top of page

Seeing God in a Pair of Sneakers

I like to listen to music when I write. Funny enough though, when I was younger and listening to music, I rarely heard the lyrics – what was more important to me was the melody, how the song made me feel in my soul. I remember riding with someone as a sophomore in college and they asked me if I had ever listened to the lyrics of a particular song that was playing. I was dumbfounded. I recall my response being, “Of course not, is that something people do?”


Since that moment I’ve tried to be a more active listener and consequently, music has become so much more meaningful to me. One song in particular has stood out to me lately, “Walkin’ In The Sun” by Fink. The lyrics go like this:


Things have been going wrong

long enough to know,

everythin' is right.


Been walkin' in the dark

long enough to know.

Finally seein' the light.


I've been losing

long enough to know,

when I finally won.


And even the blind man can tell,

when he's walkin' in the sun.


I find that we humans are all too often blind. Maybe our blindness is caused by the hustle and bustle of life. Other times the blindness is out of our control. Sometimes, perhaps, the blindness is simply what we want or what we need at the time. Regardless of how or why, we’re all blind at some point or the other.


Still, as the song says, even the blind can tell when they’re walking in the sun. And friends, I’d like to tell you about Sunday when I was walking in the sun.


Most of our ministry is conducted behind razor wire. The average prison sentence in Georgia is close to 30 years, so a majority of our students aren’t going home any time soon. Since I started at HeartBound three years ago, I have had three students released. Three.


It’s nearly impossible to measure the “effectiveness” of our ministry in traditional terms; much of our success is qualitative, although I believe exponential. That’s the nature of ministry behind penitentiary walls. Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit Priest who ministers to gang members in Los Angeles, writes, “Without wanting to, we sometimes allow our preference for the poor to morph into a preference for the well-behaved and the most likely to succeed, even if you get better outcomes when you work with these folks. If success is our engine, we sidestep the difficult and belligerent and eventually abandon the ‘slow work of God.’ Failure and death become insurmountable.”


Not everyone in Father Boyle’s program succeeds. Some relapse, others succumb to gang life and criminality, still others are gunned down.


Not all of our program participants succeed. It’s discouraging. But when you’re fighting poverty, undiagnosed learning disabilities, poor mental healthcare treatment, and unimaginable violence and trauma, you’re going to fail sometimes.


That’s why I’m so happy to share this small story of success with you.


Tom [not his real name] was one of my first horticulture students when I joined HeartBound Ministries. At the time, he was 17 years old, fresh to “prison prison,” having recently arrived at Burruss Correctional Training Center upon his 17th birthday. He’d been locked up since he was 14 and had spent time in juvenile facilities across the state.


When Tom arrived at Burruss, prisons nationwide were locked down due to the coronavirus. Volunteers were barred from serving inside. But God gave us favor and we were allowed to minister inside the walls.


What I saw broke my heart. There were 20 17-year-olds like Tom. They all smelled bad. They were all struggling to work to get their GEDs. They were all underfed and incredibly bored. Due to staffing restrictions, they would be locked in their cells at 5 PM on Fridays and kept there until 8 AM on Monday. I learned to not teach on Mondays – nobody could pay attention after being cooped up all weekend.


Tom was a quiet kid who kept to himself. There was a softness in his voice that you don’t often hear in prison. He enrolled in our Pups in Prison dog training program, followed by our art class and then our horticulture class. I saw Tom nearly every week.


Then one day, he disappeared. He had turned 18 and had been moved to the adult population. All those hours we had put in, all that ministry, seemed to evaporate. I was heartbroken.


Then one day, Tom slinked back into our horticulture class. I could tell he wasn’t doing well. He looked like a ghost – eyes hollow, skin pale and gaunt, teeth stained yellow. My heart fell.


But I didn’t judge him. That’s not my job and after all, I get to leave at the end of the class, my students don’t. I can never fully understand their pain even though I can sympathize with it. I just continued to love him and encourage him and did my best to keep showing up (one student of mine wrote on a feedback form, ‘Anytime I mess up he does not throw it in my face and he makes me feel more like myself’).


Some days with Tom were good, and others were bad. Sometimes I could see a brightness in his eyes; other times I was looking at a shell of a young man. Tom kept asking for assistance in finding a home for him to parole out to, but nowhere would take him because of his record and his age. As the saying goes, “the struggle is real”.


Slowly, Tom’s max-out date approached, the day when the Department of Corrections would be forced to push him out the door whether he had a home to go to or not. Tom approached me one class with good news - a halfway house for young men had an open bed. Better than being homeless, I thought.


