of James M. Hahn
On my way home from work I did something I almost never do,
I picked up a hitchhiker. There have been only two other times
that I have done something like this. In the first instance I
noticed a man walking in the cold carrying a gas can. I
remembered seeing a disabled car a mile or so back so I felt
that it was safe to pick the man up. In the second case I saw an
elderly woman whose truck had broken down along the side of
the road and I had no fear of picking her up.
However, this was a different case. This was a middle-aged
man wearing jeans and a t-shirt and he was not carrying a gas
can and I had not seen any disabled vehicles. I pulled to the
side of the road and began to back up. The man started jogging
toward the car so as not to miss his chance.
He was wearing worn out grey-black jeans and a grey t-shirt.
The top of his head was covered by a light covering of curly
grey hair. There was a reddish-grey goatee hanging from his
chin and in his left ear was a small diamond earring. His hands
were dark with dirt or grime and his tennis shoes worn to
practically nothing. We exchanged greetings and I slowly pulled
my car back into traffic.
This man in my passenger seat stared straight ahead and didn’t
say a word. I was feeling rather nervous about this so I asked
him if his vehicle had broken down or if someone had forgotten
to pick him up. He turned and looked at me and said nothing for
a moment. He then began to tell me his life story. He began by
telling me that when he was fourteen he had killed a man. He
killed the man just to watch him die. He then spent five years in
a detention center which hardened him against the world. When
he was released from the center, his life was a wreck. He could
no longer show his face in his hometown. He turned to drugs
and alcohol and a life of self-destruction. He hated himself and
what he had done and believed he was beyond forgiveness.
Years later he found himself back in his hometown with his wife
and two children. He came back when his father died and
became very close to his devout Catholic mother. Eventually he
came back to the faith of his youth and began to live again.
However, he could never forgive himself for what he had done.
And many of the people in the town could not forgive him
either. In fact members of his own parish refused to shake his
hand during the “sign of peace”. He went to Confession often.
He spoke with many priests but he still could not forgive
himself and in fact he felt he was not worthy of that forgiveness.
He truly believed that God had forgiven him but he could not
One day a deacon in his parish invited him to help with the
prison ministry program. The deacon wanted him to tell his
story and how Christ had brought him peace and mercy. He
agreed to give the talk but in his heart he was uncomfortable
because he still carried an unimaginable burden and had yet to
experience peace. Yet, he wanted to do whatever he could to
help those men in prison. He agreed to help and made plans to
spend a weekend at the prison.
On the first evening he was setting up a room with cookies for
the prisoners when another man entered the room to help him.
They both worked at their task making small talk when my
hitchhiker noticed that the other man had the same last name as
the man he had killed when he was a teenager. He felt flush and
weak-kneed. He tried to push it out of his mind but he couldn’t.
That fateful day came rushing back to him. He remembered the
look on the man’s face as he fell to the floor. The detention
center and all of its filth filled his mind. For the next twenty-
four hours he could not shake either his memories or the thought
that the man on the prison ministry team may be related to the
man he had murdered.
On the next day of the retreat my passenger told the prisoners
his life story as he was now telling me. Some of the prisoners
reacted positively while others were indifferent. He could tell
that many were there simply because it was a chance for a
change in routine.
Later that evening, while arranging cookies for the prisoners, he
found himself working with the man he had met the previous
night. Once again he felt flush. He couldn’t concentrate on the
simple task of setting out refreshments. His head began to spin
as he approached the man and with words that seemed to come
from someone else he asked if was related to the man he had
killed. The man paused for a moment as if trying to catch his
breath. He replied that he was indeed related to the man and that
the man my hitchhiker had killed was his cousin.
In a tearful exchange with the man helping set out cookies, my
passenger confessed that he had murdered the man’s cousin. He
then begged for forgiveness. The two men sat down facing each
other with tears streaming down their faces. They looked deeply
into the other’s eyes. The hitchhiker cried out from the depths
of his soul for forgiveness while the other battled with the
temptation to hate him. A long period of time passed when
finally the man stood in front of the other who was now my
passenger. A look of indescribable peace came over the man
and he simply said, “I forgive you.” The two men embraced and
they both wept.
The very next day, which was the last day of the prison retreat,
the hitchhiker relayed the rest of the story to the inmates. He
also told them how the man he had met setting out cookies had
tried for over a year to get onto the ministry team but had not
been able to help until this particular weekend. He relayed to
them the healing power of God in its fullness and how no one is
beyond the mercy of God. In the end there was not a dry eye in
the place. Leaders of the Aryan Brotherhood and the Black
Panthers embraced and wept. Sworn enemies in that place of
concrete and steel forgave and asked for forgiveness. God’s
mercy swept over that room on the last day of the conference.
When my hitchhiker had finished his story we were both in
tears. It was difficult for me to drive. He turned to me and said
that he hoped that I wouldn’t think any less of him now that I
knew this story. I turned to him and told him that I didn’t think
any less of him and that I still considered him a close friend.
I ask the reader to forgive me if he or she feels led astray or
deceived, but the hitchhiker that I picked up has been and still is
a very close friend of mine. He is a fellow a parishioner and a
wonderful man. I have taught his children in the parish religious
education program and been involved with them in the youth
group. I have helped him build his house, work on Knights of
Columbus projects, and pro-life newsletters. However, I never
knew about this part of his life. I never knew of the burden that
he carried day after day, a burden that many of us could never
imagine. So in that sense, I did pick up a stranger on the road
This man, I’ll call him Kenny, has now dedicated all his free
time to prison ministry. He not only visits prisons but churches
as well. He visits churches and relays the story of his life and
the story of God’s never ending mercy. He works very hard to
raise awareness to the fact that those men and women locked
away in prison are still sons and daughters of God. His ministry
is to those who have all but been forgotten, to those who are
truly out of sight and out of mind. However, his ministry is also
to those of us on the outside. He ministers to us by reminding
us that we have a responsibility to care for those in prison.
(Matthew 25:36) He reminds us that even though the prisoners
may be guilty, and guilty of horrendous crimes, they still need
the love and mercy of Jesus Christ. They need to learn how to
accept the mercy of God and how to forgive themselves. His
ministry also reminds us that even though many of those men
and women deserve to be in prison for life they should still have
the opportunity to choose Heaven.
Kenny’s story has given hope to prisoners without hope and has
been the source of a great awakening in the needs of prison
ministry. I am currently working on a book, in novel form, about
his life and ministry to be used in his ministry. Please pray for
him and for this project that it may bring healing and bring many
souls to Christ.
Murder, Mercy and Ministry