I often tell people not to ask me for statistics because in this work all the statistics are bad. Ask me for stories instead, I say, because even in the worst of times I always have a good story. Whether it is one of my own or comes from someone else doesn’t really matter to me anymore. What matters is that it rings true. Like this one I picked up on a visit to Philadelphia last week, which was first told to psychologist Jack Kornfield by the director of a nearby rehabilitation program for violent juvenile offenders:
One 14-year-old boy in the program had shot and killed an innocent teenager to prove himself to his gang. At the trial, the victim’s mother sat impassively silent until the end, when the youth was convicted of the killing. After the verdict was announced, she stood up slowly and stared directly at him and stated, “I’m going to kill you.” Then the youth was taken away to serve several years in the juvenile facility.
After the first half-year the mother of the slain child went to visit his killer. He had been living on the streets before the killing, and she was the only visitor (in jail) he’d had. For a time they talked, and when she left she gave him some money for cigarettes. Then she started step-by-step to visit him more regularly, bringing food and small gifts.
Near the end of his three-year sentence, she asked him what he would be doing when he got out. He was confused and very uncertain, so she offered to help set him up with a job at a friend’s company. Then she inquired about where he would live, and since he had no family to return to, she offered him temporary use of the spare room in her home. For eight months he lived there, ate her food, and worked at the job.
Then one evening she called him into the living room to talk. She sat down opposite him and waited. Then she started, “Do you remember in the courtroom when I said I was going to kill you?” “I sure do, ” he replied. “I’ll never forget that moment.” “Well, I did it, ” she went on. “I did not want the boy who could kill my son for no reason to remain alive on this earth. I wanted him to die. That’s why I started to visit you and bring you things. That’s why I got you the job and let you live here in my house. That’s how I set about changing you. And that old boy, he’s gone. So now I want to ask you, since my son is gone, and that killer is gone, if you’ll stay here. I’ve got room and I’d like to adopt you if you let me.” And she became the mother he never had.
Honestly, for a man like me, in a place like this, a story like that is more precious than any amount of money or any amount of praise.
Lately I’ve been asked how long I can relate to such badly broken people in this particular way, and the truth is that I don’t know. However long it is, I think, will be determined less by the number of healed lives I see, and more by my ability to sense the depth of the compassion and forgiveness that is trying to heal them. Today, with that good story in my heart, it feels like I may last a while longer than it felt like before I heard it. I hope the same is true of you.
Bart Campolo is a veteran urban minister and activist who speaks and writes about grace, faith, loving relationships and social justice. Bart is the leader of The Walnut Hills Fellowship, a local ministry in inner city Cincinnati.