Conversion StoriesReverts to the Catholic Faith

Addiction and Redemption

Jim Wahlberg January 4, 2021 No Comments

If you had told me as a kid growing up in Dorchester, Massachusetts that I would be where I am today, I would not have believed you. I don’t think anyone would have believed that, but God had different plans. I found sobriety — a true miracle — and a full life in Jesus, and my life has been permanently changed.

Growing Up in Dorchester

I was born above a bar in Dorchester, Massachusetts, which ended up making a lot of sense to me later in life. In the 1970s, Dorchester was an overwhelmingly working-class Irish Catholic neighborhood, and our family fit in well. My Dad worked various jobs, including working at the bar downstairs and driving a truck. My Mom took care of the kids and would work at night cleaning buildings. I was the fifth of nine children and was a typical middle child starving for attention. Growing up, I looked for it in all the wrong places. There’s even a story that, when I was a toddler, I escaped from the apartment, and my Mom found me across the street at the bowling alley, entertaining the older kids with my limited vocabulary.

Like most traditional Irish families, we were raised Catholic. We didn’t really do it for the faith part of it, but more just to check off the boxes. My parents didn’t grow up with faith, and you can’t pass on something you don’t have. They were raised in dysfunctional homes and received very little love. When I got older, I would talk to my uncle (my Dad’s brother) about how I had never heard my Dad say “I love you” unless he had a few drinks in him. He said we were lucky because they had never heard it at all. This changed how I viewed my Dad. He just didn’t know how to care for nine kids. He was never taught how.

My Mom was different. She would hug us, kiss us, and tell us she loved us all the time. She was a people pleaser and was always trying to keep peace in the family. That’s how she was raised. She had been the one to keep peace between her parents and her siblings, and so she did the same with us. She always took care of us and made sure we knew she loved us. We didn’t have much growing up, but one thing I’ll always remember is that, around Christmas, my parents would go nuts with gifts. They would always make sure there were gifts under the tree for all of us. One year, they got us all bikes. I still don’t know how they afforded nine bikes, but they made it happen.

Booze is a tyrant in the family of an alcoholic. It shapes every relationship. It also runs in the family. My father’s father was an alcoholic, my mom’s family was full of alcoholics, my Dad was an alcoholic, and I was an alcoholic. I had my first drink at eight years old, and I’m not talking about just a sip of my Dad’s beer. I was with some of the older neighborhood kids, who thought it would be funny to watch a kid chug a whole beer. So I did. It was one of the first times I really felt accepted. The next time I drank was a year later. Again, I wanted to impress the older kids, so I bought a quart of Budweiser and a pack of cigarettes from one of the teenagers for $50, which I had stolen from a wallet in the YMCA. I drank the whole quart and even started stealing the other kids’ beers. That night, I went home and threw up all over the kitchen floor, right in front of my mom. She knew, in the way that moms know, what had happened. I still remember her yelling, “Are you crazy? You’re nine years old!” You would think that, after a situation like that, I would have learned my lesson, but as soon as I was no longer grounded, I was back on the streets with the older kids.

That experience changed something in me. When you’re in a family of nine kids and your parents both work, attention is hard to come by, and the neighborhood kids gave me that. When I was out with my friends, I felt like I belonged. We would drink and smoke almost every day and then go and hang out at the YMCA. If we needed money, we’d steal a wallet or rob a house. My friends would just lift me up into someone’s window, and we’d rob the place blind. We didn’t even think what we were doing was wrong.

We didn’t get away with everything though. The first time I was arrested, I was in sixth grade. My buddy and I got in a fight with another guy, and he cut the guy with a small pocket knife. It wasn’t serious, but we had to go to court. But even that didn’t stop me; I just went right back to the streets.

As kids, we were taught always to be home by the time the street lights came on. One night in June, I saw the lights flicker and realized I wasn’t going to make it home in time. Instead of rushing home, I just stayed out, and I didn’t go home until August. I was in and out of homelessness for most of my middle school and high school years. I’d feel embarrassed when I ran into my family during that time, but whenever I saw them, I’d just act tough, so they wouldn’t know.

