This is an excerpt from my book, Simple Mercies, that I wanted to share in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe’s Feast Day this past Sunday.
During one Christmas season, I was reminded of the power of prayer when I became one of the prayer warriors trying to get a forty-nine-year-old man named Joe out of prison. I know that doesn’t conjure the same feelings of drinking hot cocoa in footed pajamas by the fire like your typical Christmas story does. Still, it’s a powerful reminder of what can happen when we believe – not only in God but in one another.
As one of six boys, Joe grew up next door to my friend, Cecy. Despite having three young kids at home, she worked for years trying to get her childhood friend out of prison. Joe had been arrested for buying cocaine for personal use and was charged and sentenced as a trafficker. His punishment was twenty years with no chance of parole. He had already served thirteen.
Joe had made appeals all the way to the Florida Supreme Court — each one denied. The only hope he had was clemency from the governor to commute his sentence. That’s when the ordinary became extraordinary. Joe was finally granted a clemency hearing. Sadly, his mom passed away less than a month before his hearing. Joe learned of her death from a prison guard and was unable to attend her funeral. The tragedy of it hardly made me think of the word, believe. Yet when his hearing was finally held, I was visiting New York City where over the Macy’s store on 34th Street, a huge sign in brilliant white lights said only one word: Believe. While I wasn’t sure whether I believed our prayers would be answered in the way that we wanted, I was inspired by the people who believed Joe deserved another chance and did something about it. I had faith that no matter what, God would use the situation for good. I had already seen how many people it had united in prayer and I felt the shared hope that a miracle was possible. I very much wanted to believe.
On the morning of his clemency hearing, I received a text from Cecy with the novena prayer we had been praying to Our Lady of Guadalupe. Serendipitously, his hearing fell on the feast day of our Lady of Guadalupe, and it was the last day of our novena. I knew his chances were slim. This governor had never commuted a sentence before. Feeling anxious, I intermittently listened to the hearing in our hotel room. Joe’s good friend told the clemency board and the governor about how he and his children visited Joe in prison. He spoke of the time his daughter was asked to choose the Catholic she admired most, and she chose Joe. One of Joe’s brothers read a letter from Joe, who accepted responsibility for his crime. He asked for mercy.
My eyes pooled when Cecy’s eighty-year-old mother spoke — after her eight-hour commute to the Florida State Capitol Building — about the little boy of her best friend of forty years. She said Joe was a good man who gave in to the temptation of drugs. She testified that indeed he had a strong network of friends and family who would support his transition out of prison, but that his mother has a greater network of friends in heaven who would make sure he stays on the right path.
The last speaker on Joe’s behalf said, “As I understand it, clemency is mercy or favor or grace, and a relief from a just penalty. I am reminded of that definition during Advent, as we approach the commemoration of the birth of Christ.” I thought about the birth of the baby in the manger and all the generations of believers who have brought petitions, pleas, and requests for pardon before Jesus since that momentous night in the stable. Our prayers that day was just one in the flurry of billions he had heard. But God heard. The governor did what he had never done before. He granted clemency. Joe would be given a second chance, just in time for Christmas. Besotted with gratitude, I went to St. Patrick’s Cathedral and lit a candle at the altar dedicated to our Lady of Guadalupe, which was covered in flowers and surrounded by people who had come to honor her feast day.
It’s easy to stop believing. One day you realize there is no Santa Claus. There are no talking snowmen, elves, or reindeer. That magic is gone, and we think it is okay because it’s childish and silly and there is no room for that in our grown-up, real-world lives. But our Christian faith is no fairy tale. It requires us to keep believing in the power of prayer, the Communion of Saints, and the mercy of intercession. Having faith that people will stand by you at your darkest hour, petition, forgive, and believe you are worth a second try, reminds us what it means to emulate the life of Christ. Those are the people who inspire us to believe.
I love this story and I love the dear friend whose faith-filled heart was so instrumental in making this miracle happen. Speaking of faith-filled hearts, I had two speaking events last week where I met so many beautiful people of faith. You have no idea how much you all inspire me and just having this glimpse into the vast and glorious body of Christ is so renewing. So, please don’t ever feel alone or without hope because there are so many good people with hearts of mercy. You don’t have to reach very far to find any one of us. One more beautiful thing we can believe.
P.S. – This is the last week before Christmas to get signed copies of Simple Mercies. Email me if you are interested at email@example.com After this week, I am going to settle in for a long winter’s nap! (Which right now actually feels kind of hard to believe!) Sending love to you all! ~ Lara