ATLANTA, Ga. (CNS) – When he ministered to Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, Divine Word Father Charles Smith found that his faith, instilled in him by loving parents despite the childhood pain of discrimination, enabled him to be Christ's representative even as the inmate verbally assaulted him.
"When I first came in (to see him) I thought 'God is the owner of my life,' and I went to him and he threw his feces on me and called me all types of names and said, 'You can't be a priest because I've never seen a you-know-what as a priest,'" Father Smith said Aug. 5. "The devil was messin' with me."
He made the comments in a workshop he led during the 2006 Interregional African-American Catholic Evangelization Conference, which was held Aug. 4-6 in Atlanta.
Other priests and Southern Baptist ministers had previously worked -- unsuccessfully -- with the man found guilty of bombing the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995 and murdering the 168 people who died from the blast.
But Father Smith persevered in his ministry to McVeigh and the convicted murderer, who was a baptized Catholic, began to repent. "He did a lot of things, but in the end we had confession, reconciliation. In the end he asked me a question a lot of people ask me. He asked, 'Father Charles, can I still get to heaven?'"
The priest said he responded, "I am not your judge," but reminded McVeigh that he had told him, "You must submit your will and ask God for true forgiveness. ... You knew there were a lot of innocent people and children in that building."
McVeigh asked Father Smith to walk with him to his June 11, 2001, execution. "And the tears came running down. He was crying, I was crying because he did something that changed my life, too.
"As a man it's hard to ask but for him to ask for God's love and God's grace, that did something to me," he recalled, reflecting on how God's grace can transform even the worst evil.
As he walked with McVeigh, Father Smith remembered how, when he was a child, a porter in an Illinois train told his light-skinned parents that he couldn't serve their "wicked children," who had darker skin, and how Mississippi restaurants refused to serve them.
"I remember my mom and dad say, 'Just be patient. God is going to make a way. God is going to change you. God is going to rise, and you're going to be raised up. Your life will be redeemed and your people (will be).' ... I remembered all of that, being with Timothy McVeigh."
Father Smith and his brother, Divine Word Father Chester Smith, were the first black Catholic twins to be ordained priests. Both priests are in residence at St. Rita's Parish in Indianapolis.
In his workshop presentation, Father Charles Smith encouraged people to speak the truth in love and humility, never pressuring anyone to join the church and avoiding a superior attitude to anyone.
"I know if God can call two little black boys from the South Side of Chicago to live 16-17 years in an international religious order, to go around the world and to come back home to be with his people to teach and to preach and be free in the Spirit, I have nothing to fear," he said. "I'm not worried about what any man says. And my eyes are on the sparrow. God is with me, and I know God is with you and we shall be free forevermore."
He encouraged his audience to be bold but gentle as they speak up for what they believe is right, even if it's controversial. But "don't be afraid to use prophetic dialogue ... in teaching us how to live, ... in ministry, catechism, Bible study. Use what is there to speak the truth."
He prescribed for them "old-school spirituality" of morning, noon and evening private prayer, recalling how, when he was told as a youth that he couldn't learn and shouldn't go to college, his grandmother would say, "Child, you just pray and God will make a way." He went on to graduate from college as valedictorian.
"You are a child of God. If you give your all to God he'll give his all to you so we've got to be people of prayer," he said. "Pray for God's perfect timing in your life. He's going to give you the revelation that you need."
Copyright (c) 2007 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops