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"What I Read Floored Me"

The book had been sitting on my shelf for too long.

 

The time had come. I had to finish this thing.

 

I almost dreaded the task. The font was too small, and I had to strain to read each sentence. The story was too personal. I didn’t want to know what lay ahead. Also, it was a really long book – I knew that if I picked it up, I would have to finish it. The author was counting on me.

 

My teaching assistant for the horticulture class at Burruss Correctional Training Center has spent over 40 years in prison. Forty years.

 

Nearly ten years ago, he put his story on paper, self-publishing a book called “Memoir of a Malcontent.” He had given me part 1 a few months ago, promising to try and get his hands on part 2. Finally, he came through – it’s been sitting on my shelf for over a month now. Part 1 detailed his traumatic childhood – an alcoholic mother, mostly non-present father, drug abuse. It wasn’t an easy read, although his humor made it worth the read. I knew that part 2 would detail his later years, including what led him to commit murder at age 24. This man is a friend now. Not only does he help me teach, but he’s a personal mentor and I’ve spent nearly every Tuesday with him for three years now. When I teach, there’s no guard in the room; I trust this man with my life.

 

I read nearly all 250 pages of part 2 last night. I only put it down when I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer. This morning, I settled onto my porch with a mug of coffee and a few pages remaining. What I read floored me.

 

Eleven years or so ago, my teaching assistant’s brother-in-law was accidentally transferred to the same prison as him. This was due to a state oversight – by no means should the two have ever been remotely near each other. You see, my assistant, in an act of rage and unspeakable violence, shot this man’s sister, mother, and father. I will spare you the details – it was horrifying, unthinkable, tragic, a culmination of poor life choices and unimaginable trauma and abuse. There’s no earthly forgiveness for such an act.

 

My assistant was walking to the chow hall one day when he heard his name called out from behind. Turning, he slowly recognized the weathered face of his former brother-in-law. He anxiously scanned the man up and down, searching for a weapon. The brother-in-law approached, asking for time to talk. Life had not been good to him. They agreed to meet on the yard later that day.

 

What happened next defies logic. The two men sat in the shade and caught up, detailing where life had taken them over the last thirty years, where they had gone wrong, how they both had ended up in prison. My assistant apologized over and over and over. Tears flowed, forgiveness reigned down, and at the end of the two-hour conversation, they embraced, then shook hands. The brother-in-law then invited my assistant to attend a church service later that evening; someone special would be speaking.

 

I’ll let the book take over now.

 

“We sat next to each other four rows from the front on the end near the aisle, and since I didn’t think to bring my Bible, he held his in his hands so I could follow the scriptural reading with him. Hollywood Henderson was a huge Black Man who kept the crowd rolling with laughter as he gave anecdotes about his life at Rivers State Prison and selling drugs on the streets. We had a good time, that is until Henderson turned serious and spoke about the Virgin Mary and a mother’s love for her child. His message hit my brother-in-law hard.

 

Tears began to flow, and the longer Henderson talked about a mother’s love the harder he cried, unable to restrain himself although he tried. Lord have mercy, I thought, feeling like the bottom of a dung heap as I tried to comfort him, placing my arm around his shoulders, essentially holding him; ironic in and of itself since I was the man who caused him such a terrible loss…

 

I didn’t know how my brother-in-law truly felt about me until the day he told me that in the short time we’d been together, he felt better than he had in many years and was finally able to sleep peacefully. He said that he knew for a fact that the healing had begun and he was glad God brought us together.”

 

My assistant ends his book with this. “To a man serving life in prison hope must be deliberately chosen. Standing next to my cell as the officer announced head count; I decided to be a survivor. I decided to choose hope and accept the opportunity to experience forgiveness. Knowing that basic truth filled my heart with peace, and I knew that regardless of where I am and the conditions under which I’d lived I’d be alright.... I realized at that moment; that even though I stood at casual attention in a state penitentiary and was serving life, I was Free. Now this memoir of bruises, a broken childhood, and toxic relationships can cease. I am looking into the distance and I see hope in whatever future that God will grace me to see. When I entered the walls of this prison, I was a 24-year-old broken young man. As I’m closing this memoir, today is my 63rd birthday.”

 

Here's what my assistant doesn’t know – that event with Hollywood Henderson over ten years ago was hosted by HeartBound Ministries. We were in my assistant’s life long before I ever met him inside the walls of Burruss Correctional Training Center. God used this ministry to help him and his brother-in-law heal. Glory be to God!

 

Together, we use the book to help incarcerated young men tell their own story. We read a chapter out loud as they listen, encouraging them to write down parts that resonate with their own lives. Unsurprisingly, most of what stands out to them are acts that they can relate to – family abuse, knife fights, sleepless nights. Why are we doing this? Each one of these young men has a story. I can tell you that there are over forty 17-year-olds at Burruss Correctional Training Center right now, over 40 young men who have been charged, found guilty, and sentenced as adults. Their average sentence is well past 30 years; some of them have even been sentenced to life without parole. They are 17 and in all likelihood, they will die in prison one day.

 

I can tell you all this and you might understand, or you might even become disheartened or angry or maybe even apathetic. We cannot excuse these kids’ behavior – they’ve done things that hurt others, that risk our collective public safety. No matter how you feel about them, what you can’t deny is that there are over 40 stories there at Burruss, over 40 stories that are locked behind a wall, 40 stories that need to be told. So they hear “Memoir of a Malcontent” each week and they write, slowly. We are helping them find their own story. And we help them find God’s story.

 

I don’t know where this project ends. I don’t know if it ever ends.

 

All I know is that this work must be done, and Andrea, for over 20 years now, has been doing it, laying the foundation for something yet to come. God’s still writing HeartBound’s story. Thank you for being a part of it.

 

Spencer

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