I met James* when he was eight. He was a solid square-shouldered, verbally gifted boy with a beaming smile. He lived with his mother, whom he adored, and his brothers. His stepfather had just been shot dead on the stoop of his home on the most violent block of Long Island.
James was a born leader. He drew both peers and adults to himself with his charming and often manipulative personality. Yes, he was a survivor. He was gifted. He was in danger of death or of becoming a leader in a very negative way. He was matched to a mentor, but his level of risk was extreme. I thought this boy would either soon be dead or running his block.
It was about this time that I received a call from a businessman who was supporting a Christian boarding school for predominately black inner-city children. It was a private college prep school in Mississippi that was called the Piney Woods School. This man was willing to sponsor one boy to go to the school. What I liked about this opportunity was that it was on a farm and all the children earned part of their tuition caring for pigs, cows, tending corn, and other vegetables. They all had daily chores and the children ate what they raised. It seemed perfect for James.
James loved the school, but after two weeks, he got homesick. He said he wanted to leave. James was told that he could go back home in a few weeks, but not now. James made it known that he did not like that answer. The school called me. I talked to James. I told him I would fly him home during the school break at the end of the semester but not before. James had other ideas and broke every rule until they sent him home. This was 32 years ago. I do not remember if the family moved or why I lost track of James, but I did. However, I did not forget this exceptional young man with the winning smile.
Nine years later, I was working in the Nassau County Jail with a group of 16-20-year-old boys. I had just left the group meeting, and I stopped in the visiting room to visit another boy. I was standing in one of the saddest places I have ever visited, a room with a long table with a foot tall plexiglass barrier between visitors and inmates. I often saw babies and toddlers passed over that glass for daddy to hold. As one thickly built tattooed man walked by, he did a double-take, called out my name, and bent over the plexiglass to hug me. He held on and wept. I stood there dumbfounded, concerned that the officers would have a problem with this obvious breach of the rules. I had no idea who he was, why he knew my name, or why he was crying on my shoulder.
“John, I am so sorry. I am so sorry. I am so ashamed. I should have listened to you. I should have stayed at Piney Woods. You were right. You were right.”
“James?” I pushed away, wanting to look in his face. “James, it is you. Wow! Where did that little boy go?” That was the start of an adult to adult mentoring friendship. I visited James a couple of times and then he got out. That is when I started picking him up on the block. His street name was Tank and he looked like it. He was respected on the block because he had been sent away for armed robbery. He had robbed a bank.
I am not usually hesitant to go in most neighborhoods. However, this one was different. I would go early in the morning, because that was the safest time of the day. James and I would go out for breakfast. It seemed that every time I went, there was a new street memorial. These would look like piles of flowers, stuffed animals, and balloons gathered around a framed picture of the person who died on that spot. So I went to see Denis Dillion, the District Attorney of Nassau County at the time. He told me that the year before, that one block, Terrace Avenue, had more murders than all of Nassau County put together.
I once went at 6am and a young boy came up to my car and asked if I wanted to buy crack. At 6am! It was a dangerous place to visit, and it is a place where many children grow up and live. It is no wonder they grow up with a very different world view than most of us. One day I went to pick James up later than I normally did. Two men were loading an old pickup truck. They were moving someone. The belongings were piled much higher than the top of the cab. It was not tied down in any way and the pile was leaning toward the passenger side. As they got in to leave, I got out of my car and went up to the drivers window and suggested they take two trips. We ended up in a hilarious conversation. The driver had few teeth and a great sense of humor. Just then, James came out. “I see you’ve met Rumplestilskin. He is the oldest man on the block.” I asked how old he was and James told me he was 49. Men just didn’t live long on that block.
Shortly after James got out of jail, I was able to connect him with the man who had paid for his short trip to Piney Woods School. This time, the man gave him a job. I was amazed that he did not allow the failed attempt at helping James impact his willingness to make another investment. James became a helper on a truck that delivered snacks to grocery stores and delis. He did such a great job selling to new bodegas that he was in line to get his own route with a starting salary of $60,000. Before this could happen, he was hit by a car and laid up for several weeks. During that time, he got bored and low on money and robbed another bank. That solution to boredom had never occurred to me but James and I saw the world through different windows. When I found out, my heart broke. Yes, this is a difficult part of the ministry. I could see that this young man was special. He was exceptionally bright and interpersonally gifted. It was obvious to anyone who met him. Sometimes I want to just climb into a young person’s head to help them make decisions. I imagine God has often felt that way about me. When I pour into someone, I tend to expect a result that is equal to my investment. I saw such huge potential and I felt the love that God the Father had for this young man. However, none of this truth was apparent to the man from Terrace Avenue. This man grew up seeing a street reputation as the mark of manhood that is worthy of pursuing.
I went to the court proceedings. It was pretty apparent to me and James’ mother that he had done what he was accused of. I will never forget the branch manager’s testimony. “The leader of the group carried a rifle. When he demanded money, I went for the alarm, but he saw me and kicked me, and I fell to the ground. Then he did something strange. He laid his rifle on my desk, helped me up, and brushed off my suit as he apologized.”
The leader had a mask on, but when I heard the bank manager’s words, I recognized the heart that I knew so well. James was offered a deal of eight years jail time and was told that if he went to trial and lost, he would get 20. I met with James to discuss his decision.
He refused to take the eight years, insisting he would win. I asked him how he would be able to convince a jury when he could not convince his own mother of his innocence. That was 19 years ago. James just got out ten months ago. While he was in jail, he read many Christian books that I sent him and even had a loaning library in his cell. But it was God who continued to hold onto this man who had asked Jesus to be his Lord when he was 11. Some would say it did not take, but God took hold of him.
As soon as he got out of jail, he got a job in a warehouse. After work, he took welding classes at the community college. He is now a welder and a member of the union. He is active in his church. When I told him I was writing his story, he said, “ I am not done. I have much more to do.”
I still see the potential in this man. I am glad he now does too. He is no longer a man who is defined by Terrace Avenue. He is a child of God. This is his new identity. He is not finished, so this story continues.