You know I don’t engage in conversation with my seat mates on planes, and honestly, I believe that chitchatting your way across the country behind me should be a capital offense. (God made noise-cancelling ear buds for a reason.) But something about the burly man who sat next to me on a recent flight to Texas made me break my own rule.
Big, bearded and tattooed, at first glance he seemed a bit off-putting, but climbing into his window seat next to me, he had a warm smile, tinged with a bit of anxiety. “I’m terrified to fly,” he told me, almost wringing his hands in fear. “Uh oh,” I thought. “There goes my peace and quiet.” I figured I’d chat with him until we got airborne just to settle his nerves. I told him my son was a pilot and pulled out my tired joke about him teaching me how they put the hooks in the sky to hold up the planes. He told me he worked on an oil rig in Texas, and that he was coming home from visiting his parents in Tennessee. His father was dying of heart failure and he thought this was the last visit he’d get. The man who looked so intimidating when he first sat down now seemed like a lost little boy.
“I’m sad, but I know he is going home to the Lord.” He pulled a small, well-worn Bible from his pocket. “Are you a Christian?” he asked. Now, this was a flight from Knoxville to Dallas, not from New York to LA so the question didn’t surprise me that much. “I’m Catholic,” I said with a grin. “Does that count?” He told me that he found Jesus on October 18, 2003. “You remember the exact day?” I asked. “Yes, ma’m. It was the day I turned my life around. The day I was given another chance after looking at 30-to-life.”
Well, now. It appeared I wasn’t going to be getting back to my book any time soon. He told me he started selling illegal cigarettes at 15 and soon moved on to running drugs and stolen merchandise. He was remarkably candid with me, not sugar-coating that part of his life. I mentioned I was from Philadelphia and he said, “I used to run meth for Big Mikey with a Jamaican gang out of North Philadelphia.” (I didn’t request an introduction.) I asked him if he’d ever been shot. Just once, and just a graze, he told me. But he did take an ice pick to the ribs that punctured a lung and once had a 9mm held to his head, only to jam when the trigger was pulled.
At this point I had a surreal feeling. There I was–middle-aged, suburban me–needlepointing a belt, calmly discussing violent felonies. I don’t think there is a section in the preppy handbook that covers this.
I looked back over at him as he continued his story. He seemed to pause at he reached the next part. “It’s hard to admit this. But I was sent to kill a guy who’d crossed my boss and I was going to do it. I thank God every day that He stopped me.” My seat mate said he was in a car, casing the intended victim’s home with a man he knew as Joe. Joe turned out to be an undercover police officer and he was taken into custody. “I hated Joe at first,” he said. “But later I came to believe that he was sent by Jesus himself to save my soul.”
That arrest lead to a relationship with a Prison Fellowship volunteer (himself a former convict) who brought the gospel behind bars. At a hearing, the judge determined he was a candidate for an alternative program and sentenced him to time served and probation. He credits Prison Fellowship, his mother’s tears, and the grace of God with keeping him on the straight and narrow ever since. He says he hasn’t committed a crime since (but confessed it was hard at first), leads Bible studies on the rig, and is married with a school-age son and two chihuahuas. (Because what else does a 6’4”, 280-pound tattooed ex-con have for a pet?)
As we stood to deplane, I reached out to shake his hand and noticed for the first time a tattoo on his forearm that read “Amazing Grace”. I thanked him for sharing his story and he said that he feels called to tell the world what God did for him. I realized I had met a latter-day Paul, right there on flight 4483 to Dallas.
So I’m sharing his story, too. I’m not sure how many former drug-dealers and felons we can count among our readers, but all of us have hearts burdened and darkened by sin. Maybe that’s why “Paul” was put in my path–maybe I needed a reminder of God’s amazing grace.