It was his first Thanksgiving after 19 months as a hostage in Lebanon, and it was his 52nd birthday to boot.
So Father Lawrence M. Jenco was all smiles Thursday as he walked toward a church in Fullerton, where he would celebrate Thanksgiving Mass.
"I don't know. Emotionally, it's something very strange today," he said. "If one reflects on where I was last year and where I am this year, it's rather unique."
Last year, Jenco was in a room somewhere in Beirut's southern suburbs eating chicken and pickles with other hostages.
This year, there was a standing-room-only congregation waiting inside St. Philip's Catholic Church to sing "Happy Birthday" to him, and a parish hall full of people in Westminster waited to do the same.
"It's an emotion of joy that perhaps some people can't comprehend," Jenco said in a calm, measured, soft-spoken voice. "I can't intimately tell you what's going on inside me. I was trying to think about this earlier this morning.
"My feeling is, I'm very much at peace," he said.
But, he added, "I can still have the flashback of Thanksgiving last year. . . . I would wish that the joy that's mine, the peace that's mine, would be (the remaining hostages'). It's going to happen, I know."
Jenco was kidnaped Jan. 8, 1985, while driving to work at the offices of the Catholic Relief Services in predominantly Muslim West Beirut. He was released by his Shia Muslim captors last July 26.
News crews were waiting to interview him before the service began.
Will the Iranian arms scandal affect the release of remaining hostages?
No, he answered, the men holding them captive "are religious men, and this is not going to be a factor that is going to decide whether they are going to be released or not." The Islamic people "must be extremely disturbed by all this themselves."
Was he disturbed about the arms shipments?
"I can't comprehend why we have to ship arms and kill innocent men, women and children," Jenco said. "It doesn't make sense to me. And not only does it invade the Middle East, but it seems to be invading Central America now. What a tragedy."
Even if the shipments resulted in his freedom?
Given the choice of seeing the arms shipped or remaining a hostage, Jenco repeated what he said last Sunday in London: "I would have said, 'No, I will stay.' "
Yet, he said he believes that his family "prayed me home. People find that naive, but I don't."
He said he prays for the release of the other American hostages--Terry A. Anderson, chief Middle East correspondent for the Associated Press; Thomas Sutherland, acting dean of agriculture at the American University in Beirut; Frank H. Reed, U.S. director of the Lebanese International School; Joseph J. Cicippio, acting controller of the American University in Beirut, and Edward A. Tracy, a writer living in West Beirut.
"I thought it (their release) would be by Thanksgiving, but if not Thanksgiving, then by Christmas," Jenco said.
"We have to also realize that there are other people, too. Sometimes we Americans forget there are Frenchmen there, there's an Irishman there, there's Englishmen there, there's a Korean there, there's an Italian there. And also there are Lebanese Christians and Muslims who are held in bondage. So when we talk about the freedom of hostages, we have to explode the concept of who they are. We should work for the freedom of all. And that's where I am."
Minutes later, the silver-haired Catholic priest was standing before the church altar, leading a congregation that filled the seats and stood in the aisles. The yellow ribbons that have become symbols of hostages in the Middle East hung from a wall and from the pulpit.
"There is no way I can share with you the deep emotions that are within me this day," he told the congregation during the homily.
He prayed that people would "keep in mind those who are imprisoned as though we were imprisoned ourselves. . . . May they have the joy and peace that is mine today as I stand here in the presence of my Servite brothers and my Servite parish, my family, giving praise and thanks to a loving, faithful God who set me free."
At the close of the Mass, the entire congregation sang "Happy Birthday" as 7-year-old Tricia Crothers of Fullerton handed Jenco a bouquet of balloons and ribbons. He held them as he joined the solemn recession out of the church.
At the church steps, he spread his arms and released the balloons skyward. The parishioners watching him applauded.
Within an hour, Jenco had driven to the Blessed Sacrament Parish Hall in Westminster, where the church and a local convalescent hospital were co-sponsoring a free dinner "for the lonely and the homeless."
Again, Jenco answered reporters' questions before entering.
He is against "any kind of arms for anything," he said, but "I have to believe what the President said in a letter to me"--that the arms transfer to Iran had nothing to do with his or any other hostage's release.
As soon as Jenco strode into the hall, people seated at long dining tables began singing "Happy Birthday."
He was presented with a birthday cake, a painting titled "Mother and Child" and a dinner of turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, string beans, carrots and 7-Up.
Later Thursday, he said, he would sit down to a quieter Thanksgiving dinner with the brotherhood at the Servite Provincial Center in Buena Park, where he has been living since his arrival on the West Coast.