There was an evident chill in the room. There were more people attending this day, including Cynnie’s parents. The idea of having a Bible study with a sex offender seemed to intrigue and ignite the curiosity of parishioners. Father Luke was nowhere to be seen. People clambered around the table and murmured to each other. Darko sat patiently, waiting for it to start.
He was not sure what to expect. At least the members of this group seemed to listen and be open to new ideas. That was what he had always been lacking in his previous encounters with people. If they would give them the opportunity, he could prove to them that their perceptions of him were wrong.
Cynnie gave him an encouraging smile. She had said her parents were more accepting of him than her brother. Well, her father was, anyway. Her mother disapproved, but she would not go against her husband. They were there today to check out what Fr. Luke had to say. Darko felt sudden trepidation. There was an eerie gloom about the room. Something had to happen.
Fr. Luke walked in pushing a cart that carried a TV and DVD player. His face was solemn and serious. Everyone quieted down when he entered, but he did not speak. He gazed around the room with an unreadable expression. Then he turned to the TV and pushed some buttons.
The screen flickered on. It was the movie The Passion of the Christ. Darko had heard of it but had not had a chance to see it. He wondered what the priest was doing until he went to the scene selections. He found what he wanted, pushed play, turned off the lights, and sat down. Everyone looked around at each other in wonder before turning to the screen.
It was the scourging at the pillar. The details were bloody and gruesome. Darko found himself looking away several times. It was unsettling. Everyone else in the room seemed to be uneasy as well. He thought he saw tears in at least a couple girls’ eyes.
When the scene finished, Fr. Luke took command of the remote control again. This time, he played the Crucifixion. This was easier to watch, but it was still emotional. The priest turned it off right after Christ died. He did not speak for awhile.
No one spoke. The realization of what he had just seen soaked in through Darko’s skin. He suddenly felt ashamed for all his anger and hatred. For his doubt. For everything that brought him down. He knew what was important. It did not matter what anyone else thought of him.
Many people were in tears, including Cynnie. John looked stunned. No one moved. Fr. Luke stood up and faced the group.
“I was wrong,” he said in a strong voice. All eyes were on him. “I was wrong about Darko and others like him. I thought I was protecting everyone in my parish from evil. But what I was really doing was denying salvation to those who need it the most.” He paused. “I think we are all guilty of this. All of us except Cynnie.” His eyes landed on the girl. “Thank you for bringing me back to the truth.”
He lifted his gaze. “Jesus Christ came to save everyone. It is not our job to decide who will be saved. We are here to bring people to Christ, not away. We are not doing our job as Christians if we deny someone redemption, no matter what they have done in the past. Sexual crimes are terrible and regrettable, but what is worse is allowing someone to suffer for an eternity. We all sin. We’re all equally terrible in the eyes of God. But he chose to save us all. The least we can do is help each other reach our mutual goal.”
Then Father Luke turned and walked out of the room. No one spoke a word.
The next day was the last home game of the year; the rest of the games were in January. Darko was invited over to Cynnie’s house. John also came over with his wife Daisy. They all watched the game together with Cynnie’s parents. Everyone was sporting Packers gear. It was an exciting event.
It was not like watching football with Ben. These members of Cynnie’s family were much more wary at Darko. But the Packers seemed to win out. They hardly noticed he was there. Darko cheered along with them and found that they got along pretty well. There was not much room for discussion anyway.
Darko did notice John glance at him a few times. The Wisconsinite had an almost guilty look to him. He wondered if Father Luke had gotten to him. He remembered Cynnie saying the priest was his spiritual director. If Fr. Luke had changed his mind, perhaps there was hope for John. Darko decided to talk to him after the game.
As soon as the game was over, Cynnie and Daisy began to chat. John gave Darko a long stare. “Do you want some water?” he asked.
Darko nodded. As the other guy stood up, he said, “I’ll come with you.” He thought this was the perfect opportunity to talk to him. The parents had already left for a different room in the house. Or perhaps they were going back to the shop.
John pulled two glasses out of a cupboard. Darko watched him fill the cups with cold water from the fridge. There was a small table in the corner of the kitchen. Darko leaned on it with his hands and fixed John with a steady gaze. “John,” he said firmly. When the other guy looked at him, he saw how torn he was in his eyes. “Please.”
John hesitated. Then he sighed. “I’m sorry.”
Darko penetrated him with his gaze. He did not know how much more he could say. John was just going to have to choose to trust him. He had to decide it was worth the risk.
John put the water away before walking closer to Darko, leaving the two glasses of water on the counter. “Fr. Luke is right. I know I should forgive you, but that does not mean I have to let you into my life. And the life of my family.”
