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Those of you who frequently read these Course Meets World pieces may recall the story of Mohammad Sohail, the convenience store clerk who responded to an armed robber with love and forgiveness. Recently I read a story that was strikingly similar — but with an unexpected twist that has given me rich food for thought about miracle workers and the effect of their miracles on those who receive them.
But first, a recap of Mohammad Sohail's story. This was a classic feel-good transformation story — so inspiring that I wrote two pieces on it (which can be accessed here and here). A man armed with a baseball bat tried to rob Sohail's convenience store. When Sohail pulled a gun on him, the man went on his knees and begged for forgiveness. Sohail, moved by compassion, not only forgave the would-be robber but gave him food and money. It turned out that the would-be robber had never robbed anyone before. He was just a down-on-his-luck family man who was desperate. He was so inspired by Sohail's kindness that he asked Sohail to help him convert to Islam. He fled the scene when Sohail went to get bread for him, but later wrote Sohail a touching letter in which he said he was doing much better, and that Sohail's kindness changed his life.
The more recent story, reported in the Miami Herald by James A. Burnett III, centers on Nayara Goncalves, a cell phone store manager in Florida. One day at about ten in the morning, a man entered the store and asked to see a cell phone. Then he reached into his coat and pointed a gun. He said, "I really hate to do this…don't be scared." Goncalves, a devout Christian, replied, "I'm not scared. You can do whatever you want, but I'm just going to talk to you about Jesus, my God, before you leave." The man responded by saying, "God bless you for that."
A fascinating conversation ensued. The man said he was a Christian too, and he had gone to a church that it turned out Goncalves had visited. He apologized repeatedly, saying he had never robbed anyone before, and was doing this only because he desperately needed money to keep his family from being evicted. Goncalves calmly listened, saying that she understood everyone was going through hard times and suggesting other ways to acquire the money he needed. But he proceeded with the robbery, sheepishly asking her to show him the money in the register. He justified what he was doing by saying that since she didn't own the store, taking the money wouldn't hurt her personally. She replied (though this was not in fact the case) that the store would take the stolen money out of her pay.
This last statement finally convinced the man not to go through with it. He said, "I don't want to do that to you. I'm sorry." He walked away, saying as he went that he understood she would be calling the police. Goncalves, still calm, continued to appeal to him to change his ways: "You know you don't need to do that [rob people]. You know Jesus. He can help you!" The man told her that the gun he had pointed at her was only a BB gun, and said, "You know one thing? Good is coming your way for what you did today." As he exited the store, she called out, "Be careful, have a good one. May God bless you." And that was that.
This exchange, preserved on a security camera at the store, greatly impressed those who saw it. A spokesperson for the Broward County sheriff's office said, "I haven't seen anything like this in 14 years. She really seemed to have no fear." Goncalves said, "To tell you the truth, I believe him when he said he wasn't a bad guy — like a criminal all the time. I believe that he was just desperate, like he said." She was just offering hope to a man who, in her eyes, had lost all hope.
As I first read this story, I was impressed by the similarities between Goncalves's story and Sohail's. In both cases, a store clerk is confronted by an armed man bent on robbing the store. As the incident unfolds, the man says he's never done this before and is only doing it because his family is in desperate need. The clerk is moved by compassion, and offers help to the man. The help is at least partly religiously motivated, and in response the man either wants to convert to the clerk's faith or is renewed in a faith he shares with the clerk. In the end, the two exchange warm goodbyes and the man exits without going through with the robbery, apparently a changed man.
Of course, one difference is that one clerk is Muslim and the other Christian. What struck me as I read these stories was that this difference really didn't matter: both clerks were part of the fellowship of miracle workers, regardless of their formal religion. The Course says something along these lines when it speaks of teachers of God:
They come from all over the world. They come from all religions and from no religion. They are the ones who have answered. (M-1.2:1-3)
I'm also impressed by both Sohail's and Goncalves's fearlessness. Now, the naysayer may argue that in both cases, the would-be robber was a first-time greenhorn rather than a hardened criminal, and thus there wasn't too much to be scared of. And of course, it must be acknowledged that Sohail started out by pulling a gun on his assailant, so he felt more in control of his situation.
But I'm still impressed by their fearlessness, because even though the would-be robbers said they hadn't done it before, how could Sohail and Goncalves be sure of that? Sohail eventually put down his gun; Goncalves was unarmed to begin with. Both of them ended up making themselves vulnerable to an armed man whose inner state could only be guessed at. The would-be robbers could have easily turned on them. But in both cases, the victim of the attempted crime persisted in offering fearless goodwill to his or her attacker. It sure looks like some deep sense of inner calm and invulnerability was activated in both Sohail and Goncalves.
So far, so good: two stories in which loving store clerks transform the lives of the people who try to rob them. But I promised you a twist, didn't I? Well, here it is, and oddly enough, it ends up countering the "greenhorn" theory, at least in Goncalves's case. For according to a follow-up story, it turns out that the man who tried to rob her wasn't a greenhorn at all. According to the police, he was a "serial robber" named Israel Comacho, a man whose rap sheet included forging documents, grand theft, and failure to pay child support. He had been in and out of jail since 1998, including an 18-month prison sentence. And less than two hours after his encounter with Goncalves, he used a very real handgun to rob a shoe store, forcing a clerk to give him money from the register. The ultimate irony: As he exited the shoe store, he said to his victims, "God bless you."
