Transformation: What a willing heart and the sacred can do

“Guess what?” my son said to me from the back seat of the car. “Today we played good guys and bad guys. And the good guys won.” We have this conversation often. It is the imaginary world my five-year old son inhabits. And the quintessential plot line: good versus evil.

Some mornings, though, while my son eats pancakes loaded with syrup, we make up outlandish stories about the latest bad guy we read about in the Early Reading series. Once, Batman and Mysterio suspended their struggle for the free world and did cannonball jumps off the high dive all day long at the pool. A little variety never hurts, especially given that I struggle with the stark dichotomy of good and evil. I see most things in shades of grey.

In my loftier moments, I tell my son that in real life no one is all bad and no one is all good. Everyone makes mistakes. What matters most is that you have a change of heart. No one taught me that more clearly than Rodney Lewis. He was homeless when I met him. Before that, he was incarcerated from the age of 12. Today, he excels at his job. He has secure housing. His health is good. He shares his story with teenagers in juvenile detention centers. He speaks at churches and universities. Ten years ago, this is what he shared with me.

“Life was crazy when I got out. I just came out of being deprived. Being locked up every night. That’s all I knew for 18 years. Be here. Be there. Be counted. Then all of a sudden, I didn’t have to do that. It’s a big change.” Rodney served five years in a juvenile detention center and when he turned 17, he entered an adult prison. Before he was released, he was in a total of 28 prisons. “I got fortunate,” he added. “I got my GED and a sanitation license.” When we spoke, he was living in a shelter and working Earn Fare washing dishes. He had been out of jail for seven years.

I met Rodney at Inspiration Café. He always held the door open for me when I came to serve breakfast and he liked to walk the volunteers, myself included, to our cars. Once he gave me a plastic beaded bracelet, and out of habitual politeness I almost declined it before realizing the magnitude of his gesture. He had nothing to his name and he was offering me a gift. “A lot of people,” he explained, “when they hear a guy’s been locked up since he was 12, they think he’ll be back in jail …When I start talking, people start judging. But every day I wake up and I’m not in the penitentiary, that’s motivation.”

Rodney’s story was a part of an oral history project I did, one that turned into a book. I’ll never forget the morning Rodney finally told me what happened. “I got into some trouble,” he said, looking down at his shoes. “I killed somebody when I was 12.” He told me how he used to make runs for drug dealers and one of them had given him a gun to carry. “At that age, I mean, that was power.  … I brought him home one day. My mother did not like him. None of my family liked me hanging with him. They tried to stop me but I wouldn’t listen. His name was Rodney too. It was like five us. You know, five Rodneys. I’m the only one living.”

I remember watching him intently as he confessed the details. Conscious of every expression on my face, I was determined not to be one more person who judged. Before that fated day of his life would be over, Rodney would also shoot two police officers, one in the back and one in the stomach. He was sentenced to forty years for murder and attempted murder. “What I did,” he said softly, “took everything. My childhood. My adulthood. Everything. It followed me my whole life. That kind of background is hard to get any kind of job. I got hard violence.”

And yet, here he is today, working for Inspiration Café. His path has been arduous, no doubt, but he has a one-bedroom apartment and an outdoor deck that is shared with his neighbors. He spoils my son with Matchbox cars and calls every so often to check up on me. In the ten years we’ve known each other, Rodney has rarely declined my invitations to speak about the book. That was one of the reasons he told his story. He wanted it to help someone. His story has moved literally thousands of people. It is the ultimate plot line: transformation.

I asked my son about that same plot line after rereading one of his superhero library books. I was curious what he thought Wonder Woman and Superman might say to the “bad guys” after they’d been caught. My son pointed to each “bad guy” and said: “You need a change of heart. And you need a new costume.”

That same night, I pulled out the beaded bracelet Rodney gave me years ago and I looped it around the drive shaft of my car. I want to a daily reminder of all that the heart—and the sacred—can do. There seems to be no end to what is possible.

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