The Job for Life program looked like a good fit for an ex-con like me. Eight weeks of classes for people who had done prison time and needed help reintegrating into the workforce. We were learning stuff like interview techniques, how to write a résumé, how to deal with stress at work.
There was a position waiting for me when I graduated, a good job at a café run by a nonprofit. For the first time since my release, five years before, something was going right for me.
Initially I didn’t want to sign up. I told the caseworker, Mrs. Deb, that sitting in a classroom wasn’t my thing. I liked working with my hands, but the last job I’d had was at a metal-finishing plant and while there I injured myself. I couldn’t afford the surgery the doctor said I needed and was soon out of work.
For a while now I’d been sleeping in my brother’s car, homeless and hopeless. But Mrs. Deb wouldn’t give up on me. She tracked me down, gave me a bicycle and five changes of clothes. I was blown away. Couldn’t remember when anyone had done anything that nice.
“Okay,” I said, feeling obligated. “I’ll give it a shot.”
Three weeks in, I hadn’t missed a class. Always sat in the third row, soaking everything up. I loved the way the teacher, Miss P, got everybody talking. I began to open up myself, began to see that I wasn’t the only one who’d suffered and been mistreated.
One day Miss P announced we were going to meet our mentors. “Your mentor,” she explained, “will be the person who can guide you through the next steps. They can help you move forward.”
She said that God had placed on her heart that a certain person should be my mentor. “Who is it?” I asked. She told me. I stared at her in disbelief. It was a name I’d hoped never to hear again. Anger made my hands shake. What kind of a sick joke was this?
“Is there a problem?” Miss P asked.
“Is there a problem?” I spat the words out. I hardly knew where to begin.
February 8, 2005. My girlfriend had just given birth to a beautiful baby boy and I was going over to her place to see him. Everything was going great for me. I worked at a car wash—had recently been promoted to manager. I had a good relationship with my girlfriend and I was so proud to have a son.
I wanted to pick up some groceries and got a ride with my cousin and his friend. I knew they were into drugs but I was clean. I just needed to do this one errand.
I was heading into the store. “Let me use your phone,” the friend said. I tossed it to him and went inside.
Next thing I know, I’m coming out of the store and a police officer is running toward me. “Where’s the dope?” he shouted.
“I don’t do drugs,” I said, as respectfully as I could.
He patted me down and ordered me not to move. He went back to the truck. I told myself this would all be cleared up in a few minutes. Instead I was put under arrest, charged with possessing crack cocaine.
I figured everything would get straightened out at the police station. I was innocent. Didn’t have any crack on me. I’d been in trouble before, as a juvenile, but I’d gotten my life together. I’d turned myself around. If I told my story I was sure I could set everyone straight.
But no one would listen. Even my lawyer, a public defender, didn’t seem to believe me. He hardly put up a defense at the trial. Everybody bought what the officer, Andrew Collins, testified under oath to—that I had made a call to a known drug dealer.
“That was a call another guy made on my phone when I was in the store,” I’d tried to explain. Collins insisted that he had found an ounce of cocaine in the cup holder of a truck I’d been driving. “That wasn’t mine!” I insisted truthfully.
Collins testified smoothly. He had his story down, all right. Except it was a lie and he knew it. Still, the judge pounded his gavel and sentenced me to 10 years in prison. I vowed that day that when I got out I would hunt Andrew Collins down and make him pay.
The other inmates quickly learned to stay away from me. I was burning up with rage. Just a nod in my direction and I’d fly off the handle. This was justice? It was a sham. If I couldn’t get to Officer Collins, I’d go after someone else.
One day I looked down in my cell and noticed a Bible another inmate had left behind. I hadn’t paid it any attention before, but now it seemed to be speaking to me. I didn’t open it up, didn’t read a word, but I could hear its warning: Watch out. Look at what your anger will do to you. It’ll destroy you.
