At the age of twenty-four, Larry was drafted into the United States Army in 1967. He was looking for purpose. Having spent most of his childhood on the streets and in and out of state institutions, he had married young and had two daughters before the relationship fell apart. Now the army took six years of Larry’s life, including three years in Vietnam where Larry saw combat. Some memories he shared with us; most of them not. He later would say: “I killed, and I saw people killed. I got caught up in the war spirit, and kept re-enlisting until in 1974 they told me, ‘You’ve had enough, go home.’ But I had no real home; normal society had nothing to offer me anymore.”
The military gave him an honorable discharge but declared him “mentally unfit for assimilation.” Larry didn’t disagree with this assessment. He returned to the streets, dealing drugs and living for a while in an improvised army-style camp on Staten Island with other homeless veterans. In 1977 he was convicted of robbery and attempted murder, serving four years of a ten-year sentence in a range of New York State prisons including Attica.
Paroled in 1981, it didn’t take long before he resumed his old life. He later recalled:
I knew it was only a matter of time before I was dead. I felt like blowing my head off, but I knew that a true soldier dies with his boots on and never by his own hand. One day I went in desperation to my parole officer and told him to lock me up again. To give him a reason, I laid the pistol I was carrying on his desk. Instead of sending me back to jail, he directed me to the Bowery Mission in Manhattan, a Bible-based program to help people find purpose in life and a new chance. Though he wasn’t a Christian, he told me, “Maybe here you will find what you are looking for..” He gave me some money for the taxi ride; I used it for a bottle of wine, and walked. On the way I stopped at a small church where, sitting in the chapel, I was suddenly overcome with despair and wept tears of pain for the first time since I was a child. Something happened to me in that church. I ended up staying several years at the Bowery Mission.
After seven years at the Bowery Mission, Larry joined the Bruderhof community in upstate New York. He was a hard worker in the community’s factory, making equipment for people with disabilities. Active in the life of the church, he often assisted ministers at baptisms and weddings. He was known for his free-spirited renditions of “Amazing Grace” and for occasionally showing up in war paint and a kilt. Off-hours, he dedicated much of his time to mentoring children and young people.
One of his efforts was the “Lake of Fire Rescue Team” – a yearlong project to renovate an abandoned chapel in the woods (it had belonged to a long-discontinued Catholic summer camp). The members of the Rescue Team, apart from Larry, were a group of middle-school-age boys. In cooperation with their parents, Larry gave the young men lessons in work ethic, survival skills, and – most importantly to him – Bible study.
“Stay in the Word,” was one of Larry’s repeated messages to young people. They listened because it was obvious how acutely he felt his own need for God every minute and every day. He suffered from PTSD and was tormented by nightmares of Vietnam, prison, and the streets. Maybe that’s why he especially loved Paul’s exhortation to “put on the armor of God” in Ephesians 6: “Our fight is not with people; it is against the leaders and the powers and the spirits of darkness in this world.” With a hand on his well-worn Bible, Larry would quote Psalm 119, “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.”
When we buried Larry, one of his close friends read the words of Isaiah 53:
He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account.
This was the Jesus that Larry knew. And where does his story leave us? Will we answer the same call from the Jesus that Larry followed – the Jesus that walks the battle fields, the Jesus who sleeps on heating grates or in subway stations? Will we embrace and recognize the Christ in all who seek him? Or will we – as the prophet Isaiah so aptly describes – be put off by foul mannerisms or appearance?
I pray for thousands more Larrys to join with our community. May we be found ready.
Jason Landsel writes and illustrates Plough's “Forerunners” column, which features men and women of God through the ages. Larry Mason, who had adopted Jason’s family as his own, was the model for the striking portrait of Isaiah featured in Plough Quarterly No. 2. Jason sent us this reflection in honor of his friend, who died on October 23, 2014.