When I first saw this, it really threw me for a loop. Initially, I said to myself, "Well, I guess I'm not writing up this one." But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I actually needed to write it up. We all love those miracle stories when a loving person's kindness transforms the life of another person. Such stories sure seem to demonstrate that miracles of love transform lives. But what about stories like that of Goncalves and Comacho, where it seems like the miracle didn't transform the recipient at all? We don't want a version of what researchers call the "file drawer problem," where studies that successfully demonstrate some phenomenon are published, while unsuccessful studies disappear into researchers' file drawers, never to be seen again. I think we have to look at stories like this full in the face. What's going on when the extended miracle doesn't seem to "take"?
Three thoughts come to my mind as I contemplate this story. First, whatever the miracle receiver's response, I think the miracle worker still deserves full credit. I'm still deeply impressed by Goncalves's calm compassion in the face of attack. It's actually even more impressive now that we know she was facing an experienced criminal who could have really harmed her. As I mentioned, she couldn't have known that Comacho's meek "I've never done this before" was just an act. I get the impression that she really is in touch with the power of God, that something powerful really did move through her. When I watch her on the video, it is downright spooky; she is so calm and kind and earnest in her desire to help Comacho. She never wavers. That's something that makes me perk up my ears and take notice, whatever Comacho's response. Goncalves strikes me as a real miracle worker in this instance.
Second, perhaps Goncalves's loving extension of a miracle really did have an effect on Comacho. It's impossible for us to know for sure what was happening in his mind during this encounter. Yes, his record suggests that he's a dubious character (though of course deep down he is a Son of God like the rest of us). He had no compunction about lying about a lot of things; obviously, this wasn't his first time. We know he robbed another store later that day, and that act hardly suggests that he was truly changed.
Yet even so, it seems that there is more to the story. After all, in the end he chose not to rob Goncalves. Why? What was the difference between her and the shoe store clerk he did rob less than two hours later? What was it about her that caused him to walk away? Could it be that there was something in her fearless love that really did get through to him, if only momentarily? Could her miracle have had a real effect on him after all? It sure seems like it when you watch the video. Perhaps he is simply a very accomplished liar, but it sure looks like he is genuinely moved by her words, even if the effect may have worn off afterward. Again, we'll never know what was going on inside of him, but it is worth pondering.
Third, the Course itself speaks to the issue of when one person's extension of healing to another does not appear to have an effect. This issue is discussed at length in two Manual sections, "Is Healing Certain" (M-6) and "Should Healing Be Repeated?" (M-7). These sections are speaking specifically of a situation in which a Course-based healer attempts to heal a patient's physical illness and it doesn't appear to work; the patient has "continuing symptoms" (M-7.4:1). But I think the principles of these sections can be applied to this situation, in which Comacho certainly was exhibiting "continuing symptoms" of criminality.
Basically, what these sections say is that whenever a person attempts to extend genuine healing, she is always successful. It always works. "Whenever a teacher of God has tried to be a channel for healing he has succeeded" (M-7.2:1). Why, then, do healings sometimes appear to be unsuccessful? The reason is that while the healing is always successful on a deep level of the mind, the healed person may be afraid to consciously accept it, because it threatens his thought system too much. In such cases, we are told, the healing will not be consciously experienced, even though it has actually happened. Only when the recipient is no longer afraid of it will he fully experience its effects: "Healing will always stand aside when it would be seen as threat. The instant it is welcome it is there" (M-6.1:9-2:2). So, if the Course is right, it could be that Goncalves's extension of loving compassion was too threatening to Comacho's thought system. Therefore, her healing did not fully transform him on a conscious level.
But as I said, the Course assures us that the healing did happen, and our job when it appears otherwise is to trust that it did, whatever the appearance. Our temptation, of course, is to think it didn't happen, and get angry at the miracle receiver for dropping the ball. We don't know Goncalves's reaction to the news that Comacho was a repeat offender who robbed another store that very day, but I can easily imagine her saying to herself, "Well, there's gratitude for ya." Instead, the Course tells us that our response should be this:
No teacher of God should feel disappointed if he has offered healing and it does not appear to have been received. It is not up to him to judge when his gift should be accepted. Let him be certain it has been received, and trust that it will be accepted when it is recognized as a blessing and not a curse. (M-6.2:7-9)
Let this, then, be our response as we contemplate apparently "failed" miracles like Goncalves's extension to Comacho. We don't need to be disappointed that he didn't fully accept the gift offered to him. We can trust that, at the right place and at the right time, he will experience the same deep, conscious transformation that Sohail's would-be robber experienced. There are no failed miracles, really. A gift truly given is always truly received. According to the Course, of this we can be certain. "This is the certainty that gives God's teachers the power to be miracle workers, for they have put their trust in Him" (M-7.4:9).