Grásta Dé! Junior high students learn how God’s grace can lead to mercy and forgiveness
Taking a selfie photo before more than 400 youth at the annual Grásta Dé! gathering at Andrean High School, former Benton Harbor, Mich. police officer Andrew Collins (left) and Jameel McGee, a falsley accused ex-convict from the city, told their story of conflict and forgiveness on Oct. 16 in Merrillville. Now friends, McGee's conviction for dealing drugs was eventually overturned, and Collins served time for planting hardcore drugs in police raids. (Anthony D. Alonzo photo)
by MARLENE A. ZLOZA
Northwest Indiana Catholic
MERRILLVILLE – Mercy and forgiveness were the themes Oct. 16 as more than 500 middle school students, youth council members and adult leaders gathered at Andrean High School for the annual Grasta Dé! retreat celebrating God’s grace.
In a keynote address that held the audience spellbound, two men from Benton Harbor, Mich. – one a former police officer and the other a man he wrongly imprisoned – explained how their paths crossed and re-crossed, leading to forgiveness and friendship.
“In this Year of Mercy, we wanted to bring in someone who could talk about mercy, and they have an amazing story,” said Kevin Driscoll, director of the diocesan Office of Youth and Young Adults, who said the event has grown from just 100 attendees 10 years ago.
Jameel McGee, 36, was a new father in 2005 when, headed to buy some milk for his infant son, he accepted a ride “from some guys who I knew were probably up to no good.”
In the meantime Andrew Collins, 34, a Benton Harbor police officer, picked up a suspect on a drug charge who said he could net Collins another arrest. McGee was grabbed as a suspected drug dealer, despite simply “being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Greedy for convictions, Collins lied. “I told my story and I got my conviction,” sending McGee to prison for 10 years.
“Very angry, very bitter,” McGee recalled, he “despised church because I was made to go every day” while growing up. Yet three years into his sentence, he saw a Bible that had been sitting on a table and decided to read it.
One day he realized “that every decision I made was mine. I had a choice, and I always took the wrong one,” beginning with his first incarceration at 15. “So I said, I’m done, and I gave it up to God.”
Meanwhile, Collins had been caught in 2008 with crack cocaine, heroin and marijuana in his desk, drugs he used to illegally obtain search warrants. “That was the end of the life I had built,” said Collins. “I pled guilty in January, 2009, and Jameel was freed in February. I went to jail, but I actually felt free, because everything was out.”
Released in 2011, Collins had followed his wife’s advice and confided in his pastor during his ordeal, and became active in Overflow Church. “My church was having a Hoops and Hot Dogs outreach at Broadway Park, and I was ready to be an ambassador of reconciliation,” he said.
Having taken his son to the park, McGee walked over to the pavilion. “It was two years after I was freed, and all the anger, pain and hurt was back on my shoulders,” he said. “I thought I saw Andrew, and I wanted to hurt him. I went up to him, grabbed his hand, and he said ‘I’m sorry I messed up your life, but I’m a different man now.’”
Asking Collins to explain to his son why they lost four years of life together, McGee “had some choice words for me and then walked away,” Collins recalled.
McGee thought that encounter ended their relationship, until a work injury to his hand led him to a Jobs for Life program.
Collins managed a café run by the agency that also sponsored Jobs for Life, “and the lady who ran it said ‘I think God wants you to mentor this guy.’ I said send him over and if he wants me, I’ll do it, and I’ll bet you can guess who it was.”
Collins ended up hiring McGee to work at the café. After a local newspaper story and TV report, the unlikeliest of friends began sharing their story of forgiveness and redemption, expected to become a book.
“There’s a lot of reconciliation issues in this world. . .maybe with you, too. Maybe there is someone God wants you to be reconciled with,” Collins told the young people.
“Your decision making does affect your future,” added McGee. “Keep God in your life, let him lead your footsteps. Don’t let your decision making lead you to places where you shouldn’t be.”
Eighth-grader Jasmine Arreola of St. John Bosco in Hammond said the keynote was her favorite part of the day, which also included Mass, a music ministry by the peer ministry team from St. Patrick in St. Charles, Ill., breakout sessions for grades 6, 7 and 8, a pizza lunch and a dance. “They showed that you can forgive anyone, even if they do the worst things to you,” she said.
Hannah Schneider, a seventh-grader from St. Matthias in Crown Point, said she came to Grasta dé! as a follow-up to the Ignite the Light event she enjoyed earlier this year. “The Mass was pretty cool, I liked the priest,” she said, referring to Father Ed Tlucek, OFM, pastor of Holy Name in Cedar Lake.
In his homily, Father Tlucek called on young people “to be missionaries of God” and stop the bullying in schools by standing up and saying ‘Enough!’ Help to support and strengthen each other. . . You need to keep reading the Bible and to keep praying.”
Diocesan father and son music team Jim (at keyboard) and Jake Kerwin play an inspirational song for eighth-grade students at the annual Grásta Dé! gathering at Andrean High School in Merrillville on Oct. 16. Four-hundred junior high school students attended the event, which also featured, skits, motivational speakers and Mass. (Anthony D. Alonzo photo)
At the annual Grásta Dé! retreat hosted by Andrean High School in Merrillville on Oct. 16, sixth-grade youths and youth council members cheer for skits produced about relationships with themselves, others and God. Four-hundred junior high school students attended the event, which also featured, music, motivational speakers and Mass. (Anthony D. Alonzo photo)