September 19, 2017 / Praxis
Anthony Baker considers the theology in Rich Mullins’s most searching lyrics, two decades after the musician’s death.
Take a moment to consider the value and meaning of your name. With only transitory reflection, you may discover that your name is a multifaceted label with depth, gravity, associations, and significance. You will discover a history. Your name is the symbol that represents you, of course, without ever truly capturing you. It is an identity, and identity has beauty.
At the mention of your name, a brain activates countless neuronal pathways; the synapses fire information back and forth about physical and mental features—hair and eye color, attitudes and emotions, a recollection of the last encounter, and the list continues. A name also possesses weight and value, facets that cannot be compartmentalized and explained by a single discipline or association. A name is the other half of experience, going beyond the scientific model and toward what it means to perceive and be perceived. And so, what sort of value does your name, the very label that symbolizes you, hold? And what if you allow your name to become nothing to you? That is what my name became to me. Let me tell you how I came to despise myself, to disassociate meaning from my birth name, and how God’s grace and active reconciliation saved my life.
As a wayward teenager, there was one particular girl that stole my attention; she was a friend of my sister, Toni. But it was not her sophisticated words or alluring charm that fed my infatuation, for all I knew she may have lacked both; rather, it was my amorous disposition and an uncanny happenstance—that is, her timely availability and an opportune moment.
The last thought on my mind was commitment, and the first was a poorly orchestrated plan to hook up. I was a dealer, and illicit drugs were my lure. But in this case, neither Toni nor her friend were familiar with drugs, so substance had no power. This had to change. I offered each of them hardcore, intravenous drugs, and to my surprise, they hesitantly accepted. Toni awkwardly handled the syringe. Her eyes were fearful and her forehead glistened with sweat; she was unable to inject. I delicately took her by the wrist, whispered a few soothing words and gently pushed the needle into her axillary vein. Moments later, she slipped into drug-induced bewilderment. That night I abandoned her and took off with her friend.
The next morning, Toni was found alone. The drugs were too much for her body to handle. She was twenty-three when she died.
My name is Mike Acquaviva, and this is the story of how I reclaimed identity through an everlasting beauty: the great I Am.
The story begins in Detroit, Michigan—the city of my birth, the city in which I was raised, and the city of dejection and distrust; hope and loss; fear, restoration and revelation; the city of my salvation.
At the very moment of my first breath, drugs were there; when I mumbled an almost unintelligible first word, drugs were there; and when I took my first steps in view of vigilant eyes, drugs were there. I come from a drug culture: my father, an addict, sold drugs to support his habit. This environment shaped my identity, and inevitably, at the age of thirteen, I fell victim to the self-fulfilling prophecy. I began smoking marijuana, and hastily it escalated to pills, LSD, barbiturates, and lastly to my drug of choice, heroin.
By seventeen, I had established a lengthy repertoire of infractions and petty crimes, ranging from breaking into cars and stores to resisting authority. My rebellious behavior did not go unnoticed, and soon I was serving five years in the penitentiary. While in prison, I studied anatomy, physiology, and pharmacology textbooks with the aim of imitating the symptoms of specific conditions to obtain medication. At the age of twenty-one, when I was released from jail, I made my rounds between the area hospitals and clinics, conning the staff into providing me with medications like Dilaudid, which is a synthetic morphine, Desoxyn, amphetamines, and the like. I was doing well for myself, and as a result, I held significant power in my neighborhood.
And then Toni died. There were no words that could capture the pain and guilt I experienced when she died. I was certain that hell-on-earth was my inevitable punishment, and so I left my neighborhood and settled downtown in the skid-row area. For the next ten years, my existence consisted of heroin and homeless shelters.
After years on the street, I noticed that a friend of mine somehow managed to attain drugs without the inexorable shadow of the law enforcement. One day I met up with him to uncover his secret. He escorted me to a freeway corner and had me hold a cardboard sign that read: “homeless.” The undertaking seemed ridiculous and jejune, and yet I felt compelled to experiment. With an incredulous smirk, I turned to the street, sign in hand. In minutes a man in a white pick-up truck pulled over, rolled the window down, and gave me a ten-dollar bill. As the truck sped away, another car stopped and the driver handed me a McDonald’s hamburger, some fries, and a coffee. After expressing my thanks, the driver maneuvered back into traffic and went about his day. My expression of disbelief transformed into ebullient laughter as I strolled to the dope house—a hamburger in one hand and ten dollars in the other. What I predicted to be a fleeting experiment lasted for twelve years—by day I held a sign, and by night I slept under a bridge.
During my tenure underneath the bridge, I let personal hygiene take a back seat to my addiction, only showering when I was incarcerated. At one point, I had not showered for three years. Matters of cleanliness were of no concern to me, nor were companionship and social interaction. I wanted only a steady, around-the-clock supply of drugs and a place to sleep under the overpass.