I would see my mom outside the home, too. I’d be out by myself late at night, and I’d see her walking to Ashmont Station to catch a train. She worked at a bank in downtown Boston, cleaning the floors and offices. It was scary for anyone to ride a train at eleven o’clock at night, much less a mother of nine. I’d watch her from a distance, wishing I could just run up to her and say, “Mom, I love you. Please help me.” But I didn’t. And there was nothing she could do, either. My Dad wouldn’t let me back into the house, and she still had eight other kids to feed.

One time, I did approach her. I followed her to the train station and decided to go up to her. All I could say was “Mom.” She looked at me with the saddest eyes, and I could just imagine her thinking, “How did your young life come to this?” Neither of us knew the answer, so without saying a word she just got on the train, and I watched it pull away. I’ll never forget that moment. I knew I was breaking her heart.

During that time, I would bounce around to different houses. When I was allowed, I would stay at my parents’ house. But for the times I wasn’t allowed, I would stay at friends’ houses, or with my older sisters, and sometimes in a box behind the liquor store. After getting in trouble a few more times, I ended up in the government system and spent years jumping between foster homes and institutional housing. Over six years, I went to six different schools. People would take me in, but I would leave on my own, or they would kick me out.

I would get in trouble with the law over the years for many things, but my first serious conviction came when I was 17. My friends and I stole a sword and used it to rob a guy. We didn’t hurt anyone with it, but I was caught and charged with armed robbery, getting three to five years in adult prison. I had been stealing for almost a decade, and it didn’t even occur to me that I could go to prison for it.

I was sentenced to a medium-security prison but spent most of my time at a high-security prison. I learned quickly that the inmates determined the rules, and most of the time, I learned them the hard way. I also learned that the best way to get along with the different groups was to relate with them. Everyone had their own group of guys with whom they would hang out, and once I learned the groups, it was pretty easy to find ways to talk with them. Looking back, I can see now that this was another example of how I just wanted to be liked and accepted.

For most people, serving time in the “hole” at a high security prison would set them straight. Not me. After I got out, my brother picked me up, and we went straight to a bar. I spent the next six months either blackout drunk or nearly so. I continued to do drugs and even tried new ones. I was as broken a young man as you could ever meet.

One night, after getting drunk and doing drugs, a friend and I decided to rob a house. We didn’t have a masterful plan. We just checked which doors were unlocked. Little did we know that the door we chose belonged to a cop. I collected all I could, but then checked the fridge for booze. I helped myself to a drink and sat down at the kitchen table to enjoy it. The cop and his partner found me passed out there, and after taking a few swings at me themselves, they turned me in. Home invasion carries a life sentence. I knew I was in trouble this time, so I pled guilty. No one from my family was in the courtroom, but the cop who busted me was, and incredibly, he spoke up on my behalf. He knew I needed help. I ended up getting six to nine years.

The Big Hustle

Every big moment in my life was pushing me toward God. Left to my own devices, I ran into nothing but trouble. But when I let God take over, my life changed for the better. One of his priests and one of his saints pointed the way for me.

I was in prison again. I was 22 years old, no education, no hopes, staring at a six- to nine-year prison sentence. If I messed up here and had to serve the whole sentence, I’d be thirty-one when I got out. So what was I going to do?

The Big Hustle, of course! I had to create the illusion that I was trying to change. I had to shorten this sentence. I needed to give the appearance of being a good boy, a model prisoner, a young man bent on self-improvement.

This was all a lie. I just wanted to get out of prison and resume my criminal ways. But to create the illusion, I started going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. I went to therapy groups and said what I thought they wanted to hear.

That’s when Father Jim Fratus, one of the greatest men I have ever known, approached me. He didn’t give me any hard sell. He just told me that he had an opening in the chapel for a janitor, a handyman, and a cleanup guy to sweep the floors and empty the trash. Would I be interested?

Well, why not? This looked like the perfect hustle. The guy was a priest. I figured he was probably as naïve as a newborn baby; I could con him out of anything: cigarettes, food, access to the phone. I could hide away from this crazy place in a quiet chapel. It would give me a chance to think, to be by myself. So “Sure, Father, I’ll do it.”

Then, little by little, Father Fratus drew me in. He said, “Hey, I need you to clean up after Mass Saturday night. Since you have to be there anyway, you may as well come to Mass.” Week by week, he tried to bring me home to the Faith: a faith that was mine by inheritance, but about which I knew less than zero.

