Joseph Sabino Mistick: Joe Bellante, a tough guy with a heart of gold
No life travels a straight line, but few lives have reversed direction like that of Joe Bellante, who died last week at age 77. Joe’s path from organized crime to the ministry is the subject of many articles and Sal Greco’s book “Left for Dead.”
That journey earned Joe respect with the tough kids he counseled in Pittsburgh’s toughest neighborhoods, where he coached football and wrestling. He ministered at the penitentiary, too. And some of his best work happened on street corners, where he stopped anytime he sensed trouble.
“The streets are my church,” Joe said.
But life did not start that way. When he was a kid -- a champion football player and bodybuilder -- Joe caught the eye of the guys who ran the old neighborhood, taking bets and lending money. They were always looking for tough kids, and after high school they hired Joe to collect bad debts.
“I never wanted to hurt anybody, unless they really deserved it,” Joe often said with a chuckle. Truth be told, his heart was never into that part of the job, so he developed a more benign approach, which earned him the nickname “The Dangler.”
“When a guy swore that he couldn’t pay, I’d hold him outside an upstairs window by his ankles. That gave him a different perspective, and he suddenly remembered where he kept his cash,” Joe said. “Nobody had to get hurt.”
Joe’s life almost ended in 1972, when a pal opened fire on him in a parking lot, shooting him in the face and leaving him for dead. One bullet remained near his eye all his life, swelling his face when rain was coming, causing him to ponder the old days.
After the shooting, he went on the lam to Florida and waited there until it was decided that it was all a big misunderstanding. But Sally, his wife of 43 years, saw her chance to reverse his direction, which Joe promised God he would do if he made it through. Sally held him to that promise.
So Joe retired from that old life and started fresh. And he stayed close with the guys from the neighborhood for the rest of his life. In the beginning, they humored him, certain this was a phase, but they came to know better, and they stuck with him.
And Joe collected new friends in droves with his message of redemption and salvation. He went anywhere at any time. He found those kids that society had decided were beyond help, and he helped them. He never gave up on anybody.
Sally says that everywhere they went, young men would swear that he saved them from the streets and showed them a path to a better life. With tears in their eyes, they would embrace him long enough that it meant something more than just hello or goodbye.
One of those former troubled kids, now a minister, too, visited Joe in the hospice in the final days and tried to explain how Joe got him straight. As he told Sally, “Joe kept loving me. He just kept loving me.”
(Joe Bellante and Joe Mistick are brothers-in-law.)