I had a job working in the prison yard, pulling weeds, spreading mulch. I pounded the ground with my shovel, imagining I was pummeling Officer Collins, burying him.
But then I’d come to my cell and see that Bible. My mom had read the Bible to me when I was little. It had never made much sense to me, but here, in prison, I finally opened it up and began reading.
Maybe because I was in so much pain, the stories spoke to me. I could identify with the Apostles Peter and Paul. They had been wrongly accused and beaten. They had done hard time. I read about Jesus and his mockery of a trial, the torture he endured. Let it go, I heard a voice bigger than my rage say. This is my battle. Vengeance is mine.
Don’t ask me how, but I agreed to let it go. If the big guy wanted to fight for me, I wasn’t going to stop him. I wasn’t doing a very good job of it myself. And I was so tired of this sick, angry feeling eating away at me.
A week later, February 4, 2009, my name kept being called on the loudspeaker: Report to the counselor’s office. I paid no attention. I figured the counselor was still trying to get me to join a drug rehab program because it would “look good for the parole board.” I turned him down once and would turn him down again. Just because a cop had lied was no reason for me to lie.
The counselor finally tracked me down. He handed me a fax from the governor’s office. I thought it was a joke. I was being released? Come on, man. Who you kidding? The counselor set me straight. My conviction had been overturned. I went straight to the warden, then took a taxi to the bus station and headed home before they could change their minds. I felt like God really had my back.
On the outside I learned why. Officer Collins had been convicted of planting evidence and setting up innocent people in more than 50 different cases. In return for testifying against other corrupt cops, he’d been sentenced to 18 months in prison. Eighteen months? When I had been given 10 years? All the rage came right back, like a smoldering fire that had blazed up again.
I struggled to get my life together, but the anger consumed me. I bounced from job to job. But at least I managed to see my son.
One day when he was six I took him to the park and we ran into—you guessed it—Andrew Collins. Out of prison now, his brief time served. I raced up to him. “Hey, you remember me?” I said and stuck out my hand. “Yeah,” he said. He shook my hand and started apologizing.
I’m thinking, Hit him. Make him pay. But God was saying so clearly in my head, Let it go. I dropped his hand and asked him to explain to my son why I missed out on four years of his life. Then I walked off, feeling relieved that it was over. I would never have to see him again.
Now here I was in a classroom for a jobs program that I thought would be my salvation and Miss P was giving me his name. This guy was going to be my mentor?
Miss P had no idea we had a history. She told me she could find another mentor for me if I wanted.
I felt more confused than angry. “Can I have a minute to pray about this?”
“Take all the time you need.”
I bowed my head right there at my desk. God, tell me which way to go, I prayed. I don’t want to be angry anymore. This anger is holding me back. I opened my eyes and saw a picture in our class workbook: two figures, one pulling the other up. That’s how it worked in this program. That’s how it worked in life.
“I’ll meet with Andrew,” I told Miss P.
“He’s ready for you,” she said.
Soon I was sitting across from the man I’d hated more than anyone else on earth. The man I had wanted to make pay for his sins. The man I blamed all my pain on. The man who had imprisoned me, not just behind bars but in the shackles of my own rage.
I had walked out of prison a free man legally. Spiritually I was still in a cell. Yet I had found God, who could take that all away if I could only take the first step.
“Hey, I used to be a city police officer,” Andrew started by saying. “If I harmed you or your family I’m sorry.”
I cut him off. “You don’t remember me, do you?” He didn’t recognize me because I had a shaved head now. When he realized who I was, he said, “I’m so sorry….”
“Stop,” I said. “It’s over. It’s done.” Those words, spoken as truthfully as anything I’ve ever said, lifted a weight off me, a burden I’d dragged around like a ball and chain. If God could forgive Andrew, surely I could. Surely I must.
It’s been more than a year now since I was paired with my mentor. I feel as if it was a reprieve. I have a full-time job at the café. I work side by side with my friend Andrew Collins.
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