Darko nodded. “Granted.” He knew this must be hard for him. He appreciated that he seemed to be making an effort. It was more than he could say for most people. “I want to show you that you can trust me, but I cannot do that if you block me out. Give me the opportunity to prove myself to you and I will do so. Besides, Cynnie and I are going to continue seeing each other regardless of what you think. If you give me a chance, you could join us. Right now, you’re practically driving us to be alone in secluded areas.” He shrugged. “If there was going to be temptation, that’s where it would be.”
John raised his eyebrows. “So you want me to be a third wheel?”
“I want a chance to be your friend,” Darko said.
John frowned. “But I’ve spent the last few months hating you. Why would you want to be my friend?”
Darko realized he could think he had ulterior motives for being so forgiving. It was best to set it straight right away. “I don’t want people to judge me, so why should I judge them?” He smiled wryly. “Besides, practically everyone hates me. If I hated them all back, I would be very bitter and full of anger.” He shrugged. “It’s not very healthy. And I already have enough problems.”
John glanced down and shuffled his feet. His hands were in his pockets. He seemed to be on the verge of deciding something. “Wow,” he mumbled.
“Please,” Darko said. “I don’t want to cause any problems between you and Cynnie. Family should not be torn apart like that. I would know.” It had to be one of the worst things that could happen. Families were supposed to always stick together no matter what.
John was silent for a moment before speaking again. “Cynnie said something about you being a good Christian.” A puzzled look crossed his face. “You said you did not approve of religion. Why are you listening to Fr. Luke now?”
Darko understood the confusion. He figured he better explain this one too. He did not like the idea of opening up to someone who had been hostile to him, but that was the only way to get John to trust him. It was a risk he had already decided to take when he chose to stay in Green Bay. There was no backing out now. “I was raised a Catholic, but was never really a Christian until I began to read the Bible in prison,” he began slowly. “That’s when I was really saved. I grew excited. I was eager to leave prison so that I could join the Christians and create a better future for myself. I thought they would accept me with open arms because that is what the religion is about.”
He paused. The memories were causing his heart to grow heavy. But he pressed on. “My town was small, so there was only one Catholic church with one priest. I went straight to him after I was released on parole.” It was getting harder to speak now. John seemed to notice this and brought over the two glasses of water. Darko accepted his gratefully and took a sip. “The priest refused to let me join the parish. He said what I had done was too terrible. Unforgiveable. This made no sense to me. He would not let me explain. No one in my town would. Not even my family. The one place that was supposed to give me comfort and security was now my own personal hell. That’s why I got out of there as fast as I could. I could not stand being hated by the people I loved the most.”
He looked up at John, a pained expression on his face. “I had enough sense to know that it was not Christianity itself that was to blame. God was still with me. It was the people that were the problem. They would not let me in, and I decided I did not want to be involved in such hypocrisy. My faith is strong because it is all that I have. If not for God, maybe I would have turned into the monster people think I am, ironically, because they treat me that way. But I know God won’t give me more than I can handle. Even if it feels like my limits are being stretched.” He glanced down at the floor, embarrassed that he had revealed so much. He knew he was vulnerable now.
“I’m so sorry,” John said softly. “I had no idea.” Darko looked up to see a shocked expression on his face. It was soon replaced by guilt. “I just-” He shook his head. “Fr. Luke was right. None of us are better than one another. We have all sinned. I’ve done plenty in my past that I’m not proud of.” He hesitated. “I guess it kind of made me feel good to know there are others who have sinned worse than me. It makes me feel like what I’ve done isn’t that bad.”
Darko nodded. “I think that’s a big reason why people hate sex offenders so much. No matter what the people have done, at least they have not committed the unforgivable sin. And it’s a sure win for politicians to get on board.”
John frowned. “That’s not right.” He paused. “One group should not be singled out like that.”
“Like a scapegoat,” Darko said. “In Biblical times, the Hebrews would symbolically put all their sin on a goat and then send it out of the city to be cast out so that the people could be clean.” He shook his head. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve felt like that.”
“Scapegoats are usually innocent,” John said.
“How many of us are really innocent?”
John shrugged his consent.
Darko stared at him seriously. “Everyone deserves a second chance. Is that not what Christianity is about? What America is about?”
John’s eyes fell down to look at Darko’s shirt. “Maybe you’re not the only one I should be giving a chance.”
Darko was confused until he glanced down and saw his Favre jersey. He understood. He looked back at John, his expression softened. “He didn’t mean to hurt y’all. I bet he wishes he could come back and say he loves you. But why come back when it is clear no one will listen?”
John nodded. “We never really gave him a chance to explain.” He paused. “I think we need time though.”
“And what about me?” Darko said. “Are you ready to give me a chance?”
John gave him a long stare. Then he held out his hand. “Let’s start over and send our preconceived notions out the door.”
A smile broke out on Darko’s face for the first time in a long time. He took John’s hand and shook it firmly. “Agreed.”