Robert could’ve passed for an NFL linebacker. He stood six foot five and every inch of his frame was chiseled muscle and dark tattooed skin. On another day, his embrace, if not for the tears that ran down his cheek, might’ve felt life threatening.
“Brother Malik, if only I had someone like you in my life when I was growing up, maybe I wouldn’t have pulled that trigger. I’ll be eighty when I get out of this place. Eighty. What good will I be to anyone?”
Robert is a convicted murderer serving two life sentences and his first chance at parole will be sometime around 2060. After spending four days in his company and admiring him as his fellow inmates turned to him for fatherly advice and counsel, he broke down and told me his story. And it was the same story I’ve heard from the other convicted murderers I’ve met. Broken home, wrong side of the tracks, a life on the street, high school dropout, mom with two or three part time jobs and no father figure, murderer at 17, tried as an adult. Send him away. End of story.
Over the course of those four days I learned Robert spent his time reading everything he could get his hands on; history, textbooks, novels, the bible, operations manuals, law books. And he didn’t just read, he absorbed. He was a study in calm confidence and as we took turns debating the meaning of gospel passages, Robert was always the one the other prisoners asked, “what do you think?”
It was during one of those discussions I imagined all of us in street clothes, enjoying coffee at a Starbuck’s, and no one knows my friends are killers.
The reality of the gymnasium at Perry Correctional is much darker. This place is spartan; not much more than layers of gray paint surrounded by layers of gleaming concertina wire. It reminds me of the German POW camps from those old black & white WW2 movies my brother and I used to watch. Even the food is lifeless. A typical meal might be baked chicken with cornbread and instant mashed potatoes.
Today is different. Our Kairos team has brought BBQ brisket, green beans, carrots, yeast rolls, Cole slaw, and plates of homemade chocolate chip cookies. We’ve also brought hope in the form of a relationship with the risen Jesus Christ. And by all accounts, Robert has already accepted Christ, he’s only new to Kairos.
What did he do? I don’t know and don’t ask because that’s not why we’re here. We’re here to listen, that’s all. We plant the seed and pray for growth. That seed just happens to get planted inside the walls of a state penitentiary.
My dad was a judge for 25 years and he sent a lot of men, and some women, away for a long time, sometimes forever. Men like Robert. And when I listened to their crimes, I thought “yeah send that miserable bastard away forever. Let him die in prison.” And when I’ve met men like Robert, men that pray for forgiveness daily, I’ve questioned everything I know about our criminal justice system.
Robert wiped his eyes and asked me to pray for him. For the strength to endure his daily trials, the confines of his tiny cell, the drudgery and violence of prison life and the strength to make the best of it.
“If only I had someone like you in my life, someone to teach me the difference between right and wrong, how to treat a lady, how to see the good through so much bad, maybe I wouldn’t have pulled that trigger.”
What could I say?
“God bless you, my brother.”
“Merry Christmas brother Malik”
If Robert survives to see his parole board what will they base their judgement on? Good behavior? I suppose. They won’t base it on the tears of pain and regret he cried every night for sixty plus years. The years spent agonizing over his childhood decisions, the multiple pages of dairies full of regret and affliction, the dreams of having that one thing in his past that he desperately longed for. Not a better attorney, not more gun laws, not more school programs. A strong father.
Life is seldom black and white. It’s shades of gray, ambiguous, nonsensical, and occasionally irrational. Sometimes what we believe is so far from the truth, reality jolts us like a lightning bolt splitting a tree.
What does Christmas mean to you? Is it all presents and pine, hot chocolate and old songs? Or is it friends, family and wine? Perhaps it’s stories of a day many hundreds of years ago and the birth of a child destined to change the world. Maybe those stories seem so far away and ridiculous, as if something out of a children’s book.
And you’re correct, those stories can feel that way.
To Robert, Christmas means hope, and faith, and those stories are strong enough to melt the heart of a murderer.
Sometimes when I’m cycling, I’ll ride past Perry and even if no one is in the yard, I wave. Perhaps he’s looking out the crack of a steel reinforced window or behind several layers of concertina. Or maybe he’s been moved to Lee or somewhere in Georgia. I don’t know. I still wave, and maybe wipe away a tear.
“Merry Christmas, brother Robert.”