Just Like Me

On Wednesday I heard the news regarding the Eric Garner case from a television in the waiting room for visiting inmates at the Otis Bantum Correctional Center on Riker’s Island. I was waiting with others for the bus to pick us up and drive us to the exit of the prison facility. I looked around the room and thought, I am the only white person here.

Despite living in the South Bronx ten years, that thought has been rare in my mind. I suppose it has been true at times in my building, on my block, in the bank, in the grocery store, on the subway platform, or in the post office, but that thought has rarely crossed my mind.

There were two groups of people in the room. The largest group was like me, not white, but visitors of inmates. Unlike me, they were all women. On my many visits to prison facilities I have noticed this is often the case. Some were waiting to see their loved one and others were like me having just visited their loved one.

The other group was correctional officers. I couldn’t help but overhear hear one of them say, “I don’t know what really happened, but when an officer tells you to do something, you do it.”

The person I had visited I have visited many times before. Most recently I visited him in the hospital. His leg had been broken when following a shooting on his block he was hit by a police car and tackled. A lot of the details of his injury frustrated me. I was frustrated with him. I was frustrated with the individual who had shot his direction. I was frustrated with the police response. I was frustrated with the things I knew. I’ve learned though over the years there is always a lot that I don’t know.

I had visited this young man many times before in prison. On this day I sat in a gray chair, enclosed by steel lattice as the prison guard opened the gate from which I freely entered. My friend, dressed in orange with beige, prison-issued slippers stepped inside the box. The gate closed; my friend placed his hands in an opening, and the guard unlocked the cuffs which held my friend’s arms behind his back. I smiled, stepped toward my friend, and we hugged. It was a good hug.

Together we sat for about an hour. That’s the length of time allotted by the prison for visits. We talked about many things. He asked about my mom. I told him, “My mom always asks about you.”

We talked a little about the reasons he was there. I suppose we could have chalked up his frequent incarcerations to poverty, to racism, to systems, to failed education, or to circumstances beyond his control. I see many of those things daily. Yet that’s not the conversation we had. Those conversations would have done him little good.

Instead we talked about life and death. We talked about how everyday, every moment, everyone of us makes a choice. We either choose life, or we choose death. Our natural way is death. Our tendencies, our pride, our reactions wreak of the stench of death.

Jesus taught this. But then he turned death upside down. He said death was the path to life. It was more than mere talk. Jesus’ death was the gateway to life. He says in order to follow him we must die. We must give up control and authority in our life. We don’t know everything and we don’t have the power to control everything. However, he does. Dying to self doesn’t change our physical prisons, but it frees us inside. With Christ living in us, his thoughts become our thoughts; our attitude, emotions, thoughts, words, and actions change. We no longer are bound, cuffed by the shackles of death. We are alive!

I also told my friend that he had taught me a lot. I asked him if he remembered when I visited him at the hospital. I wasn’t sure if he recalled the visit because he was in agonizing pain that night. I remember the visit vividly. As I sat next to him, his hand in my hand, squeezing through the pain, a nurse entered. The nurse provided little physical relief but instead offered advice. Knowing little of my friend’s story the nurse began lecturing him on the consequences of living the thug life. That’s how the caregiver viewed my friend. But he couldn’t figure me out. I don’t know what he was thinking, but I’m pretty sure he saw the two of us as completely different.

That day in the prison I suppose we looked completely different as well, but that’s not how I saw him and myself. I told my friend, “You and I are no different. It’s only by God’s grace that my missteps haven’t resulted in me being behind bars. You are no more or no less a sinner than me, and God has extended no more or no less grace towards you.”

“I’m not here as a pastor to preach to you; I’m not here only because I consider you a friend, a good friend. I’m here because I consider you a brother.”

The hour went quick. The guard returned. My friend stood. Before he turned his back to the gate, placing his hands through to be handcuffed, we hugged again. It was another good hug. I sat back in my gray chair as my friend was escorted back to his cell. I was dismissed, and returned to the waiting room where I heard the results of the grand jury in the Eric Garner case.

I know there is a cacophony of noise and responses to recent events. It’s on Facebook, Twitter, the news, on streets, in homes, in churches, in minds. Everyone thinks they know.

I know I am no judge. Any opinion I have on what I think should have happened or should happen, I realize is likely lacking all the information. I know there are things I don’t know.

I don’t know what is going to happen to my friend. I’m hopeful; that hope is based on faith, so I suppose I do know. It’s not merely wishful thinking to believe in his salvation but is instead based on my trust in a loving, sovereign God.

Perhaps there are two things I know beyond all doubt.

First, I know that God has helped me see how I am no different than anyone. I am just like them, and they are just like me. Michael Brown is like me. Darren Wilson is like me. Daniel Panteleo is like me. Eric Garner is like me. I am like them. We are all sinners.

Second, I know that God saves sinners like me. Jesus became like me so I can become like Him.

One day, we all will see the worth of Jesus’ life. We all will kneel before Jesus, worshiping him as the only One who is worthy.

In the meantime, I know God wants me to live this life seeing how everyone around me is just like me.

Andrew Mann
Pastor/Executive Director