Woody Guerin was 58 years old when his wife and kids suspected, with justifiable reasoning, that he might be going postal.
The graduate of De La Salle High School had spent 35 years as a mail carrier with the U.S. Postal Service – 10 years in Metairie and 25 in Covington – and now he couldn’t shake the urgency of this special delivery message, more like an 11th commandment, that he seemed to be getting straight from the person in charge of chiseling the stone tablets.
“I told my wife, ‘I think God is talking with me about leaving the Post Office,’” Guerin, now 72, said, recounting his startling conversation one day with his wife Cheryl. “She asked, ‘How are you going to do that? We don’t have a nickel in the bank.’”
In his spare time during the previous 14 years, Guerin had volunteered countless hours mentoring alcoholics and drug addicts at The Way Builders, a nondenominational halfway house started by his friend, Bill Bond, on a tucked-away plot of land off Helenberg Road near I-12 and La. 190 in Covington.
Bond, a recovering alcoholic, had met Guerin at a men’s Bible study group, and even though they were complete opposites, they hit it off and built a rehab ministry that at its height could help about 50 men at a time.
Bond started The Way Builders in 1989 and convinced Guerin, when he got off work, to be his driver de jour, picking up wasted men in the Lower 9th Ward in the middle of the night and transporting them to the halfway house, which gave them shelter, three meals a day, a job and heaping helping of Hebrews and Corinthians.
The problem, as Bond saw it, was that the ministry needed Guerin full time. The problem, as Guerin saw it, was that he needed to keep his wife happy and pay the bills.
Taking a leap of faith, Guerin retired anyway. In his first few months after leaving the Post Office, Guerin figured he was spending $200 a week transporting men from drug court to their probation officers to Charity Hospital and back to Covington. His wife, who handled the bills, sat him down and showed him the debit card receipts for gas and sandwich lunches.
“Babe, you’re using all this gas and eating out every now and then,” she told him. “We’ve got nothing left to pay the bills.”
That’s when Guerin decided he needed to find at least a part-time job to scrape by. He began serving as a newspaper courier one day a week, dropping off copies of News on Wheels to restaurants, bars and grocery stores.
It still wasn’t enough money, but after Katrina, the courier who delivered Gambit did not return to New Orleans, so Guerin was able to pick up that route. A short time later, Guerin also began delivering the Clarion Herald to churches, schools and business outlets on the northshore.
“God lines things up,” Guerin said.
When Bond died after Katrina, the property used for the rehab ministry became entangled in estate proceedings, and The Way Builders went out of existence. That’s when another friend of Guerin’s asked for help. The friend ran Turnaround Village in Bogalusa, a faith-based ministry for men recently released from Rayburn Correctional Center in Angie.
It was at Turnaround Village where Guerin met a former inmate chaplain from Rayburn, and he began accompanying him to the prison for inmate retreats. The man then asked Guerin to start volunteering as a mentor in the prison chaplain’s office.
One day, Guerin met an inmate chaplain named Fenton who had been designated as the peer minister for Catholic inmates. There was only one problem – Fenton never spoke to anyone.
“I always tried to get Fenton to talk, and he wouldn’t talk to me,” Guerin said. “I talked to the other inmate chaplains and they told me, ‘Woody, don’t take it personally. He don’t talk to anybody.’”
One day Guerin was alone with Fenton in the inmate chaplains’ office when he decided he had enough of Fenton’s cold shoulder.
“I told him, ‘Fenton, you don’t have to talk to me, but I’m going to talk to you. You’re a minister, and you can’t act this way,’” Guerin said. “I was reading him the riot act.”
Fenton did not respond, but Guerin said the face-to-face meeting broke the ice. The next time they met, Fenton told Guerin he felt isolated and unsupported in his ministry to Catholic inmates. In Fenton’s hand was a curled, faded catalogue of Catholic items with pictures of rosaries, medals and prayer cards.
