to prison we will go
Jesus came to Nazareth where He had been raised. As He always did on the Sabbath, He went to the meeting place. When He stood up to read, He was handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Unrolling the scroll, He found the place where it was written: God’s Spirit is on me. He’s chosen me to bring good news to the poor, to announce pardon and forgiveness to prisoners, and to recover sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed—and, to proclaim this is God’s year to act!
Jesus rolled up the scroll, handed it back to the assistant and sat down. Every eye in the place was fixed on Him. Then He said to them, “You’ve just heard Scripture make history. The Scripture has been fulfilled. It came true just now in this place.”
Luke 4: 16-24
When my mother, Ms. Nada, entered the criminal justice system at the ripe, wise age of 60-something-plus years old, nobody told us that we would succumb to a paralysis of shame that would leave us incapable of moving forward—or backwards or sideways for that matter. Nobody explained how critical our first moves, our first phone calls, even our very first prayers would be to a verdict of guilty or not-guilty. We were common people with common jobs and a basic level of education. We were good people who hadn’t prepared for this kind of worst-case scenario. Who knew? But there we were, good citizens suddenly caught up in a “what is happening” stupor that left us mute and cut off at the knees.
We thought we were decent people, but this kind of thing didn’t happen to decent people. Nobody coached us those first few days. We didn’t know how to keep breathing or how to put aside all of our feelings. Nobody warned us that our mother was counting on us. Her hope depended on us. We had to make some moves for her sake. But shackled and breathless, we could not move. We were incapacitated for weeks and months. And when we finally caught our breath and found our footing, it was too late.
More than 20 years later, we still don’t know what we’d do differently. If you called today and needed us to coach you through your own legal crisis, our only advice would be the obvious: get a lawyer. But how? We wouldn’t be able to tell you. We are still good people living regular lives, more or less. We are certainly better people than some, and perhaps a little less than others. I would consider us an average family of average faith and average goodness. Tonight, if the phone were to ring and there were terrible news on the other side, would we be more prepared this time around? What did we learn from the last time? I would say that we are as unprepared now as we were then. The only thing that we learned by heart is that we can’t win. Like a carnival game, the system is rigged and up to no good. One thing is for sure, we would tell you to trust no one—not even yourselves.
When the news that my mother killed a woman reached us, I don’t think any of us were surprised that our Ms. Nada was capable of killing another human being, to tell the truth. We were her children, so we know that laying beneath all her pretty brown skin was a furious terror. Some of it we could attribute to her mental illness—the voices, the paranoia, the scattered thoughts and warped thinking. The rest of it, though we never spoke this out loud to any living soul, was just Nada being Nada—well-dressed, poised and terrifying.
Our shock in hearing the news wasn’t the act or it’s rather gruesome details. In a way, the news seemed inevitable. It seemed the other shoe had finally dropped and busted through the floor of rotted wood. Our lives always felt precariously threatened by her. Each day was a survival. The police and even the 911 dispatchers were not unfamiliar with our address. Everyone knew “Crazy Nada” and her children. This unthinkable act was always possible. We all knew it. Yet, when it actually happened, we still found ourselves completely ill-prepared. That’s the way it is with all unthinkable, life-and-death news. What to do first? Who to call? What to say?
Long ago in ancient days, there was a homesteader living in the middle of the wilderness named John. He was a good man from good people. He lived his whole life waiting for the Savior to finally come—Jesus, the Promised One. And Jesus did, quietly and without fanfare, just as He said He would.
John came from a legacy of disbelief. Before he was born, his father was struck mute due to a wild case of overwhelming disbelief in his extraordinary circumstances. But John believed like Moses believed it would rain and everyone thought he was crazy. Unlike his father, John would be anything but speechless. Like a street corner prophet, for years and years he would proclaim extraordinary things and warn people that the end was nigh! Get ready! Get your lives in order! The One we have been waiting for is coming! He would preach incessantly, wearing animal pelts, eating locusts, and challenging the cultural and social norms of the day. He was staunch, singular and completely sure of his purpose. Until one day, the unthinkable happened and he found himself, a good man, on death row. Suddenly, his father’s legacy of disbelief, consumed him (Matthew 11:2-3):
John, meanwhile, had been locked up in prison. When he got wind of what Jesus was doing, he sent his own disciples to ask, “Are you the One we’ve been expecting, or are we still waiting?”
John didn’t know that the worst thing that anyone can do when the worst things happen is to let shock and disbelief settle into your mind. There is no time for bafflement. It is not the time to find yourself speechless. Every word you say matters in these moments more than you can know. They will haunt you for the rest of your life. This is not the time to doubt yourself, or God.
