Is Al Capone in Heaven?

Al Capone headstone 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.*

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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.

Janine’s Story: Finding God in the Dark

When Janine Hughes and I met in 2001, we became fast friends, as did our then 4-year-old daughters. In 2004, my family moved out of state, but our friendship continued. I walked with her, though from a distance, through all of the trauma she describes in her story. A picture from her August 12, 2012 baptism sits on my desk. Here is Janine’s story…

As an atheist for most of my adult life, my question was always: “Does God exist?” I came to understand that I was asking the wrong question. The question is: “Does God’s love exist?” It was through suffering that I found the answer.

In September 2009, my husband Bert was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer. One morning we were a typical family of four living in suburban Minnesota, and by that afternoon we were a devastated family facing the imminent loss of husband and father. My entire world shifted and a terrible darkness began to close in.

As soon as Bert was diagnosed, we found ourselves surrounded by a community of loving, caring, supportive people. Friends, family, people from the school—even people we really didn’t know—brought meals, took our children to various activities, brought care packages.

Endless cycles of chemotherapy prolonged Bert’s life. We celebrated Thanksgiving 2010 thankful for more than a year together as a family. The next day my brother Dave died unexpectedly of a heart attack at the age of 56.

Bert died in April 2011. I found myself surrounded by an ever-growing network of love and support. The church we had joined embraced me, family and friends continued to be there for me and the children. It was in the weeks following Bert’s death I realized I was surrounded by God’s love. God’s love is real. And if God’s love is real…..I opened my heart and God took over.

Thanksgiving 2011 my life exploded again. My eldest sister Mary was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer. We were dealing with that crisis and her impending death, when in January 2012 my seventeen-year-old son Sam died by suicide.

The memories of that day are muted, repressed even, as necessary. But I remember calling people and people coming over.  All through the day, people sat with me and my daughter for hours. Long stretches of silence were occasionally broken by quiet questions, crying and prayer. Left alone, I would have been curled up in the fetal position, surrendering to despair. But that group of people surrounded me and held me upright. God’s love surrounded me.

Two weeks later my sister died. I lost four family members in fourteen months.

When people ask me how I got through that time of loss, I tell them, “God. And God’s people.” It is only by God’s grace and the love and support of his people that I am here today to tell my story. It was in my very darkest hour that I first saw the evidence of God’s love. He loved me through the hands and feet and voices and embracing arms of others. The world is filled with suffering, but it is also filled with God’s love.

After almost eight years, I am still grieving and processing my losses. I miss my loved ones, especially my son. Sometimes I feel great sorrow, and sometimes I harbor doubts. But through the experience of great loss, I realized I didn’t have to prove the existence of God, because he had proved his love to me.

Is God’s love real? Absolutely. I know because I experienced it, and God continues to make his presence known to me day by day. To debate the existence of God is empty rhetoric. In my darkest hour, he bypassed intellectual arguments and invaded my life with his love. The real good has come into my life and there’s no going back. I’m so thankful there’s a God of love and mercy so that I can look past the pain to something greater—to hope, mercy, grace, forgiveness, comfort, peace, and so much more.

Janine baptism 2

Janine’s baptism, 2012

Those Who Inspire No Envy

In 2016, God sent me back to school. Not to earn another master’s degree or a doctorate, but to learn what I couldn’t learn in any other way. He placed me as a cashier in the university’s food court.

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I suppose I really began to learn the lesson on the day I went to the dentist. At the end of the checkup he told me I needed two crowns and a root canal. I left the dental office feeling dazed, like I’d been hit on the back of the head. Fixing my teeth would cost many thousands of dollars, and I didn’t have—nor could I ever conceive of having—that amount of money.* What happens, I wondered, when a person doesn’t fix her teeth? Do they just rot and fall out?

From there, I went on to work. The first person to greet me when I walked in was Angelo, one of the men who stocks the packaged food and drinks. He offered me a big smile, and when he did, I noticed what I hadn’t noticed before. Many of his teeth were missing. Those that remained were chipped and broken.

When a person grows up financially secure like I did, she thinks everyone goes to the dentist to have their teeth fixed. But when I looked at Angelo’s smile, I realized—no, not everyone. What was normal to me as a child is to some an unattainable privilege. That day, I didn’t sympathize with Angelo; I empathized. I understood him, because we were in the same place.

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The people I work with at the food court aren’t seeking success. They are mostly trying simply to survive. Many work two jobs; some work three. Some work seven days a week with no days off. Some work day shifts and night shifts both, leaving their night job in the morning to go to their day job. A number are ill with diseases like diabetes and kidney failure. Some are crippled with arthritis. They come to work in pain and go home in pain.

These are the people no one envies and no one aspires to be like. Who dreams of becoming a sixty-year-old cashier whose legs are bowed with rheumatism? Who yearns to be a single mother who works at the food court and at Burger King both, yet still can’t make ends meet? Who hopes to grow up to become a middle-aged stock boy with broken teeth?

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I love these people. Every day they greet me with smiles, with hugs, with enthusiastic cries of “Hi, Miss Ann!” While we work we grab a few minutes here and there to talk, swap stories, laugh. While there are the usual personality conflicts, I more often see kindness and encouragement. Once, to my surprise, Miss Merle threw her big arms around me and gave me a smothering hug. She just wanted to tell me she loves me.

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Merle is one of the kitchen workers. She stands all day at a counter making sandwiches. She isn’t young and she isn’t small, so she’s asking a lot of her feet. One thing I’ve learned about Merle is that she loves Jesus heart and soul. I once went into the ladies bathroom to wash my hands, and as I stood at the sink I heard music coming from one of the stalls. The next thing I knew, Merle burst out of the stall holding her phone and singing along to a gospel song. She shimmied down to the sink where she spent the next few minutes dancing and praising God, singing at the top of her pipes about the day she would be home in glory. I listened happily, delighted to be her captive audience. It was one of the most inspiring concerts I’ve ever attended, performed by a solitary black woman in the bathroom of a university food court. It seemed even a momentarily holy place, filled with joy.

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Kevin is another one of our stockers. He doesn’t talk much. In fact, if you didn’t know better, you might think he was mute. When I ask him to bring us something from the supply room, he merely nods, one small lift of his head. Though he doesn’t talk about it, the large silver cross he wears around his neck offers an inkling as to his beliefs. Sometimes his apparent reticence gives way to quiet acts of kindness. Last Valentine’s Day he came to work bearing a huge bouquet of roses. It wasn’t meant for anyone, but for everyone. That is, he wanted to make sure all his female co-workers got a flower on Valentine’s Day. No one was to be forgotten. I was touched when he laid a rose—without a word—by my register, though he appeared and disappeared so quickly I couldn’t even thank him.

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Sherrie is one who works two jobs. She spends the week making pizza and pasta and on the weekend she works at Costco. Except for holidays, she has no days off. How, I wondered, does anyone work seven days a week without having a single day of rest to look forward to? I for one would soon drop from physical and mental exhaustion. And so I asked her, “Sherrie, how do you work so much?” And without a moment’s hesitation she told me her secret in two amazing words: “God’s grace.”

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When I’m at the food court, I look around and see the people that most of society deem invisible. They are just too far down on the social stratum even to be noticed. But I know this much is true: In this place of struggle and obscurity where no one wants to be, God is here. Grace is at work. Hope is real. And the love of God elevates even the least of us to a place of glory.

* The Lord later provided the full amount for the root canal, for which I am continually thankful.