God’s mercy extends beyond ‘11 strikes and you’re out’

finney    In a microwave society, everyone wants instant results. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially when you are in the business of saving lives gone horribly off the tracks.
    Kevin Ryan, the president of Covenant House, a ministry started 40 years ago to rescue homeless teens from unthinkable family situations or from their own demons of drug or sexual addiction, knows all about percentages, odds and baseball.
    In baseball – and often in the American legal system – it’s “three strikes and you’re out.”
    That’s not how life works. Sometimes, as in the case of Paulie, who survived the Arctic cold despite living on the streets of Anchorage from age  13 to 19, the swings and misses created a draft all their own.
    “He was in and out of Covenant House 11 times,” Ryan said.
    So, what if Covenant House had a policy of “11 strikes and you’re out”?
    “He’d be done,” Ryan said. “This kid was lapping those bases like nobody I’ve ever seen. He was completely and unapologetically truant. When he would walk inside Covenant House to recuperate from a street spell, he bristled against the directions, the chores and the rules.”
    As Ryan and Tina Kelley describe in their new book, “Almost Home,” the searing disappointment brought on by a confused teen’s decision to vanish from Covenant House, never to be seen again, is counter-balanced by the Paulies of the world, the kids who had shown by their utter defiance that they absolutely knew better than anyone else how to find the road to freedom.
    When kids like Paulie finally wake up on their personal Via Crucis and see the light, the resurrection party doesn’t end.
    In Paulie’s case, the resurrection started with Mildred Mack, a stern but grace-filled and wise Covenant House intake officer, who would not let Paulie’s charm and charisma cloud the issues that blocked his emancipation.
    “She didn’t purr or cuddle or sweet talk him,” Ryan said. “She was calling him back to more, back to school, back to chores, back to structure and to getting off the drugs.”
    Paulie eventually passed the high school GED test on his first try, became a pre-eminent kick boxer and opened a restaurant. He is in college.
    Then there is Creionna, a New Orleans teenager who found herself pregnant and alone after Katrina, living in an aunt’s house that had become grand central station for any  relative with a drug problem who needed a place to flop. One aunt stole her clothes – several sizes too small – and an uncle stole other possessions to finance his next fix.
    When her father found out she was pregnant – she had done a good job hiding it until 20 weeks – he became enraged and punched her with full force in the chest. Her father and her boyfriend both wanted her to abort the baby.
     Creionna had her baby boy, and when little Dominic was six weeks old, she found herself at  Walmart one night, and the buses had stopped running. She couldn’t think about returning to her aunt’s house and all the druggies.
    “She’s got the baby, she’s got nowhere to go and this couple materializes out of nowhere,” Ryan said. “They decide they can’t turn their back on this homeless teenager, and they offer her a ride. That’s so counterintuitive because older couples aren’t generally encouraged to approach strange teenagers and ask them if they need help – but they do.”
    The couple gave Creionna a ride to Covenant House on North Rampart Street. They handed her $45 in cash.
    “And then they disappear from her life,” Ryan said.
    Creionna wishes she had jotted down their names. But, as the book says, “They were kindly ghosts, gone.”
    Kelley, the book’s co-author,  said what inspired her most about Creionna was her fierce determination to become the mother she never had. Unlike other mothers who would nonchalantly pass around their babies to others for care or feeding, Creionna held Dominic close to her heart.
    Creionna now works as an assistant in a medical clinic and is taking college classes. She hopes to buy a house soon.
    “What means the most to her is how good a parent she is,” Kelley said. “When we were at a restaurant and she was answering my questions, all the while she was making her son’s name in dotted letters so that he could trace the letters and learn how to write his name. She was on him for the ‘yes, m’am’ and ‘no m’am.’”
    Covenant House itself probably should not exist today. In 1990, the Covenant House founder, Father Bruce Ritter, stepped down after being accused of having sexual relationships with several young people at the New York shelter.
    With funding squeezed to a trickle because of the scandal, Daughter of Charity Sister Mary Rose McGeady took over as president and picked up the shards of shattered trust, rebuilding Covenant House across the country.
    When Sister Mary Rose was dying two months ago, Ryan had a chance to speak with her the day before she passed away. He told her, “Thank God you said ‘yes’ to Covenant House. You saved the place.’”
    “It really took energy for her to be able to muster anything beyond a shallow response,” Ryan said. “But she looked at me and with a fairly stern voice and a wagging finger, she said, ‘I did not save Covenant House. God saved Covenant House. I let him use me, and he will use you, too, Kevin, if you get out of the way.’
    “It’s so true. There’s no rational reason why Covenant House is here today other than the divine, providential God who wants this movement to help many kids who don’t have another place to be. God wants us to be love in the world for them.”
    “Almost Home” is available at Barnes and Noble and at amazon.com.

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