By Kay Etheredge

When I heard Matthew Zarna’s story I pictured the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding. He talked about big Sunday dinners with extended family at his parents’ home in Fairfield, and he told stories that have been passed down for generations about his ancestors back in Greece. The stories have been told and retold around tables laden with Greek food until Matthew tells them with ease. Most of us know we descended from Ireland or England or Italy but Matthew knows the names of the people he descended from and even for many of them, how and when they died.

His parents were deeply in love and their marriage lasted 49 years. His dad died first, suddenly, from a stroke. His mom died after a lingering illness with cancer. Matthew had his own home and several different businesses at the time, working primarily as a Bail Bondsman. As his mom’s illness progressed she needed more and more care. Matthew, glad to be able to help, found he was spending less and less time with his businesses. He began to suffer financially because of it but also because he was addicted to heroin.

He had had the same girlfriend for 10 years and she was also using drugs. He lost so much money from the neglect of his businesses and from his drug habit that he eventually lost his home. This put him in a downward spiral that resulted in the loss of his home, his girlfriend, and cars that he owned. He was homeless, an addict, and physically very sick.

He describes being dependent on his church for help getting into hospitals, motels, and shelters. Because of his inability to kick his addiction even his church family wearied of helping him. Family members turned their backs on him and he found himself alone. He had multiple health issues and on 12/31/12, Matthew was told by doctors that he was dying.  “I remember looking out my hospital window and seeing fireworks”, Matthew says, and he remembers clearly the irony of the dazzling fireworks against the stark backdrop of the devastating news he’d just received.

He left the hospital and checked himself into a Birmingham shelter. He stayed there until they began to realize that they were unable to care for someone in his grave condition. Matthew had a list of places to contact and Brother Bryan Mission was at the top of the list.

It was early in 2013 when Matthew showed up at Brother Bryan and he was met by Tom Zobel and Brian Keen.

“They decided to take a chance on me”, Matthew said, and they allowed him to come in off the street and welcomed him in.  Matthew says he immediately knew he was in the right place, and he has thrived at Brother Bryan Mission. Six years after his terminal medical diagnosis he is now living on his own and has joined the Brother Bryan Mission Staff. He talks animatedly about how he loves to help the men here. He remembers his own desperation and wants to help others who might be in similar situations.

“I belong to an exclusive club”, Matthew said. “You have to lose everything to gain everything. I have less materially than I had when I was 16 years old, but I have more contentment than I have ever had”.

Matthew says the men at Brother Bryan Mission have become his family, and he delights in spending holidays with the men here, who he calls his brothers. It may be different from the big Greek dinners in Fairfield, but they are family just the same. And years from now someone will be telling his story with great ease…the Greek with big, doleful eyes who lost everything, but gained so much more.