The judge, an older woman, looked up from the papers on her desk.
“I read through your file, young man, and I have only one question. Why did you turn yourself in? You were on the run five years, you had a job under an alias, and you seemed to have created a new life for yourself. So why did you come back here?”
I was 22 years old. I swallowed and then met her piercing gaze. “Ma’am, I’ve given my life to Jesus Christ, so I’ve made up my mind to obey the law of the land. Whether I do it in jail or out of jail, I’m going to follow Jesus.”
The judge waved her hand at me. “Take him out of my courtroom right now.”
Too many African American young men have been in similar situations where their future is in the hands of judges who are often not from their community — judges jaded by a series of people who misused their leniency and let them down in the past. From my rap sheet, most would have looked at me as a person in need of incarceration and significant time off the streets.
I had sold drugs for over a decade — half of my young life. The entirety of my teenage years were drowned in abuse and a thuggish drug existence. By the time I faced that judge, I had been arrested numerous times, all for the same nonviolent offense: sales of a controlled substance (crack cocaine, marijuana, and other illegal drugs). To add insult to injury, I had escaped incarceration while handcuffed, a fact that alone could have netted me a mandatory seven-year prison sentence.
Once I escaped, I made my way from New York to North Carolina, building a larger drug empire than ever before. I became a “street god,” the main supplier for an entire city. Some newspapers called people like me kingpins or drug bosses, but popular culture was not privy to what street-god status meant for those steeped in the poison of that life.
Do drug dealers deserve a second chance?
The question permeating our national conversation right now is this: Should some nonviolent drug dealers be granted a second chance? My answer: It depends on the person.
I know some guys who seemingly engaged in good behavior and even became trusted volunteers while in jail, but just two weeks after being released to the streets, they could be found pushing kilos of cocaine in a family-run drug enterprise. And yet I am not an anomaly — thank God. I also know guys who have genuinely had a change of heart from the inside out.
I suppose people wonder whether President Obama did the right thing in commuting the sentences of some criminals. I know that, had I faced that same judge just two years prior and been given a shot to return to the streets, I would have blown it, passionately going back to my business of dealing in illegal drugs. The key line that made all the difference was, “Ma’am, I’ve given my life to Jesus Christ, so I’ve made up my mind to obey the law of the land.”
Jesus Christ purged me of the desire to be a street god. My operation was intact when I walked away from it. All the pieces of the organization were well oiled, operating with precision, and flourishing. But when God closed that chapter in my life, I wanted to please him — the one who loved me when no one else was even looking. My life of taking risky shortcuts to success was over. It was time for me to become a real man, a productive citizen. I was determined not to allow the felony on my record define my future or stop me.
Is grace needed today? Absolutely. I was at Reverend Clementa Pinckney’s funeral in Charleston, South Carolina, where President Obama reflected on grace. After seeing his actions following that funeral, I now know that that grace extended beyond merely an esoteric, personal spiritual awakening. It was applied — lived out in very real terms in the very real lives of several inmates who were blessed to have their sentences commuted directly by President Obama. All grace, I believe, beautifully leads back to the remarkable grace we all receive from God.
But what about the hazard of extending grace to the wrong person?
Matthew 7:6 states, “Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you in pieces.”
I trust that President Obama’s vetting process was thorough. And yet what we’re talking about is perhaps the trickiest, messiest, most complicated business there is — that of the tangled, intimate affairs of a human life, with all the thought processes, environmental challenges, and familial influences that shape and mold it. I pray that the young men who have received so lofty a blessing as to have their criminal sentences commuted will also have access to good jobs to help them live with their heads up once they are back on the streets.
From street god to hard-working citizen
For me, prayer and reinventing myself were key pieces of my success. I launched into a GED program once released, and after completing that, I went straight to college. It took some time, but I eventually earned my master’s degree as well.
I was on a mission to make it as an upright citizen and committed Christian. I took the tenets of my faith seriously, just as I had taken the tenets of the streets seriously. I was committed to living a life of celibacy while unmarried and showing kindness to all mankind. Jesus got ahold of my heart, and I was not letting the hem of his garment go.
I worked on my vocabulary and listened to motivational tapes to build up my self-esteem. I developed a love of literature, and reading became a valuable part of my daily routine. I saw myself as my own personal makeover business long before all the makeover reality shows ever came onto the scene.
My best friend came home from jail around the same time I was pardoned. He had just beaten a murder charge. But he, too, gave his life to Jesus and turned his life around. Unfortunately, all of our friends who did not follow Jesus had a much rougher ride.
Attending and being involved in a local church was helpful to me in several ways. For one, I was around godly men whom I could imitate and ask hard questions. Church was the best place for this former street god to transform into a hard-working citizen.
I once harbored an insatiable drive for the drug world. Once given an opportunity to change, I redirected that same drive to killing and eradicating my past so that I had no residue left, no telltale signs of my former life left on me.
I had changed. I was trustworthy, and even that was something new to me. New friends did not hesitate to give me the keys to their cars or their homes. I was invited into celebrity homes and welcomed by great leaders. There was no malice in my heart, meaning that I wasn’t being deceptive in order to win their favor.
It wasn’t like I was fighting some internal ghost from my past that was tempting me to scheme or steal or fall back into more nefarious ways. The truth was far less dramatic than some Jekyll-and-Hyde existence. I had changed, and my new life was my new normal. I became a student of life, observing what it took to be a leader.
What a show of amazing grace
On that day in my past, the judge said words to me that changed my destiny. Before entering the courtroom, I had been waiting in another room with my lawyer for the judge’s decision. Finally, the bailiff called my name. I stood silently before the judge for what seemed like forever. She would look down at me and back to her papers on her desk. She did this four times. Finally, she took off her reading glasses and studied me long and hard.
“I’m sorry for taking so long, but the man standing in front of me is completely different from the person I’m seeing in these reports. I believe that if I send you away to jail, it will turn you back into the person I’m reading about. So I’m going to set you free.” Then bang went her gavel, and just like that, I was free.
Is President Obama right? I hope so. I know that judge was right in pardoning me.
In the past 20 years since receiving my pardon, I’ve traveled to every continent except Antarctica, sharing my story in the hope of ultimately sharing the freedom I found in Jesus Christ. Fourteen years ago, I married the love of my life, and I am now the proud father of three incredible girls. I am also president of Concerts of Prayer Greater New York, the largest mobilizing force of pastors in the tri-state area.
But my most notable feat is that 10 years ago I started a church in the Bronx River Housing projects, located in a section of the South Bronx that is part of the poorest congressional district in the entire country. As a street god, I had ensnared many young people in the projects within the vicious cycle of the drug world. Now I see young people following my lead in truly remarkable ways.
Some are the first in their families to go to college, the first to travel to other countries to engage in humanitarian efforts, and often the first in generations to get married (something that had become nearly extinct in the projects where I serve). And they’re the first to grow up without the constant reminders of death and darkness permeating their environment.
Former New York City police commissioner Ray Kelly credited my work and the church I started, Infinity Bible Church, with eliminating homicides and bringing drug dealing to an all-time low in the Bronx River housing projects.
What a show of amazing grace — the beauty of a second chance used for good.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.