One day, he told me that we were having a special visitor at MCI Concord: Mother Teresa. “Oh, that’s great, Father,” I said. Pause. “Who’s Mother Teresa?”

I really had no idea who she was. Now, not only was I Catholic, at least nominally, but you’d have to be living under a rock in the 1980s not to know who Mother Teresa was: the tiny Albanian nun, founder of the Missionaries of Charity, who had devoted her life to loving the poor and caring for them in Calcutta, India. She had won the Nobel Peace Prize and, after the Pope, was probably the best-known Catholic in the world. A few years after her death, she was canonized and is now known as Saint Teresa of Calcutta. But to Jim Wahlberg, inmate #44563 of MCI Concord, she was “Who?”

Mother Teresa had come in part due to an invitation from Donald Ouimet, a prisoner who had once been a Franciscan monk. He had written to ask if she’d visit. “If it is God’s will,” she wrote to him, “I will be able to come to you.” It was God’s will.

The day came for Mother Teresa’s visit: June 4, 1988. I saw her from a distance, walking through the entrance to the prison, with its imposing 40-foot walls.

Here’s this little 77-year-old lady walking toward me, surrounded by all these important people — the governor of Massachusetts, the prison warden, the commissioner of the Department of Corrections. Mother Teresa was five feet tall if she stood on her tiptoes, her moth-eaten sweater had holes in it, and her sandals looked like she’d been wearing them since the time of Christ. As she got closer, I could see that her pockets were stuffed with money, as if people were trying to buy their way into heaven.

At Mass, which was celebrated in the MCI Concord gymnasium, thanks to Father Fratus, I was in the entrance procession — me, Jim Wahlberg, the armed robber, the breaker and enterer. Cardinal Bernard Law, Archbishop of Boston, was presiding.

He wore his miter hat and sat on his cathedra, the bishop’s chair, in the sanctuary. There was a fancy chair for Mother Teresa, too, and the cardinal beckoned for her to sit with him. But she shook her head no, modestly refusing the offer.

Instead, she stayed with us, the inmates. We were on our knees, along with her and the sisters from her order, brothers and sisters before Christ. These guys are prisoners and rapists, murderers and bank robbers, drug dealers and just general scumbags like me. Mother Teresa stayed there and prayed with us.

For the first time in my life, I saw the face of Christ. The face of love. Mother Teresa knew that we weren’t just inmates. We had names, we had stories, we had souls. When asked by the press why she had come, she responded simply, “You must find the face of God in the faces of these prisoners.”

Faith

That meeting with Mother Teresa changed my life. I spoke with Father Jim Fratus, and we started to meet for Confirmation classes. Almost immediately, I also started to make changes in my life. I stopped hustling people. I still had temptations, but others saw the difference in me.

When it came time for my Confirmation, I called my mom and invited her to come. She was hesitant. The first time I was in prison, she only visited me once. Later, she told me that she could hardly recognize me on that visit and promised herself she wouldn’t visit me in prison again. But she finally agreed, and when she came, I told her all about Father Fratus and meeting Mother Teresa. Even today, she still tells people the story. “I just watched you walk around that room. I watched the way you talked to people, the way you smiled. I knew that was my son.”

It’s only by God’s grace that I haven’t gone back to prison. While I was finishing out my sentence, other guys helped me stay on the straight and narrow. I wasn’t drinking, but it was still easy to get into a hustle. My mom helped, too. When I was up for parole, she wrote to the board and told them that I had changed and deserved a second chance. It worked, and I ended up serving only half of my six to nine years.

A New Start

When the time came, I was nervous about getting out of prison, so my brother Donnie asked me to go on tour with him and his band. I agreed — not a smart move, because with the tour, I was breaking parole. It was a great experience, but it was also a miracle that I was able to stay sober through it all.

After that, I went back to Boston and found an apartment. I started volunteering at an after-school program, the Dorchester Youth Collaborative (DYC). These kids were from the neighborhoods I grew up in, and most of them lived in a one parent home, so DYC became their safe place to do their homework and find encouragement. It also sometimes supplied their only meal of the day. It became my own safe place too, and it’s where I met my wife, Benerada, or “Benny.”

