Comments Off on ‘I knew … I would die a junkie’: Homeless Methamphetamine addict, considering suicide, finds savior in Omaha’s Grace University student

Fred Shafer sat in a downtown park deciding if today was the day he should die.

He had walked there from the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, where he had watched the Missouri River below. One smack, he thought. One smack and it’s all over.549cbc8813192_image

It was a beautiful day. Sitting in the park, he thought about returning to the bridge. But then he met a woman who came and went, as if in a cloud. She left behind a card, and a word she had written on it told Fred he would live.

Fred kept that card with him in his backpack, first to jail and then in rehab. All he knew was that the woman went to Omaha’s Grace University, and as Fred started the road to getting clean, he wished he could find her and tell her she saved his life.

* * *

Fred was tired of being high, and he was looking for a sign.

Addiction had made Fred a felon and cost him his family. Years of meth use were wearing him down. Even if he wanted to stop, he knew his options were limited because he was already banned from two Omaha shelters: one for using drugs during his treatment and another for a manic outburst while he was off his medication.

Even other drug addicts — friends who offered a couch here and there — had sent him back on the street with an admonition: You’d better clean up and find God.

Whole days would pass in a blur, leaving Fred with only the image of a billboard reading “Jesus Loves You.”

A friend suggested Fred try to get locked up again, because he had found his religion during a five-year stretch in federal prison.

“I knew I would die in my addiction. I would die a junkie,” Fred said. “I couldn’t go on the way I was.”

On that morning in October, someone passed him a bag lunch as he sat with a friend at Gene Leahy Mall, across the street from the W. Dale Clark Library. Inside the bag, besides a ham sandwich and fruit, Fred found a card signed “Yeshua, a.k.a. Jesus.”

He wanted to know more about the woman who brought it. Was she from a church? Why did she sign it “Yeshua”?

She told him she was studying the Bible in her classes at Grace. “That’s Jesus,” she told him.

Fred already knew. In federal prison for manufacturing methamphetamine, he had studied all the religious books he could get his hands on. He became a Messianic Jew — a religion once called Hebrew Christianity, whose members consider themselves Jews but believe Yeshua is the Jewish Messiah. Fred set out expecting it to be all wrong, but he found truth there instead.

Church groups were always bringing food to places Fred hung out. He never heard the word Yeshua come from their mouths, so he never felt like they were preaching to him.

But the card in the lunch bag shouted right at him: Give up the drugs and stay alive.

“At that moment,” Fred said, “I knew I’d walked away.”

* * *

Fred moved into the Open Door Mission in November, after he served a couple of weeks in jail on an old warrant for marijuana possession. He brought that card.

Fred stood out in Bible classes at the shelter, said his teacher, Tara Rye. He got deeply involved in Bible discussions and asked hard questions in class.

One day she mentioned that her day job is dean of women at Grace University, a small Christian college on top of a hill in the Little Italy neighborhood near downtown. Shafer ran up after class, clutching the card.

“Can you tell me who this is from?” he asked. “A girl gave it to me who was a student at Grace.”

It’s a small school, with just 450 students, but Rye didn’t know them all and she could find no clues in the card. Fred remembered she was short, African-American, with a big smile and an exuberant personality. And he held his hands up around his head — spiky hair, he said.

“Try,” Fred pleaded. “I don’t care how long it takes.”

Less than a week had gone by when Rye stopped a student, who fit Fred’s description, walking past her office. Rye doubted it could end up being this easy, but she asked anyway.

* * *

Taking food to homeless people is not the sort of thing LaQuana Billingsley usually does.

She has volunteered at homeless shelters and with missions, but always with some kind of school or church group. On that morning in October, though, the idea came to her to take some food downtown on her own.

LaQuana said she heard it, loud and clear, from God’s mouth to her ears. She felt awkward about the whole thing, but God was speaking. She wanted to listen.

As she made sandwiches in her north Omaha kitchen, LaQuana agonized over the details. How do I know they will like ham? Should I use mustard or mayonnaise? Am I going to offend anyone? She enclosed a card with each meal, and she scrawled words of faith and encouragement in red marker. She hoped she would be able to drop the bags and run.

She had to make the delivery before class at Grace. The mother of two is working toward a bachelor’s degree in communications.

She walked through the library, seeking out people who looked hungry.

“My flesh was nervous,” she said. “I was trembling.”

She passed out a few lunch bags inside and went out the door to the park across the street, where she asked Fred if he was hungry. He was clearly homeless. He looked tired and dirty. After he read the card, he asked over and over about Yeshua and why she wrote it. LaQuana wasn’t entirely sure why, aside from her mind being on her biblical classes.

LaQuana wrote about her experience in her journal, but she didn’t tell anyone at Grace she’d gone. She didn’t think it meant much. So when Rye stopped her weeks later to ask about it, her first thought was that she must be in trouble.

“Did you go downtown last month to bring some food to the homeless?” Rye asked her.

Rye told her that she knew Fred, and that her card was the trigger that sent him into treatment. LaQuana immediately remembered the man who wanted to talk about Yeshua.

“I don’t know why,” LaQuana said, “but that little man had stayed on my heart.”

After she absorbed the news, LaQuana pulled out her phone to show Rye a conversation she had with a friend. On the same day Fred was asking Rye to find her, she had been watching news coverage of protests and riots, wondering where God was.

“Why is God so silent with us?” she had asked her friend in a text.

God sees you, Rye told her. He sees Fred, too.

* * *

Last week, LaQuana drove to the mission to formally meet Fred, who was then a little more than a month into drug treatment. When he came into the room — heavier, smiling, maybe even glowing — she started to cry. When he told her the whole story of the day they met in the park, how he had been contemplating suicide, she sobbed.

“He says he’s in debt to me,” LaQuana said. “I feel like I’m in debt to him.”

Her whole life she has tried to go where God has led her, and sometimes that has left her with more questions than answers.

When the Arkansas native first came to Omaha, waiting for a job to open up, she lived in her car. She lost a job years later for lacking a bachelor’s degree. That drove LaQuana, now 35, to go back to school. She chose Grace, she said, because it feels like God lives in the very fiber of the campus.

She jokes that she might just need to become a professor, if only to stay in those halls forever. Fred hopes he can spend some time in the library there and maybe take classes, too.

LaQuana had been searching for a spiritual home, and listening to Fred talk about his faith drew her to his Messianic synagogue. She recently went to a Saturday service, where a woman gave her a Jewish Bible. She brought it to show Fred.

What this all means to Fred is hard for him to put into words, aside from it all feeling meant to be. He has tried to stay clean before, but this time feels different. He is 36 years old now. He is ready, he said, and this time he is doing it with God.

Every day during his morning meditation, he focuses on a portion of Psalm 51: “Hide Thy face from my sins, and blot out all mine iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”







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