GREEN BAY — The emptiness that once led Jose Vera to destructive behavior is now filled by a sense of peace from God. Vera’s faith journey has taken him from a gang in Green Bay to the Capuchin postulancy program at St. Conrad Friary in Milwaukee.
“I know a different Christ now,” he said during an interview with The Compass at his home church, St. Philip the Apostle. “I have contact with people from the streets, people who are hungry, people who are poor. I find the ministry very inspiring.”
Vera’s days as a Capuchin postulant begin with prayer, followed by Mass. He then attends morning classes. During the afternoon, he provides ministry at the front desk.
“People come in asking for clothing,” he explained. “We have a shower program. We help them with IDs and birth certificates. Starting at 5 p.m. we serve about 300 meals (St. Ben’s Community Meal Program) a day to people from the streets of Milwaukee.
“Sometimes people come in because they just want people to listen to them,” he added. “They feel rejected. They feel alone. Society does not want them. It’s tough. They come in and break down. At the beginning, it was a little overwhelming for me because you are dealing with so much emotion.”
Vera can relate to feeling alone. His family moved from Mexico to Green Bay when he was 14 years old.
“I got a really bad start. I started hanging out with the wrong people,” he said. “I started drinking, smoking and using drugs at around 14. I felt that I didn’t fit in anywhere. The friends that I made were into drugs and drinking alcohol. I felt that doing those things was the only way they would accept me. A couple years later, I joined a gang. I was gang banging for five or six years.”
Vera’s family first joined St. Willebrord Parish when they moved to Green Bay. He felt that he was old enough to make his own decisions, so he didn’t attend Mass.
“I just stopped going,” said Vera. “All the bad things that were happening in my life, I blamed God. I never doubted that he existed, but I blamed him for not being happy and for making the wrong decisions in my life.”
Vera was taken into custody by the police on two occasions. He didn’t serve any jail time because his friends posted bail.
“I had a lot of anger, a lot of frustration within me,” he said. “There were times it was out of control. I remember crying and screaming to God, ‘If you really exist, why don’t you do something? Why don’t you come into my life and show me a better way?’”
During his early 20s, Vera was ready for a change. He confessed his behavior to his parents.
“I was really good at hiding stuff from them,” he said. “I would play the good boy. When I wasn’t home, I wasn’t doing anything good.”
Vera completed a rehabilitation program and enrolled at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College where he earned his welding diploma. He was offered a five-year union apprenticeship.
“I thought that I was somewhat straightening out my life,” he said. “I was making good money. I was traveling all over the country working. I was still not living a very good life. I was still drinking and I was always with women. I still felt empty.”
The thought of marriage and a family crossed his mind as a path to fulfillment. A retreat experience in Chicago spurred his discernment to a life of ministry. He was invited to the four-day retreat by a friend, Jose Lopez, a seminarian for the Diocese of Green Bay.
“I didn’t want to go,” said Vera. “The second day, I decided, if I’m going to be here, I may as well enjoy it. The third day, I actually started liking it. The fourth day changed my life.”
During prayer, a woman next to Vera collapsed. She was taken outside where she started screaming. Vera experienced a moment of darkness followed by images of things he had done in his life.
“Every single image made me feel guilty,” he said. “I wanted them to go away. I couldn’t open my eyes.”
He fell to his knees and started crying. Following the retreat, he began talking with a priest about his experience and spending time in prayer. He felt traumatized by the images and had trouble sleeping. Some nights, his mother had to stay with him.
“It took a long time to overcome it,” he said. “I felt like everything was chasing me. Prayer and meditation comforted me. I didn’t know that this was actually a blessing. I started getting closer and closer to God.”
Vera stayed active with Jornadas de Vida Cristiana, the youth group at St. Philip. He began discerning the priesthood. “I really felt called to a life of prayer, a life of service,” he said.
Through discernment, Vera determined that he was not called to diocesan priesthood. The wedding of a friend in Denver introduced him to religious life. The celebrant at the wedding Mass was a Capuchin.
“I was sitting in the front. He kept staring at me,” explained Vera. “After Mass, he asked me if I was married or if I was getting married soon. I told him that I actually was discerning the priesthood. He took me to his office and talked to me about what the Capuchins do. I loved their work helping the poor.”
Vera contacted Capuchin Fr. Bill Hugo, vocation director for the Capuchin Franciscan Province of St. Joseph. He visited ministries in Detroit and Milwaukee. The postulancy program had already started for the year, so Vera lived as a resident candidate in Chicago in preparation. The postulancy, a nine-month program, is the first stage on the journey to priesthood.
“Living in community is something I need in my life,” said Vera, now 33. “I love the brotherhood. I love the fraternity. I’m thankful for God’s mercy.”
Vera is open about his past with those he meets through ministry. While in Chicago, he shared his story with teenagers who were going through similar struggles.
“Through my experiences, I hope that they see that God doesn’t give up on us,” he said. “God is always trying to bring us back to him.”