabetic. His name is Dave. His friendship saved me. My sister, Donna, was also a juvenile diabetic. So, because of her, I was familiar with his limitations and had some knowledge with his disease. Don’t get me wrong. We pushed the envelope. We experimented with drugs and alcohol like every other kid and sometimes pushed too much. But, I knew there was a line in the sand that couldn’t be crossed. I knew what could kill him. And this saved me from going too far because we did everything together and had no secrets from each other. We worked at the same restaurant, bussing tables, stealing and sneaking six-packs of beer from the cooler and putting them in the trash bin until our shift was up. Then, in a juvenile, imbecilic manner (hiding them under our short, red waist coats) managed to get them home and drink the canned beer only to be discovered the next day by parents who we must have thought were stupid.
When we were ten or eleven-years-old, Dave and I made a compact. We became blood-brothers. It was a ceremony I’ll never forget. It was strange because Dave and I didn’t agree on a lot of things. Growing up in the Philadelphia area a kid always had an American League team as a back-up to cheer for. This was because the Phillies would never reach post-season play and pretty much everybody knew it. Dave was a New York Yankees fan. I picked the Baltimore Orioles. This should have been enough to sever any relationship. But, it didn’t; because we loved each other. I loved his mom and dad and sisters, and he loved my mom and dad and my family, all ten of us, just the same.
So, one day, as we were digging and building a cave in a Pennsylvania field just across the creek from my home to mimic and pay homage to Dave’s Molly McGuire coal mining ancestors, whose legend we adored, he and I cut our fingers and mingled our blood, like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. We swore allegiance to each other and we became brothers for life. We took this rite very seriously. We even took an oath which we both had to swear to and repeat to each other. I know this sounds incredulous, even ridiculous. There might even be a law against this now because cutting has a different connotation in schools these days.
Later, as we grew up, when temptation arose to engage in dangerous drug activity, I had his back and he had mine. We were spared because of the oath we both religiously clung to. We never allowed each other to go over the top and destroy ourselves. Our commitment to one another, and the mutual love we had for both our families’ trumped adolescent, mindless mistakes. That, and the obligations which are inherent when one recognizes there is more to life than just oneself, took precedence.
True joy is experienced only when human beings are in communion with one another and with the God who created us. And this communion creates and constantly recreates satisfaction, peace, understanding, and acceptance. It’s also the best vehicle for healing.
This ideal, this concept, this reality, this gift is so far remote from the dictates of the cohort because it is based on love and loyalty to a truth; not to the goose-stepping edicts from whoever it is in our world who commands the air waves, internet, print media, or entertainment industry and decides what the hem of the next skirt length will be or who will become the next president.
Demons are Stubborn Things
John Adams once said that “facts are stubborn things.” He said this while defending British soldiers accused of murder in the “Boston Massacre” in 1770. It was not something his cousin, Samuel Adams, and his cohort wanted to hear. Well, facts are something one dismisses when facing an addiction. Facts and the very fact that the addict is in the grip of a demon disguised as an angel of hope, of comfort, of promise, of love, and of freedom from guilt or pain or reality are deluded for a reason. Addiction is a liar – as is the demon. This is what Satan does best. He lies. And, in our pain, we believe it; because we want to believe it. Because it’s so much easier to believe in it despite the certain destruction we are most assuredly headed for. The same can be said for criminal behavior. In fact, we can temporarily justify anything and not recognize it for the disease or the sin or the damage it definitely and definitively causes.
I recently met a man who not only recognizes the pain and societal threat of addiction, but also the challenges facing our country because of our ever growing prison populations. America leads the world in locking people away in jails to rid our communities of bad elements who, after all, are human beings desperately in need of the communion of man, a reassurance of this communion, and an oath, the kind Dave and I took so many years ago.
That man’s name is Joe Montone.
Joe was a successful corporate executive. As a pilot he worked his way up the ladder in the aviation industry becoming director of flight training for a major airline. The skies, unlike the maxim, were no limit to Joe’s pursuit of perceived happiness and monetary gain. He thought he was on the tail winds of what would certainly be a prestigious career.
But, then he made a phone call.
Joe was interested in applying for a job with the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. His experience certainly warranted an interview and he called to make an inquiry. Yet something else would manifest itself in the highly unusual and, perhaps, miraculous telephone conversation. The man at the other end of the line strangely asked Joe if he was religious. Dumfounded, Joe said he was raised a Catholic. “You should pray to the Blessed Mother,” the voice said.
Joe never got the job and to this day can’t remember the man’s name. And, yet, what the voice said over the phone stuck in his crawl. This was Joe Montone’s Rubicon. Somehow, someway, he began to ford the river that would change his life forever.
Currently, Joe is contemplating a biography detailing his reconversion. He has revealed to me some of the startling and compelling details. I will leave it to him to personally narrate his incredible journey because it is his personal witness to the truth of faith and the power of the Holy Spirit in an ever disbelieving world.
But, his ministry is something that needs telling about right now. This cannot be put on the back burner. It is so important, so timely, so much needed in our schools and churches today, because it has and will save lives.
Winning Ideas Nurturing Growth and Success (W.I.N.G.S.) started as an inmate reentry/recovery program two decades ago. It is approved by the Commissioner of the Philadelphia Prison System. It now has taken under its loving embrace those suffering from addiction to drugs and alcohol. It’s designed for inmates in prison, on probation, out on bail, or those in recovery from substance abuse, and is tailored to embrace responsibility by developing a strong work ethic, and in making good decisions.
Yeah, it’s “tough love” in that the mentors and speakers at Joe’s programs are recovering addicts and former inmates, but with a different take: because it provides a way off the merry-go-round. The object isn’t just to scare someone, it’s to empower them. It’s a step-by-step process that walks participants through simple things like how to acquire a driver’s license, to emotional discussions on stress, anxiety, depression, fear, anger, revenge, and retaliation. The program’s primary goal is to give the participants hope. Perhaps, and this is critical to anyone facing the unknown, hope is one of the three keys to salvation itself. To former inmates, to recovering addicts, to the young and to the old, hope is an essential virtue. Sure, faith and charity take precedence to hope, yet hope is, as Pope Francis said, “a miracle of renewal that never lets us down.” And this is the essence of Joe’s ministry. Because hope must be there when you wake up in the morning. It is a sacred “renewal” of the goodness of life and the promise of life everlasting.
Lately, Joe has worked with law enforcement to engage high school students with people who have walked-the-walk (see here). This allows former inmates and recovering addicts to fulfill a promise to share their stories of pain, neglect, abuse, and then turn this pain, this negative, into something both positive and hopeful to recreate, to renew, and possibly atone.
Judges are now reducing sentences when they know convicted criminals have been through the W.I.N.G.S. fifty-hour program. Graduation rates are high, recidivism rates are low. In two words: it works.
Why? Because it’s proactive and not reactive; there’s not the slightest intent to be punitive, rather it’s a program designed to free oneself from the personal demons that afflict and assail us all.
How? By providing a proven pedagogy, not mere theories on what might just work from academic experts sitting in ivory towers who do not dirty their hands with real-life experiences but dictate impossible, often repeated and failed cures, like so many snake oil salesmen a few generations ago.
Many of us never had a friend like Dave. Thankfully, God placed him in my life when I needed it. But, now, maybe in your life, or in the lives of your children or grandchildren, there’s a guy named Joe. He believes you can fly on your own wings and soar.