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Boston Hustler Jim Wahlberg Meets Mother Teresa

Lost in the Crowd

Jim was raised in a big, Irish Catholic family, nine kids strong, from the in Dorchester section of Boston. When his parents, Donald and Alma, married, they each had three kids from prior marriages. While Donald was cut off from his children, he raised Alma’s three kids as his own, and the couple had six more children. In order, the Wahlberg siblings are: Debbie, Michelle, Arthur, Paul, Jim, Tracey, Bob, Donnie, and Mark. Several siblings are famous in the entertainment world: Bob has been in 15 films and starred in 2019’s A City on a Hill TV series; Donnie is well known as a member of the boy band New Kids on the Block (late 80’s-early 90’s), several movie roles, including the WWII epic Band of Brothers, and since 2010, he’s starred in the TV series Blue Bloods. Mark also started in a band, Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch, in the early 90’s, and has since acted in more than 50 films, including Three Kings, The Departed, and The Fighter. Donnie, Mark, and Paul co-own the restaurant chain Wahlburgers.  

Jim has both good and painful memories of his childhood. “I was starved for attention,” he says. “We all were.” He’s quick to acknowledge his parents’ hard work to provide and care for nine children, but admits that their home was chaotic and dysfunctional. “I never brought friends to my house,” he recalls. “I was too embarrassed by our strained circumstances. Plus, my father drank. And you never knew what kind of mood he would be in.” His dad, a delivery driver for the Sands Café, was an alcoholic who’d come from a tough home life himself. Jim credits his dad with adopting Alma’s children, and for being a good cook, but has no recollection of him telling Jim he loved him, or showing the kids or his mom affection. His mom, Jim says, was very loving. One of his favorite memories of childhood is lying on her bed, with the lingering smell of Aquanet hairspray. Still, at age nine, Jim started running away from home to escape feelings of inadequacy and shame. He also began drinking, and was always in trouble at both school and home, where his dad often kicked him out for being unmanageable. Drug use wasn’t far behind, and he spent most of the rest of his youth in juvenile detention, foster homes, friends' homes, or on the street. He says his street buddies were a surrogate family, where he had a sense of belonging. As the cycle always goes, he was soon in trouble with the law, too. It began with arrests for being drunk and disorderly, and by the time he was 17, he was charged with assault. That led to a nearly five-year prison sentence, which was anything but rehabilitating. Jim remembers his mother coming to visit him. “She didn’t recognize me as her child. I was like an animal. Feral. As she tells the story, she pulled over on the highway on her way home, crying tears of overwhelming sadness. She pledged to herself that day that she would never visit her son in a place like that again. And she didn’t.”  
     
A Heart Transformed

Jim got out of prison at age 22 and lasted only six months before he was sent back for breaking and entering a random home, which he didn't realize belonged to a police officer. At the correctional facility in Concord, MA, Jim met a priest who would have a huge influence on him, Father Jim Fratus. In an effort to reach Jim spiritually, the priest offered him a job as a janitor and handyman for the prison chapel. “This looked like the perfect hustle,” Jim remembers thinking. “I can con him out of anything: cigarettes, food, access to the phone. It’d give me a chance to think, to be by myself. So, sure, Father. I’ll do it.” One day, Father Fratus told him the prison would soon have a special visitor: Mother Teresa. “That’s awesome,” Jim replied. “Who’s Mother Teresa?” Despite his Catholic family and background, Jim had never heard of the slight, Albanian nun, famous for sacrificially caring for the destitute of Calcutta, India. When she came to the prison on June 4, 1988, the encounter marked Jim’s life like nothing ever had before. Instead of sitting in the formal chair on the dais with the local cardinal during the mass, Mother Teresa chose to sit with the inmates during the mass. That simple gesture spoke volumes to him. “For the first time in my life, I saw the face of Christ. The face of love,” he recounts. “Mother Teresa knew that we weren’t just inmates. We had names, we had stories, we had souls.” Though Jim didn’t have one-on-one time with her, they did make eye contact and he felt that day as if God had sent his “number one assistant” just for him. After the service, she talked with and prayed for the men as a group. He can still hear her words to this day: “Remember that God loves you tenderly. You can make this place another Nazareth because Jesus is here, too. If there is any bitterness, get rid of it...I will pray for you. I will not forget you. I love you,” she said. Her warmth and sincerity cracked the hardness of Jim’s heart and started him on a path of seeking God in earnest that would last the rest of his life.  

Redeeming the Time

Though he didn’t understand all that was going on within him, Jim knew he wanted to get to know God. He expressed his desire to Father Fratus, who began giving him confirmation classes. When he was transferred to another facility, Jim was tutored by the priest there. He realized he was changing inside. “I wasn’t hustling anyone. I didn’t care about putting on a false front. When people looked at me, they didn’t see my scowling Boston mug. They saw a glow. They saw peace. They saw love.” 

Jim was released from prison in February of 1990, 24-years-old, scared, but with hope for the first time in his young life. He started volunteering at the Dorchester Youth Collaborative, where he met a beautiful young woman named Benerada, a fellow volunteer. They got to know each other, married in 1995, and have three children. He freely admits that life has been far from easy and that he’s struggled in relationships and even his faith at times. By God’s grace he’s never given up on either, and hasn’t touched alcohol or drugs since before he left prison more than 30 years ago. 

Jim found his calling in reaching youth through films that share the truth about addiction, and the only remedy: Christ. He founded Wahl Street Productions and has written, directed, and/or produced ten films which share his belief that drugs kill and God saves. His latest film is called What About the Kids?, in which the mother of a little girl named Chloe dies of a drug overdose, leaving the girl and her father to process their pain. What Jim has learned firsthand, he longs for troubled youth to believe: “No matter how big your sin is...no matter how wrong a life you may have lived, God can heal you...You can be a man or woman of God and a person of service. You can be what God intended you to be.”   

In these unusual days of social distance, Jim exhorts us to reach out to those who are struggling, including people with addictions: “If a neighbor’s child had cancer, we would offer to make a casserole or mow their lawn. But if a neighbor’s son or daughter is an addict, we pull our shades down and tell our kids to stay away.” Jim says there’s a stigma attached to addiction that we need to push beyond to help a struggling human being. He reminds us that recovery occurs in community and love, and during these times of greater isolation it only makes it harder. 

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