My understanding and embrace of the power of prayer was deepened in the course of a 50-year career in pursuit of the calling I felt to truly help those among us who have the least. That lifetime journey took me through a spectrum of associations and institutions ranging from civil rights organizations to conservative think tanks and, finally, to the launch of my own Center for Neighborhood Enterprise.
Throughout that trek, I have had the honor to come to know and love and learn from hundreds of humble grassroots leaders who had exhibited an incredible power to transform the lives of the people they served — those who were once deemed beyond hope. The outreach of each of these individuals was marked by 24/7, long-term, face-to-face commitment to those they served — often at the cost of personal sacrifice. I witnessed hard-core addicts and alcoholics emerge as loving spouses, caring parents, responsible employees and even successful entrepreneurs. I saw young men who were once caught in a web of gang violence and warfare transform to become peer mentors and ambassadors for peace in their neighborhood.
I looked to these proven community healers as the true experts in redemption and revitalization, and eagerly convened forums throughout the country to ask them, “What Works and Why.” In their testimonies, person after person declared that they simply offered themselves as a vehicle for God’s transformative power. Among these was Freddie Garcia, a former heroin addict whose personal moment of grace and redemption took place in a gas station bathroom where he was shooting up while his baby daughter laid by his side. Freddie and his wife Ninfa went on to launch the Victory Fellowship ministry that has now touched and changed the lives of thousands of hardcore addicts and alcoholics. Freddie became my steadfast friend and brother in faith.
My middle son, Rob, followed a career path that eventually brought him to work by my side at CNE. He shared the same passion for and commitment to those who lived at the margins of society. But he also had a capacity to understand and draft public policy that would facilitate the life-salvaging efforts that we supported. People dubbed Rob as my heir apparent, and working with him was the greatest fulfillment of my life. Then, in 2003, tragedy struck.
My three sons and their families had gathered at our home for a birthday celebration. Rob and his younger brother Jamal headed to a nearby store on an errand. Within minutes, I received a desperate call from Jamal. “Dad!” he cried. “The car turned over and we are trapped!” He kept calling Rob’s name over and over. My wife Ellen and I arrived at the scene in minutes and watched the medics lift Rob’s lifeless body into the ambulance.
In my darkest times, I reached out to Freddie Garcia to help me make sense of what had happened. My faith in God was shaken and overwhelmed with doubt. As I railed against the pain and injustice of Rob’s death, Freddie arrived at my side and embraced me with his presence. He said, “I cannot help you, but I can connect you with the one who can — the Comforter.” Then Freddie shared something with me that helped me through that difficult time and serves me to this day.
He told me that he had lost two of his own children, a son and daughter, who had been shot at close range. When he learned of his daughter’s death, he threw himself down in despair. In agony, he cried out in prayer, “Lord, I know that it is through you that my life was salvaged from addiction and all I am and have and have done is through you. But the devil is mocking me, saying ‘After all the lives you have helped, this is how your God rewards you?’ The devil wants me to rebel against you, Lord, but I choose not to rebel because I know what you have brought me from. All I’m asking you, Lord Jesus, is to help me through this.” At that moment, he felt embraced by the love of the Holy Spirit and that taunting mockery was gone forever. He was at peace.
I couldn’t imagine living life without my beloved son, but I followed Freddie’s advice and stilled my heart to let the Holy Spirit speak. What happened next is difficult to explain and even more difficult to share. It had been a fitful, sleepless night and I lay staring into the darkness. Suddenly I saw Rob appear in a mist. He smiled and told me: “Dad, I am alright. I am OK.” Rob and the mist faded away, and I felt at peace.
Months later, I had a dream about Rob. When I relayed it to my daughter Tanya who called from college, she was shocked. She had experienced the identical dream. Rob was wearing a long brown coat. He was standing at an open door. He was silent and his face was slightly blurry, but a light was shining on him and we knew that it was him. From the look on his face, we felt that he was in transition and was moving on.
Encircled by the love of God and the prayers of friends, I had the power to as well.
• Robert L. Woodson, Sr., is founder and president of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise (cneonline.org). Portions of this reflection have been adapted from his forthcoming memoir, “Discovering America’s Source of Renewal: A Life’s Journey.”