“It must have been 20 years old,” Guerin said.
A gift from God
Then Fenton told Guerin he had written to Catholic organizations for months to send Catholic items and reading material to him so that he could give it out to the prisoners. No one ever responded.
“Nobody seems to care,” Fenton said.
Guerin looked at the catalogue and said: “Fenton, if there is one thing, pick out this one thing that you want, and I’ll get it for you.”
Fenton then stood up, reached on the shelf and pulled down a dog-eared Bible. Opening the book, he pulled out a yellowed, 20-year-old newspaper clipping.
“This still gives me goose bumps,” Guerin said. “The article was out of the Clarion Herald, and Fenton didn’t even know what the Clarion Herald was. He had been up at Angola for 20 years before he came to Rayburn, and he didn’t know what the Clarion Herald was. I recognized immediately that it was a page out of the Clarion Herald. Someone had given him this small story when he had first started going to church in prison – this little piece of paper. It was the only thing tangible he had.”
“If I could just get something like this to hand out to people it would be great,” Fenton told Guerin.
“Fenton,” Guerin replied, “do you know who you’re talking to?”
“Brother Woody,” he said.
“I’m the Clarion man,” Guerin said. “I deliver the Clarion, but I’ve never brought them up here before. That little yellow piece of paper came out of the Clarion. I might even bring up more than one.”
“Could you bring five or six?” Fenton asked.
“How about I bring you a bundle of 50 or 100?” Guerin said.
The next week, Guerin arrived with 100 copies of the Clarion Herald, and Fenton “was like a kid at Christmas.” Fenton handed out copies to any of the inmates who came to the Mass or Communion service on Sunday, as well as to those in lock-down.
Never in a million years did Guerin think he would be ministering to prisoners or those who had been imprisoned by drugs, alcohol or family dysfunction. But as he travels the roads of St. Tammany and Washington parishes delivering newspapers, he knows there is a reason.
“God prepared me for prison ministry by giving me The Way Builders,” he said. “People say if you do the crime, you do the time. A very high percentage of crime occurs when they are on drugs or involved in a drug deal gone bad. When you hear the stories about how these guys were raised and then you think of yourself – there’s no way I’d be the same person if I grew up with no father or a mother who did drugs and there was no supervision. If people are really honest with themselves, they would have to admit we’re all a product of our environment.”
Love your neighbor anyway
Guerin has heard all about “jailhouse religion” and cheap grace. Essentially, he says, it comes down to loving and serving your neighbor anyway, just as St. Teresa of Calcutta implored.
When Guerin was driving for The Way Builders, he met John, a man high on drugs, who bolted out of Bond’s house during an initial meeting because he didn’t want to hear anything about God. Guerin had to track him down a few blocks away and get him back in his truck with the promise that he could leave in the morning if he wanted.
John stayed a few weeks but was noncompliant and distant. He refused to take part in Bible studies. He vanished one day.
A few years later, Guerin and his wife were at the dollar movie in Mandeville.
“My wife told me she wanted me to go buy her some popcorn,” Guerin said.
As he waited in line, a man behind him called out, “Brother Woody!”
Guerin turned around and said, “I’m sorry, but I don’t know who you are.”
“I’m John,” the man said.
Suddenly, the scales fell from his eyes and Guerin recognized the man.
“When he said that, I knew him right away,” Guerin said. “He did not look like the same person. He was 30 pounds heavier. His eyes were clear. He introduced me to his wife. He’s got a couple of young kids.”
John told him: “Brother Woody, when I left you all, I didn’t want to see you again. I thought it was a bunch of silliness, but I would lie in bed at night and think of the stuff you told me. Then I started going to Bible studies and ended up getting a job in Slidell. I met a girl and she invited me to church.”
Then John, the evangelist, gave his mentor, the newspaper courier, the headline straight from God’s infinite well of grace: “I consider you our kids’ grandpa.”
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.