The bridge was my punishment and my home. Everything that happened while under the bridge was my punishment, and for that reason I wearily submitted. My life was like quicksand without a struggle. I never fought back, for that might have hastened my end. Death was too good for me. I had to let the sand complete its lengthy and miserable course without disruption. A slow and wretched death, tormented by my actions, was what I deserved.
My physical, mental, and spiritual condition perpetually spiraled downward. Open sores began to plague my body, lice ravaged each hair follicle, and my self-esteem crept lower than the rats with whom I shared my home. From the days spent clutching my sign in the pouring rain and the bitter nights shivering on a concrete pillow, I became physically sick. Life was suspended from a precarious thread; with each breath, I wrestled a new illness. Meanwhile, I watched as one-by-one my friends died. Pneumonia, tuberculosis, AIDS, endocarditis—it was one disease or the other, or it was an overdose, or even a murder. And believing I was next, I cried out to God, “I know you are real, but do you have enough power to reach a guy like me?”
I did not expect much; I didn’t deserve his grace. Holding on to my hopelessness, I quickly displaced the prayer from mind. I continued working the freeway. And every so often, someone would stop by and say, “God has a plan for you.” In each such encounter, I responded with an incredulous laugh, and then muttered, “Me? You have got to be kidding.” I was on my last leg, how could God have a different plan for me?
One seemingly insane man stood out from the crowd of optimists. He fervently exclaimed, “God has a plan for you, and you are going to be involved in ministry.” I ignored the man by shifting my gaze. A week later, the same man approached me again, only on this occasion he came with a friend. With no veiled agenda, they asked if I would like a sandwich. After I graciously accepted, the man gently placed the sandwich into my weathered hands. The men smiled compassionately as I took my first bite, and with empathic glances and warm handshakes, they bid said good-bye. The two men returned every Saturday, offering sandwiches and clothes. This went on for a whole year.
One day they invited me to pray with them. Afterward, they extended an invitation to eat breakfast with them, which I suspiciously accepted. As it turned out, I had good reason to be apprehensive. They brought me to a hospital and checked me into a detox program. Then, at the conclusion of detox, I was persuaded to visit Harvey House, a men’s detox center operated by Restoration Ministries. But when I arrived, my heart was hardened. I longed for the comfort of my routines and above all, the judgment of my overpass. I had to go home.
Quickly I slipped into the familiar rhythm—holding the ‘homeless’ sign, shooting heroin, sleeping with the rats. To my surprise, one other familiarity resurfaced: the two men. They would not give up on me.
After six months, my physical condition again reflected the years of neglectful living, and life once again became uncertain. At night, my mind returned to Harvey House. I had only one chance left, but this time I was ready.
The noise of three car doors closing shut resonated off the stiff concrete walls of the overpass. This was the last time I would travel from the bridge I called “home.”
Feeling the discernible jolt of a sizeable pothole, I opened my eyes to a yellow sign through the back seat window: Restoration Ministries. I reluctantly stepped out of the car and sauntered into a new world. I approached this new life without a dollar in my pocket. In fact, all I had were the clothes on my back and a thirty-five-year history of drug dependence.
After arriving at Restoration Ministries, I quickly became physically sick, experiencing harsh withdrawals and mental exhaustion.
The first six months were challenging. I spent most of my time in deep thought, pacing around the parking lot. With time, I reluctantly handed myself over to the Restoration Ministries staff, piece by piece. Progressively, the hurt was replaced with healing. I began to trust these people, and more importantly, I began to trust in God. A new faith broke through the muck and mire—faith in God, faith in his plan, and faith in his salvation. I was transformed into a man of God.
In stride with my eighteen-month recovery, Ray Banks, the director of Restoration Ministries, offered a prayer to the Father in his office. He asked the Lord to implant in me the courage to trust in him, the assurance that I would never be deceived by him, and the faith to know he will never lead me astray. I walked with this prayer close in mind, and the Lord began to soothe my heart and mind; for once in my life, I began to trust others and trust in myself. And I began to see glimpses of Mike Acquaviva, the beautiful man God had intended, the beautiful man the Father rejoices in.
Before my time at Restoration Ministries, I believed rebellion to be a sign of strength, but as I reflected back on my history, I found that rebellion only wrought misery. And I found that it takes a stronger person to be submissive and obedient than to be rebellious, and with this hard-earned obedience comes great reward. I found encouragement on this disciplinary journey through the words of the men and women at Restoration Ministries who said “be still, be patient, and eventually you will see the freedom you already have through Christ.”
Eventually, I graduated the program, became the coordinator at Harvey House and then Director of the entire Restoration Ministries program. In these roles, I handle the interviews of men applying to our program. And I believe that God is using me in the exact ministry the two men proclaimed to me under my bridge. When prospective residents sit down, I can nearly read their minds, their thoughts, their fears and doubts. And with each interview, I myself am healed. I once was dead in mind, soul, and name, but now my beautiful God has restored my life and given me a purpose.
Mary Lynn Colosimo
with contributions from Chris Scott