Those gangsters of yesteryear were a vicious lot. I was reminded of this recently when I read a book about the Mob in New York City during the 1960s and 70s.
I kept trying to imagine growing up and living in that kind of milieu, in which the business of everyday life consisted of robbing banks, hijacking trucks, laundering money, promoting prostitution and gambling, taking people hostage, beating people up, breaking people’s legs, cutting off people’s hands, and killing people with machine guns, revolvers, baseball bats, or simply one’s own fists.
Mobsters were ruthless. Violence and death were status quo. And for the most part, they enjoyed it. Torturing and “whacking” people was all just part of a satisfying day’s work. That’s what I find particularly hard to understand.
In high school, I was part of a gang myself—all college-bound, honor students who nevertheless weren’t above a little mischief. Our idea of wreaking vengeance on the enemy was leaving a banana in the history teacher’s desk drawer right before Christmas break, so that when he came back in January it was overripe and plenty pungent. We also tormented that same teacher by hanging a pair of boys’ underwear on the license plate of his VW Bug while it was parked in the teachers’ lot. Just like the gangsters, we felt pretty smug about doing something wrong and getting away with it.
And then there was the time I ventured solo into the underworld of crime when I wrote a Spanish paper for a kid named Wes who paid me five dollars to do it. It was easy money and a pretty good take in 1974 dollars, but I later felt so guilty about helping him cheat that I donated my illicit earnings to a school fundraiser.
So who would be more likely to merit heaven—the gangsters like Gambino and Gotti or the goodie-goodies like me? Of course, that’s a trick question because if you know anything at all about grace you know none of us is taking the up elevator by reason of pushing any buttons on our own.
But I know I’m going to heaven and I believe I may see at least one gangster there: Al Capone. I’ll tell you why.
When I was researching my book Sweet Mercy, I read a number of books about the life of Al Capone. One of the books told of Capone’s conversion to Christianity while in Alcatraz. It seems he was among the group of prisoners who went to hear a visiting pastor preach one Sunday morning. When the pastor asked if anyone was in need of prayer, Al Capone raised his hand. When the pastor asked if anyone felt in need of a savior, Al Capone stood.
This particular event isn’t exactly an enduring part of the gangster’s famous persona. When you think of Al “Scarface” Capone, you don’t think of him as the mobster who came to Jesus behind bars. After he was released and living in Florida, he himself told visitors that he had met Jesus in Alcatraz, but few people believed him.
For one thing, old Scarface was suffering from a physical illness that affected his mind, so that one of his friends described him as “nutty as a fruitcake.” For that reason, it was easy to blow off his talk of conversion. Although, when you think about, most people who claim conversion—especially jailhouse conversion—are considered nutty as fruitcakes. Even I’ve been called nutty myself for believing in God, so it’s a pretty convenient label to pin on folks of faith.
For another jailhouse conversion, look at King Manasseh, ruler of Judah for 55 years. His evil deeds undoubtedly rivaled those of any mobster. He worshiped idols and was deep into the occult, consulting mediums, practicing sorcery, and involving himself in other “abominable practices” that the chronicler didn’t care to go into. The chronicler did mention, however, what to me is the very worst of his acts: Manasseh “made his son pass through the fire.” That is, he sacrificed his son to a non-existent pagan god. He killed his own child, maybe even more than one of them.
Even the Mafia, according to their own code of conduct, didn’t kill children.
Eventually, Manasseh was carried off by the Assyrians to Babylon and imprisoned. It was then that he humbled himself and cried out to God. His repentance must have been genuine, because God heard him and restored him to the kingdom of Judah. Once home, the former evil king cleaned up the place, tore down the pagan altars, and “commanded Judah to serve the Lord the God of Israel.” From that time forward, Manasseh belonged to the Lord.*
If God turned Manasseh around, he could do the same for Al Capone. Because the bottom line is this: It’s not how bad the person is, it’s how good God is. God’s goodness, grace and mercy are what transforms sinners into saints and opens the door to heaven, whether the sinner is a machine gun-wielding mobster or a banana-wielding adolescent. Neither deserves mercy, yet to each it is given freely.
Al Capone, being Catholic, received the sacraments of the Catholic Church before he died and, after death, was buried in consecrated ground. Marking his burial place is a stone on which is carved his name, his birth and death dates, and the words: “My Jesus Mercy.”
Is Al Capone in heaven? I don’t know for sure, but if he is, I intend to sit down and share a fruitcake with him. Won’t that be something? Me and old Scarface—just a couple of undeserving nuts enjoying the presence of God for all eternity.
* King Manasseh’s story is found in 2 Chronicles 33.