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Hustled by the Spirit

Debbie Cramsie
Debbie Cramsie
Debbie Cramsie is a writer and commentator for the Catholic Weekly.

He sat in maximum security, surrounded by some of the most intimidating and violent people he had met in his long life of crime.

22-years-old, Jim Wahlberg’s mugshot taken by the Massachusetts department of corrections in 1987.

Rapists, murderers, bank robbers and drug dealers, all waiting for a special visitor to arrive at the prison.

You’d have to be living under a rock not to know who Mother Teresa was.

The tiny Albanian nun and founder of the Missionaries of Charity had devoted her life to caring for the poor in Calcutta and was the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, but to inmate #44563 she was a complete stranger.

Jim Wahlberg hadn’t had an easy life … far from it. He had been homeless and an alcoholic before he was legally able to drive.

He made bad choices and got into a lot of trouble with the law. He was estranged from his family and expected to be in and out of prison for the rest of his life, or die on the streets with no one around to notice.

Despite being raised a Catholic, he had no idea who the woman widely regarded as the world’s most well-known Catholic (only after the pope) was.

But a surprise visit with her would change his life forever and set him on a journey from a life of addiction to one of redemption.

Mother Teresa’s visit to MCI-Concord. This visit had a powerful impact on Jim, who was an inmate at the time. Photo: Paul C. Clerici

“Here’s this little 77-year-old lady walking towards me, she was five feet tall if she stood on her tippy-toes, her old sweater had holes in it, and her sandals looked like she’d been wearing them since the time of Christ,” he recalled.

“Rather than sit in a fancy chair away from the inmates she knelt with us and prayed.

“For the first time in my life I saw the face of Christ. The face of love. I couldn’t stop looking at the kindness and gentleness in her face.

“I looked at her and for the first time in my life I saw true humility. I saw love. I saw saintliness.

“After Mass she told the inmates, ‘Remember that God loves you tenderly. I will pray for you. I will not forget you. I love you. God Bless you’.

“She spoke words of forgiveness and mercy, everything she said was geared towards us, and that we were more than what brought us here.

“Mother Teresa knew that we weren’t just prisoners, we had names, we had stories and we had souls.

“That day absolutely changed my life and the next day I began my preparations for my Confirmation.”

“That day absolutely changed my life and the next day I began my preparations for my Confirmation.”

While Hollywood A-list actor Mark Wahlberg’s conversion story is well known in Catholic circles, his brother Jim is now telling his remarkable story in his new book The Big Hustle. It has the proportions of a Hollywood blockbuster, much like the kind of tale his famous sibling is in. Throughout its pages Jim details a journey from addiction, homelessness and incarceration to faith, sobriety and redemption.

While Hollywood A-list actor Mark Wahlberg’s conversion story is well known in Catholic circles, his brother Jim is now telling his remarkable story in his new book The Big Hustle.

Jim told The Catholic Weekly that when left to his own devices he always ran into trouble. But when he let God take over, his faith sustained him and his life changed forever.

“Here I was in prison for the second time. I’m 22 years old, no education, no hopes, staring at a prison sentence of six to nine years for breaking into a police officer’s home,” he said.

“If I messed up here and had to serve the whole sentence, I’d be 31 when I got out. I’d be a relic with one foot in the grave. So what was I going to do?”

Jim Wahlberg after his First Communion.

Jim decided to create the illusion that he was trying to change. He set out to hustle the prison’s priest as a volunteer in the chapel … but as it turned out, it was the priest who ‘hustled’ him – in a manner of speaking – and helped give him a second chance at life.

“Fr Jim Fratus didn’t give me any hard sell, he just told me that he had an opening in the chapel for a handyman, a clean-up guy to sweep the floors and empty the trash and would I be interested?” he said.

“Well, why not? This looked like the perfect hustle. The guy was a priest. I figured he’s probably as naïve as a newborn baby. I can con him out of anything including cigarettes, food and access to the phone.

“Plus I’d get to hide away from this crazy place in a quiet chapel. It’d give me a chance to think, to be by myself. So, ‘Sure, Father, I’ll do it’.

“Then, little by little, he drew me in. He said, “Hey, I need you to clean up after Mass Saturday night and since you have to be there anyway, you may as well come to Mass.

“Slowly he brought me home to the faith, a faith that was mine by inheritance but about which I knew less than zero.

“Within a couple of weeks I’m going to Mass, meeting Mother Teresa and finding faith in unexpected places.”

Growing up in Dorchester, Massachusetts, the middle child of nine, Jim lived in a working-class Irish-Catholic neighbourhood.

Family photo c. 1974. Back row: Debbie, Michelle, Arthur. Middle Row: Paul, Jim, Tracey. Bottom Row: Bob, Mark, Donnie.

