It was another glorious weekend with the boys.
Every six months or so, I go hang out with about 40 plus of my closest friends and 20-25 other guys, who get invited to our biannual getaway.
However, unlike the male bonding weekends promoted and seen in movies, where the purpose is getting drunk, gallivanting and debauchery or roughing it in the woods with gassy men, animals, guns and hillbillies that want you to squeal like a pig, what my friends and I experience is much more wholesome, profound, and gratifying (without having to deal with hangovers, diseases or accidental or not-so-accidental deaths).
Last weekend, I attended my parish’s Men’s Emmaus Retreat at the Archdiocese of Miami Youth Center, next to LaSalle High School in Coconut Grove. It was the eleventh time I participate in such a retreat since my first one in April 2006 (call me a glutton for punishment but I can’t get enough).
For those of you who have never attended an Emmaus Retreat, the purpose is to disconnect from cell phones, computers, I-phones, blackberries, TV, stress and all the distractions and noise of everyday life and focus on reflection, spiritual growth, camaraderie with men, from all walks of life and faith backgrounds, sharing in great meals and, more importantly, contemplating transcendental matters.
It is raw. It is real and it is powerful.
To give you a sense of just how serious we consider what we do is, on the retreat that I was a retreatant, there was a man who attended named Andrew “the Ram” Crawford. Andrew was homeless (he had been living in his car) but had been attending morning Mass at our parish for several weeks (“the Ram” is what he wrote on the team roster).
Some of the guys thought he was not too stable because he was boisterous and bordering on disruptive at Mass. He would answer and pray with much more zeal and animation than most. However, one of the men in the group decided to invite him to the retreat. If anything, he thought the guy would get a chance to clean up and eat three square meals a day.
When he got to the retreat house, he was disheveled and had the scent of someone who had not had an opportunity to bathe for a while. He also had an unhealed sore on one of his arms and seemed a bit detached. Andrew was the kind of man who, just by looking at, you could imagine had experienced tough breaks in life.
During the talks Friday night, while everyone else was listening quietly, he would interject, “Amen” or “You’ll be ok., brother” or “God bless you” while men were speaking. I found out later that some of the team members were concerned that he would become too disruptive.
Yet, there was something attractive about his passion and faith. It was very sincere and heartfelt.
As the weekend progressed, I made a point to talk to him, if only briefly.
When the retreat ended, you could tell that Andrew was filled with the kind of joy and contentment that he may not have felt in some time. Although already more devout than most of the retreatants (including me), he appeared as if the experience had made an impact on him.
He was picked to carry the offertory during the end-of-retreat Mass and walked up proudly, wearing his white Emmaus shirt. If there was someone that I wanted to introduce to my wife and family to, it was Andrew Crawford, I thought. There was just something about him.
When the Mass ended, it was a mob scene of people walking out. I kept running into many of my new friends and their families and introduced them to my wife and daughters (my son had yet to be conceived). There were so many men that I wanted to introduce my family to that I lost track of Andrew. When I looked for him, I couldn’t find him so I figured; I would get another chance to do so in the near future.
During that week, the men that attended morning Mass noticed that Andrew was not showing up as he had been for several weeks. On Thursday of that week, we had a follow up meeting. He wasn’t there either. Many of the guys, including myself, had been looking forward to seeing him. We were disappointed when he didn’t show up.
As fate would have it, a couple of weeks later, before our next Emmaus meeting, I get an email at work that Andrew Crawford had been killed in a car accident.
I’ll be honest; it hit me like a rock and began to cry in front of my computer. Some of my co-workers noticed and asked me what was wrong. I felt as if I had lost a longtime friend even though I had just met him.
Well, we find out that several hours after the end-of-retreat Mass, Andrew had been involved in a fatal car crash not far from the church. His sister, who lives out of state, contacted one of the men in the group when police returned some of the belongings from his car, which included the Emmaus phone list and the Bible he was given. He was wearing his Emmaus shirt when he died.
We also found out that Andrew came from a large Catholic family of about 12 kids, who had grown up in the Coral Gables area and attended our parish school. He had gone into the military and the rest of the siblings started moving away. His parents had died and most of the family had become estranged over the years.
His sister said that Andy was a man of faith, as was she. In fact, she shared that when police contacted her to give her the bad news of the accident. She immediately knew something had happened to Andy, who she had not seen in several years. Before the officer had a chance to say anything, she asked him if he was Catholic. When he said he was, she asked him to pray a Hail Mary with her before telling her what he had to tell her.
We also found out that Andrew was a carpenter by profession (an irony not lost to most of us who had commented that he looked like Jesus Christ).
We will never know why God put Andrew Crawford at that retreat but I can tell you that on a personal level, however brief my encounter with this strange man was, he has made a lasting impact on my life. I will never forget Andy “the Ram” Crawford.
Like him, through the years I have met many men, whose lives have been affected for the better by attending the retreat. Among them was a man who found out he had stage 4 prostate cancer about three weeks after attending the retreat that I led in November 2009. He was at peace and showed amazing strength and courage during his final months. Also, another man, who had battled cancer for several years and had been in remission but had a relapse and was taken from this world a couple of months after attending our May 2010 retreat.
I realize the person I am today has been deeply shaped by my experiences with the Emmaus group and men like Andy the Ram.
Although I greatly enjoy my weekends hanging out with the guys, I realize that it is serious business.
As my friend, Joe, put succinctly, “This is life and death stuff. In fact, it's beyond life and death stuff." It's about our eternal soul and the souls of those we love.