Finding Religion Through Fear

I hookied from school a lot in Philly, because school was boring. The school guidance counselor came to the apartment one day to meet with my mother. I was shocked to see her, since we lived in a really bad part of the inner city. She told my mom that the reason I played hookie so much was that, as tests showed, I was too fast for the classes I was in. She suggested I go to a Catholic school about a mile from where I lived. We could not afford for me to go to such a school, but the guidance counselor already made arrangements and said the fix was in.

Turns out, I loved going to school after all. I learned Latin and became an altar boy at the Cathedral of Peter and Paul. We spent the first part of every day learning the catechism and had to memorize so much of it. Little did I know then how that would pay big dividends in college when I acted in various plays, and in summer stock where we had to memorize pages of script.

The nuns were all nice to me, as they underestood my poverty. The problem turned out to be that the nuns also scared the beejeebers out of me. They told me God was everywhere, and for the smallest infraction I would burn for eternity in Hell. I did not love God. I feared Him. I prayed like crazy only because I did not want to burn.

Every day I had to go to the church for my Latin lessons, then walk the two miles back home. I needed a bicycle and could not afford one. So I went to Gimbel's department store one day and took the escalator to the ninth floor toy department, where I found a beautiful Scwinn sitting there begging me to steal it. No one paid attention to ten year old boys in those days, so I wheeled the bike down the escalator for those long nine floors and out the door, as though I had just bought it. No one questioned me or thought to stop and ask. The entire time going down the escalator, I kept up a running dialogue with God insisting that the stolen bike was so I could do His work and nothing more. I knew He would understand.

I confessed to the priest that following Saturday, and he insisted that I say an entire rosary and that I return the bike to Gimbel's. Well, I said the rosary but did not return the bike. I disguised it by taking off the front and rear fenders and painting it a dull black color, using a can of paint I (yep, you guessed it) stole from the paint store.

When I was not in school or at the church, I spent my time in the telephone book finding addresses to various caterers; there were thousands of them in Philadelphia. I'd ride the bike for miles to reach certain ones. I would lurk at the back doors waiting for an opportunity to steal food from the trucks that delivered. I'd ride home to feed three younger sisters. After that, I followed the Abbot's milk trucks. They dropped off cheese, milk, eggs, bacon, and english muffins. The entire time I stole food with my stolen bike, I kept praying to God that He understand why I was doing this.

I spent my life in fear of burning, until I reached a point where I finally knew that God had bigger fish to fry than punishing a hungry kid. Today I would not steal a dime. No longer afraid, I just want to be worthy of God's incredible love for me.

Semper Fidelis,

Joe Labriola

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