I knew Benny was beautiful on the outside, but as we got to know each other, I soon learned that she was just as beautiful on the inside. After dating a while, though, she saw another side of me. We were in a drive-through getting coffee, and somebody cut us off in the parking lot. My anger came out. I threw my coffee at his car. Benny screamed, horrified. “Take me home right now! You’re an animal!”

We were touch and go for a while after that, but then we found out she was pregnant with our son. There was no way I was going to let my kid grow up without a father. We got back together, and two and a half years later, we were married. Father Jim Fratus married us in a Catholic church in October of 1995. That man brought Jesus into my life, which was the greatest gift I’ve ever received, and then he brought my wife and me back together. It was a beautiful day.

Not long after we got married, we bought our first house. I cried like a baby and thanked God for all that He had done in my life. It was near my old neighborhood, near the bar where I had slept outside in a box. Now I was buying a house with my wife and son. It was an unforgettable God moment.

After a move and more children, we decided to move to Florida. I continued to live a sober life as our family grew, but I was still missing something. I had given my life to Jesus, but I wasn’t living my life for Him. I wasn’t happy. I went to Mass sometimes, but other times I would just drop off the kids and leave. My wife kept encouraging me to get involved in church. She ended up going on a women’s retreat called the Road to Emmaus. It was named after the story in the Bible where Jesus met two travelers on the road to Emmaus, and just as their lives were changed after meeting Jesus, she came back a changed woman. When it came time for the men to go to the same retreat, she encouraged me to go. At first, I refused. It wasn’t until my daughter asked me to go that I decided to give it a chance. I’ve never been able to say no to my daughter.

As the experience had changed my wife, Road to Emmaus changed my life, too. As the retreat went on, the ice around my heart began to melt. They provided an opportunity for Confession, and I finally let it all out. It was a long confession. Afterwards, I had the undeniable feeling of the presence of Christ in my heart.

My heart had been ignited for God. I knew I needed to start living for Jesus, but just as it reads in John 16:33, there will be tribulation in this world. Shortly after the retreat, we found out my son was doing drugs. We began a cycle of him getting in trouble for having drugs, and us bailing him out, until finally I knew I had to do the same thing my father had done for me. I gathered his items, put them in a bag, and when he came home, I told him that he had to leave. My childhood flashed before my eyes as he cried, begged, and pleaded to stay. It was something I had never imagined doing with my own son, but we couldn’t keep going in circles, so he left. A few weeks later, he was arrested again, so we decided to try different treatment facilities. One day, my wife phoned me. She was at home, watching EWTN’s Life on the Rock. Four guys from a place called Comunità Cenácolo, a Catholic faith-based community for addicts, were giving their testimony. It was powerful. “That’s where Daniel needs to go,” she said. “My son needs God. My son needs Jesus Christ. He doesn’t need any of this other stuff.” So we made the call and started the process. It wasn’t easy, but my son agreed to stay with the community, and Jesus used it to save my son’s life. After three years there, he decided to stay clean and continue serving.

Going through that experience helped me to realize that there was much more I could be doing to heighten awareness about addiction, and the healing and recovery that people can find in such organizations. I began to speak at events in Boston, then around the country. I knew God could take my experiences and use them to help others. These days, He uses me to let people know that there is a way out of the hell of addiction and brokenness.

I’m not a perfect man, but I’ve been blessed as the husband of an amazing woman and the father of three children who have never seen me drink. I also won — or “won” — the trifecta: I was raised by an alcoholic, I became an alcoholic, and then I raised an addict. But my faith, and the steps I took to heal and grow out of this condition, enabled me to find healing, then to be there for my son, learning from him, too. His addiction brought my family to the foot of the Cross. What greater gift could there be?

I am not a finished product; I still have so much more to learn. But it is my mission to be a follower of Christ, to show others that there’s always hope, redemption, and healing through Jesus Christ. Not everyone will accept my story, but I know that God has a plan for everyone, and that He will help others like me to achieve all that God has intended for them. We just have to give Him all we have and see what He can do.


Jim Wahlberg

Jim Wahlberg is the founder and CEO of Wahl St. Productions, author of The Big Hustle and the creator of the short film What About the Kids? Portions of this story are excerpted and adapted from The Big Hustle: A Boston Street Kid’s Story of Addiction and Redemption.