Like so many others, he went through the motions and made his First Holy Communion although he saw it as simply checking something off a list.

“It was a reason to dress up in a white suit, have a little gathering, a reason for people to give you envelopes with a few bucks inside, but it wasn’t about having a relationship with God,” he said.

“It had nothing to do with faith. It was just tradition … something you were supposed to do for some inscrutable and long-forgotten reason.”

With so many mouths to feed, his parents struggled to put food on the table and he recalls the embarrassment of redeeming government food stamps at his local store.

It was only due to his big-drinking father hitting a big enough payday with his bookie that the family was able to buy a house in a more upscale part of Boston.

The other kids had nicer clothes and Jim said he always felt an overwhelming sense of shame and guilt because they needed assistance.

“We were immediately aware of what we didn’t have,” Jim said.

Jim Wahlberg after his confirmation in 1989.

“Kids can be mean, it certainly wasn’t just our own insecurities. In many situations, we were made aware of what we didn’t have and I think it certainly contributed to my feelings of being less than, embarrassed and ashamed.”

At the age of eight, he started to look for something to make those feelings of inadequacy go away and found alcohol.

He was hanging out with some older boys who thought it would be funny to watch a little kid chug beer and while nothing really happened physically, mentally it was a different story.

He felt an overwhelming feeling of acceptance from the older kids, that he belonged and was liked.

His life of rebellion continued. He quickly found himself experimenting with drugs, running away from home and becoming a ward of the state.

Jim spent his early teenage years in the foster care system and juvenile detention before, at age 17, being sentenced to Massachusetts State Prison for armed robbery.

Just six months after his initial release from prison, Wahlberg was facing six to nine years in jail for robbing a police officer’s home. At that stage he knew he’d hit rock bottom.

However, “I think God had his hand in that,” Jim said.

“The cop whose house I broke into could see I needed help. He went into court and said, ‘Why don’t we get this kid some help? He’s a mess’.

Jim with his wife Benerada and their three children (from left to right) Daniel, Kyra, and Jeffrey.

“Looking back I think God put me in that prison and in the path of Fr Jim Fratus which saw me for the first time deal with my struggle with addiction and the transformative power of faith in overcoming it.

“From that day my life changed forever and I knew I was on a path to redemption.”

After four years, he was released from prison, got married, moved to Florida and had three children.

Though sober, his faith life waned to the point that he was just “going through the motions” until he attended a men’s retreat a few years ago where he described feeling the Lord’s presence in a life-changing way.

“It knocked me down to my knees,” he said.

“I’ve been blessed to continue to do the work of cultivating my faith, and to bring other men to that retreat, to be part of and witness to what God is doing in their lives, seeing their lives restored, their marriages restored, their families restored. It’s incredible.

“I was as broken a young man as you could ever meet, but people believed in me and showed me love through those years.”

“For the longest time, I would pray in a simple way, ‘God, help me,’ but there wasn’t a relationship there and all along, that’s what I needed.

“I needed a relationship with God. I needed to feel his presence. I needed to understand all that was given up for me to live.”

Mark and Jim Wahlberg prepare for the World Meeting of Families with Pope Francis in Philadelphia, September 2015.

Today, the less-famous Wahlberg is a speaker, writer and founder of Wahl Street Productions, where he has created 10 films about addiction. He also serves as the executive director of the Mark Wahlberg Youth Foundation, an organisation he started with his brother Mark to help underprivileged youth in Boston.

“I was as broken a young man as you could ever meet, but people believed in me and showed me love through those years,” said Wahlberg.

“God is patient and kind, and all along He was there with open arms, just waiting for me to take that step toward Him.

“I feel as though God is calling me to make these films, write about my experiences and to start these conversations.

“Every time I think about moving on, about walking away, I remember the families that have lost loved ones to addiction … I don’t claim to have all the answers, but if we pray with each other, communicate with each other and love each other, I have to think we’re on the right path.”

Wahlberg is thankful every day for the platform he has been given through his famous surname and makes no secret of the fact he is happy to use it to spread his message.

“I know God’s not keeping score but I’ve still got plenty to make up for.”

“I have this opportunity and this little last name which I can use to show people that if I can overcome what I have and not be ashamed, then they don’t have to either,” he said.

“I’m really happy Mark has been so successful in the movie business but I’m most proud of the fact that he’s fearless when it comes to his faith and that he’s willing to share it with people.

Jim directing the film What about the Kids? (August 2019).

“I’m so glad that when he puts something on social media as beautiful as praying with his wife, or sharing the fact he got his ashes, has such a big impact.

“It is without doubt the one thing I am most proud of my brother. If we can use our surname for this purpose then so be it, I know God’s not keeping score but I’ve still got plenty to make up for.”

To purchase The Big Hustle by Jim Wahlberg visit OSV Catholic book store or get it from Amazon.

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