26 September 2007

andre's story

We’ve lost our friend Andre. He died Wednesday afternoon and, honestly, this is the most painful loss yet.

Pastor Willie felt a need to visit Andre on Wednesday morning, so Stef and I went along to see our friend. It was the third time we’d been to see him since his cancer had struck back in such a way that he could no longer get out of bed.

We stared at his enormous body, rendered almost skeletal by the disease that had spent the last 3 years consuming him from the inside out. He struggled to speak, almost unable to force words out of his dry, cracked lips. The pain was too great. He managed to sit up for a moment, long enough to meet our eyes and produce one of the greatest, most heartfelt smiles I have ever been given access to.

As he eased himself back into the bed, wincing at the pain from the dozens of tumors residing in his lungs and liver, he closed his eyes slowly. I thought, for just a moment, that he was leaving us, leaving the pain. He opened them again after a second and gave us another feeble smile. Andre always smiled, even in the greatest pain. He had a reason to.

You see, Andre Vogel lived an incredible life. Andre found himself, in his early twenties living life as a narcissistic health-nut, a teetotaler who wouldn’t even drink caffeine between his six weekly workouts. Somewhere along the away, he got mixed up with a woman who he sincerely calls a witch. Within days of meeting her, he was addicted to cocaine and “deeply involved” with the criminal underworld. He began using his considerable size by working as a bouncer at a nightclub. He also began running drugs through the place, working for a syndicate (like the South African version of the mafia) and using his newfound wealth to pay off the top police officials in the area.

Becoming increasingly involved in the drug world, he found himself taking increasingly large amounts of drugs only to find his depression increasing in equal measure. Eventually, the syndicate trusted him with even more important duties, among them several contract murders. He carried out with cold-blooded precision, simultaneously reaching his spiritual and emotional low-point.

He went into hiding from the cops who weren’t on his payroll and from the syndicate, as he considered leaving the whole lifestyle. Under the influence of “ridiculous amounts of ecstasy”, he stumbled into a church one night. He doesn’t remember hearing much, until after the service an elderly woman he’d never met came and spoke a little bit of love and encouragement into his life. The basic message was that he was alive for a reason and that God had a purpose for him. She never knew what those words meant.

Andre prayed that night that drugs would release their hold on him. Waking up the next day, he was miraculously free of years of drug addiction. His next step was even bolder. He walked into a police station and confessed every crime he could remember.

Eventually, he was sentenced to a lengthy prison term for a murder he committed. Once in prison, he began sharing his conversion and God’s love. He escaped over half a dozen assassination attempts in prison, which he presumed were a case of the syndicate trying to wipe out a former member whose loyalties had changed to radically for anyone’s comfort.

He became a valuable member of the World Hope Prison Ministry, working from the inside to help a ministry that has reached over 10,000 with discipleship materials and spiritual rehabilitation.

Almost three years ago, he was diagnosed with cancer. Still in prison, he went through a grueling battery of surgeries and treatments. The cancer fought back harder than the treatments and faster than the surgeries and eventually doctors told him that there was no use fighting the disease anymore.

Andre was released early this year into the care of his mother on medical parole, a move of mercy from the Department of Corrections, usually ignited by a doctors opinion that prisoner was dying soon and needn’t die in prison. Not long after he got out, he recovered amazingly, working in the church with Pastor Willie and leading a small group from another church. He repeatedly disproved doctors who told him he had days or weeks to live. Over and over, he outlived projections, causing one doctor to nickname him “dead man walking.” He smiled so broadly every time he came back from a doctor’s visit, laughing at the latest forecasts of his demise.

Now in his early thirties, Andre prayed quietly one night, telling God that he longed for the things that free men take for granted. He asked God for a place to live (outside of his mother’s apartment) and a car to allow him to experience the freedom of the open road. That week, two people from his small group took him aside. One told Andre that he felt the need to give him a large house in Joburg’s western suburbs. The other told him that he wanted to buy Andre a car...now-and they left to go to the auto lot.

We met Andre when we met in July. (I had known him only through emails in 2004). He was always smiling, telling people how great life was and how incredible his God was. He would occasionally miss days at work as the pain began to grow. Still he would arrive again, smiling... always smiling.

The last day we saw him, we walked onto his property, past his gifted car and into his gifted house. There he lay, deteriorating. Yet when he opened his eyes, they were bursting with life, as alert as a child’s. And he continued to smile, telling us that God would take him when He was good and ready. He told us that he would be ready whenever that day came. We cried as we prayed with him, our hands on his scarred and tumor-infested body. We cried as we wondered if his day would be coming soon. For him and his suffering, it could not come soon enough. We dried up our tears as best we could and before we left, I snuggled up close to my friend Andre. I don’t have much experience with last words...so I spoke my heart.

“Andre, God has given you an incredible story and I promise that I will tell as many people as I give for His glory. Your life will live on long after you go. Keep trusting. I love you so much and I hope I get to visit you again soon.”

Andre smiled so nicely, his eyes trying to tell mine that my tears were appreciated. I think they were trying to tell me that he loved me too.

I never got to visit Andre again. I praise God for him, though.

Above all things, Andre would want you to know that God is faithful. And that God, and God alone, saved him. He would tell you that no one is beyond God’s reach and that no one is beyond redemption. Then, in case you didn’t believe him, he would invite you to sit and he would tell you his story. I’m sure he would smile the whole way through. I’d like to think that, today, free from pain, his smile has never been brighter.

Please pass this along to someone. Help me keep my promise to Andre.