On May 31, 2019, Netflix released When They See Us. It’s the in-depth true story of five teen boys who were arrested, tried and convicted of a brutal rape in Central Park in 1989. After serving time, four of the boys—who had grown, as boys do, into men—were exonerated of all charges. One, who was still serving time in Rikers Island Prison, received early release.
Before that fateful night in 1989, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Corey Wise were good boys from decent families. For some people, the idea that black boys from the inner city can also be good is a stretch. Biases and stereotypical predilections will stand in the way of the truth: They were innocent boys, just a bunch of children, without criminal records or any record of disturbing behavior. They were regular teenagers who posed no threat. But in the dark of night, fear—white fear—shapeshifts black boys into ungodly, dangerous hoodlums, grown men. Thugs out for a kill. And as Tupac so eloquently told us, a thug is nothing more than The-Hate-U-Give.
When They See Us is the story of five American families. Unlike my family, theirs were not waiting for the other shoe to bust through an already rotted floor. These families were like most working-poor, American families who envision good futures for their kids—futures outside of prison cells.
I am consumed with grief watching their story. Even though I already know that the episode will inevitably end in five wrongful convictions, I still hope for each boy to get their wish to go home. As I watch the screen, I pray for each of their horrible ordeals to simply be nothing more than an arduous hassle that happened one night—but that in the end it’s just one night. I’m watching the tv and trying to supernaturally will each boy home, into his bed with all the ugliness behind him.
I am also consumed with grief because, like my family’s story, nobody told those families that everything that happened in those first few critical hours meant life or death for their sons. Actually, they had, but they’d lied. Nobody told them to trust no one. No one told them the game was rigged. The house always wins.
I am consumed with grief because their story isn’t the first time that young black boys didn’t know that they were cooperating with a system that could not keep promises. How were they supposed to know that no amount of cooperation would change their fate? They were good boys from good families who didn’t know to immediately call a lawyer.
I am grieved because it was neither the first nor the last time the system re-classified young black boys as animals and locked them up in cages.
During The Middle Passage, ripped from their land, our ancestors were shocked speechless with disbelief. They were good people. How could this be happening? They were innocent. How did they become prisoners? They found themselves suddenly shackled and breathless with fear, wondering how to get back home again.
I think the hardest thing about being black in America is being the descendants of property. We were collected from our own native shores like spices or sugarcane. One ordinary day we were human and the next, we were ordinary things purposed to make the good life even easier for those who kept us in their possession. We entered this country as cargo and were branded property of fill-in-the-blank plantation. We were so dehumanized that centuries later, our country finds it hard to even listen to a black person, let alone believe one. It’d be like believing that property can think, feel and speak, like the candlestick and teapot in Beauty and the Beast. To take the word of black people in this country is a supernatural occurrence, rare and fleeting as it was in 1889 and 1989. Nearly thirty years later Eric Garner says, “I can’t breathe,” and we all heard him. But did we?
When the worst thing that could ever be imagined actually happens, the first thing you can’t help but to do is validate the experience. Is this really happening? It is really happening. So the second thing you can’t help but to do is to pray for someone or something to save you.
My siblings and I loved our mother. When we received the news that she’d killed someone, we believed that, given her history of mental illness, she would of course be taken to a psychiatric facility where she might finally get some help. But that’s not what happened.
Antron, Kevin, Yusef, Raymond and Cory’s parents loved their sons and believed that their innocence would, of course, free them. But that’s not what happened.
John the Baptist loved Jesus and believed that He was the One. Yet he found himself on death row, asking, “Are you the One we were waiting for?”
And millions of black voices rise from the deeps of the Atlantic Ocean and beneath the soil of this country asking, “Who will save us?”
Jesus said, “Blessed is anyone who is not offended by Me or disappointed because I am not what was expected. Blessed is anyone who sees Me living and working amongst the poorest of the poor and not overthrowing the powers that be and still believes that I am the One who was promised. Blessed is anyone who sees me for who I am and still confidently trusts that I am here for you, regardless of how it may seem. I know your pain and I know what I am doing.” (Matthew 11:4-6)
Some days and for some stories, this is enough. But on those darker days filled with unthinkable stories and phone calls that come in the middle of the night when all goodness is drowned in dark shadows, it is not enough. Beneath the darkness, my muted, shackled, breathless soul cries—Lord! Oh Lord! I believe. Help my unbelief.