Some of the letters are comical (a man asking God to let him win the lottery, twice), others are heartbreaking (a distraught teen asking forgiveness for an abortion, an unwed mother pleading with God to make the baby’s father marry her).
The letters — about 300 in all, sent to a New Jersey minister — ended up dumped in the ocean, most of them unopened.
The minister died two years ago at 79. How the letters, some dating to 1973, wound up bobbing in the surf is a mystery.
“There are hundreds of lives here, a lot of struggle, washed up on the beach,” said Bill Lacovara, a Ventnor insurance adjuster who was fishing last month with his son when he spotted a flowered plastic shopping bag and waded out to retrieve it. “This is just a hint of what really happens. How many letters like this all over the world aren’t being opened or answered?”
Many of the letters were addressed to the Rev. Grady Cooper, though many more simply said “Altar.” According to the text of several of them, they were intended to be placed on a church’s altar and prayed over by the minister, the congregation or both.
Some were neatly written in script on white-lined paper, others in a feverish scrawl on tattered scraps of parchment or note cards. Many were crinkled from being in the water and then dried out after Lacovara fished them out of the sea.
A dog-eared business card inside one of the letters identified Cooper as associate pastor of the Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Jersey City. A woman who answered the phone at the church office confirmed Cooper once was a minister there, and had died nearly two years ago. The current pastor did not return several calls from The Associated Press over the past few days.
Bank statements, canceled checks
Other documents in the bag, including bank statements and canceled checks, also listed Cooper’s name and an address for him in Jersey City. A death certificate issued in 2004 for a Grady Cooper lists the same address as those on the bank documents and some of the letters.
His wife, Frances, whose name also showed up on some of the letters at the same address, died in 2000, according to Hudson County records.
No one answered the door last week at the address where Cooper once lived, and a neighbor said he did not recall anyone by that name. Attempts to locate Cooper’s relatives were unsuccessful.
Lacovara speculated that someone cleaning out Cooper’s home found the letters and threw them on the beach in Atlantic City, about 100 miles from Jersey City.
“I guess rather than just throw them in the garbage, maybe they thought they’d set them out to sea to bless these people,” he said. “So they made a trip to Atlantic City, maybe went to a casino, and put the letters in the water.”
From love to the lottery
The letters, wrapped in several smaller brown paper bags inside the larger plastic bag, did not appear to have been in the water too long, Lacovara said, though about half were too badly damaged to be legible.
He opened a few with his son, Rocky, on the beach. The first few were humorous.
“I’m still praying to hit the lottery twice: first the $50,000,” one man wrote. “Than after some changes have taken place let me hit the millionaire.”
Another asked God to make a certain someone “leave me alone and stay off my back,” while still another asks God to calm a woman who “call the Internal Revenue on me.”
One woman complained that her husband always talks about sex, and another writer anonymously dropped a dime to God on someone cheating on his wife, complete with dates, times and locations.
But those, Lacovara soon found, were the exception.
Many more were written by anguished spouses, children or widows, pouring out their hearts to God, asking for help with relatives who were using drugs, gambling or cheating on them. One man wrote from prison, saying he was innocent and wanted to be back home with his family. A woman wrote that her boyfriend was now closing the door to her daughter’s bedroom each night when it used to stay open, and wondered why.
A teenager poured out her heart on yellow-lined paper in the curlicue pencil handwriting of a schoolgirl, begging God to forgive her and asking for a second chance.
“Lord, I know that I have had an abortion and I killed one of your angels,” she wrote. “There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about the mistake I made.”
One unwed mother wrote that her baby was due in four weeks, and asked God to make the father fall in love with her and marry her so the child would have a father.
Lacovara said he is sad that most of the writers never had their letters read. But he hopes to change that soon: He is putting the collection up for sale on eBay.