Tom got out last Thursday. I met him for church on Sunday. We sang songs of worship, then he met my pastor, my friends, my community. We all went to lunch afterwards. He thought there was no way he’d be able to eat his massive enchilada. He left two bites behind. “The outside food is so good.” I laughed thinking it was decent Mexican food at best.


I drove him home, promising to meet him again Tuesday to practice driving and make a resume. We found an old parking lot and I let him give it a go. Afterwards, we went to lunch, worked on a resume and cover letter for a job at a dog shelter, then set up an email and budget for him. Towards the end of our lunch, he mentioned how he had gone for a three-mile run that morning but had to stop because his feet hurt. He was still running in his prison tennis shoes. I offered to buy him a pair of running shoes. He accepted only after I showed him my own budget and how I had money left over to spend this month. I plugged in “Running Shoes Store” into the GPS and we made our way to Atlantic Station. We soon arrived.


As we walked into the store, I realized this was no “running shoes” store. These were fashion shoes – Nike, New Balance, bright lights and neon colors. I wanted to walk out immediately, but I saw Tom’s face light up. He is a guy after all. I asked him if he wanted to look at the shoes. “No,” he replied, “I’m all good.” I asked him if he liked shoes. “I’ve never really owned my own shoes,” he said. “I’ve been wearing orange Crocs for the past five years.” 


I told him we should at least look. When we got to the wall of Nikes, I could see his face light up in child-like wonder. Then he took a look at the price tag and recoiled. I told him it was okay, if there was something he liked, I would get it.


We walked along the wall while I explained “fashion” and how New Balance is now “in” (side note: are they?). He took it all in, eyes wide and a big smile on his face. I asked him what brand he liked. He tried to grab a pair of Chuck Taylor’s that had a big “60% OFF” sticker on them, but I told him they were out of style at the moment. We wandered back to the Nike wall.


So many choices, so many colors, so many styles. I sat back and let him be a big kid again, looking at shoes. I looked down at his faded brown loafers he had been given at the County Re-Entry Office. He kept looking back at me like none of what was happening was real. I nodded along, offering words of encouragement. He tried on a few pairs but couldn’t decide. He sent some pictures to a friend who replied, “Anything will be better than those LOAFERS you got on.” I laughed.


He reached for the middle rack and grabbed a pair of black and white tennis shoes. He paused, then looked at me and said, “These are the ones.”


I paid and we practically skipped out the door. We then went to an actual running shoe store. On the drive there, we passed the Ansley Park neighborhood. The beauty about blew his 19-year-old mind. He tried on a pair of Brooks and a pair of Hokas. “Spencer, I never knew shoes were this comfortable.” He settled on a pair of Brooks. The man at the counter was kind enough to give me 10% off when I told them it was Tom’s first pair of running shoes. It’s refreshing to see this goodness in the most ordinary of days.


I drove Tom home as we discussed what freedom has looked like. “Some days I feel bipolar, like I’m happy to be free then another second I’m terrified to go back to prison.” His parole officer has been difficult, twice threatening to “escort” him back to prison if he didn’t drop everything and get to her office. He doesn’t know how to drive, his dad works during the day, and an Uber from South Fulton to Downtown Atlanta isn’t exactly cheap. Life hasn’t been easy for him since he was released, but I think Sunday was a step in the right direction. Literally.


“Walkin’ in the sun. Things have been going wrong, now, everything is right.”


We are so often desperate to right the wrongs, to grant justice where there has been injustice, to do everything we can for everyone and anyone. But sometimes, that’s not what we need to do. Anne Lamott writes: “God isn’t there to take away our suffering or our pain but to simply fill it with his presence.”


Maybe God’s in a pair of black and white tennis shoes or a pair of Brooks running shoes.


Tom texted me after his run this morning.


“Running shoes are freaking awesome! I ran almost 4 times as much running not including short walking periods. Thank you for everything. I had a blast yesterday.”


Thanks for being a part of HeartBound’s journey in the sun.







0 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Dostoevsky on Prison

Prisons do not exist in a vacuum. Forty-five percent of Americans have had a family member spend time in jail or prison. Ninety-five percent of the men, women, and children that we send to prison are

What a Prison Baptism Looks Like

There’s an old-time country artist I really like called Stonewall Jackson. I heard this song called “Waterloo” and was instantly hooked. A couple weeks later I came across another Stonewall Jackson cl

"How do you work with the poor?" You don't.

When HeartBound hosts our Returning Hearts Celebrations, I like to work the check-in table for families. Why? For many of the children, this will be their first visit to prison. They’re staring up at


bottom of page