This is what I believe… When you and I were conceived, we were gifted with a soul, our true self, which will never end, and can never die. This soul is pure God-stuff; made in His image; perfect, unique, and magnificent. The flesh is nothing more than a “garage” to carry this spotless and blameless soul, until it is released and set free. This perfect soul, our true self, does not hate, is never offended, has no need to lie, never defends, does no harm, is not threatened, has no fear, and knows no pride… There has never been a baby born into this world a bigot, a hater, or a racist. We learn these things, and as Mr. Mandela said, “If we can learn to hate, then we can learn to love.” Better yet, we can return to our true self, and shed all the things that cover up who we really are. We were not born Republican or Democrat; legal or an illegal; Baptist or Catholic; rich or poor; Crip or Blood; Muslim or Jew, or even Black or White. We learned these concepts and accepted them as true– but we have been deceived. After all is said and done, the soul remains, and knows only love. All these labels that we carry around and attach to are the things which divide us. If we were to shed all the labels, then who are we? Pure, blameless, and beautiful souls, caught up in this masquerade, and longing to be free. All the rest are merely constructs of the ego, an impotent impostor, which is forever seeking to attach to a new identity; never satisfied, never at peace; and never secure– always threatened and deeply afraid… What if today, just for today, we remove all the labels and simply see one another as we truly are: pure God-stuff, moving around in these tents, seeking to return to our true identity– sons and daughters of our perfect Creator. We all come from the same source, and we can never be defined by a term or a tagline. We were born to be free, so let us live that way today. See you on the field.
Addiction resides in the primitive brain. When the addict is in active drug or alcohol use, the primitive brain is in a state of fight or flight, and literally makes you believe that you will die if you do not get it what it wants and needs. That’s why an addict will go to any lengths to get his or her drug of choice– especially if they’re dope-sick (burglary, breaking and entering, theft from family members, and pawn shops, among other things that destroy families, and seem to make no sense). The disease is cunning, baffling, and powerful… Love the addict, study the disease, and don’t ever give up on them. Even if that means tough love, consequences, and excruciating choices; addicts are brilliant and beautiful, but very sick. And most of all, pray for them, their life depends on it. God bless the addicts, especially the young ones… Peace to you and yours, from a fellow brother in joyful, longterm recovery.
Do you know someone battling depression? For many years I just couldn’t understand people who struggled with this condition. It just seemed like they needed to believe, change their mind,and pull themselves out of it… Then, in 2002, that darkness came to visit me. I had never experienced it, clinically, and it nearly took me out over the next couple of years. I discovered empathy, having now gone down that road, instead of just compassion for those who were struggling. Try to imagine yourself in the other’s shoes, and just sit with them, walk with them, and if need be, carry them– but please don’t tell them to “snap out of it” or to just “get over it.” Walk a mile with the other, and NEVER give up on them. Walk with them until they can once again see the light; and please pray for them unceasingly. I hope you never have to go down that road, but if you do, you’ll need someone to “feel you” rather than just tell you. Today the light is so bright, and just maybe I can show others the way back to it. Peace to you and yours, and I’ll see you on the field.
Imagine that we invent and perfect time-travel… You travel back to the year 1978, and find me at Walton high school where I have just started my freshman year. You present to me this thin, flat, plastic box with a glass face. Interested, I ask you what it is, and you tell me, “On this little device you can watch, listen, play, order, buy, read, talk, text, email, and search, for anything you want. You can even ask it any question you have, and it will answer you, and even call you by name.” I reply, “What’s an email?” You explain, oh, you can talk to anyone on the planet, real time, and you can be in communication with all your friends anytime you want, day or night.” I ask, “What can I watch?” to which you reply, “Anything the human race has ever filmed or recorded– no boundaries, no limits.” I say, “Anything?” and you explain, “Yes, all you have to do is ask, and it doesn’t judge, your wish is its command.” I continue, “Does everyone have one, or just me?” The answer amazes me: “No, almost every human being on Earth will have one.” I dig deeper, “Where do I have to keep this miracle machine?” and you reply “Right there in your pocket, you can use it anytime you like, and no one will ever know what you choose to do with it.” With my hands trembling, I take this little device and quickly put it in my pocket, while I make sure nobody sees me, as I am afraid that someone will try to take it from me.” Disappointed, I declare, “There is no way that I can afford an instrument like that.” To my amazement, you say, “All this can be yours for about $1 a day.” You hand it over, and disappear back to into the future.
Would you be able to handle this at 14 years old? All that power right at your finger tips? I know I couldn’t have. I couldn’t even handle 1978 temptations very well at that age… Maybe we should give this young generation a bit of a break, and walk with them a while, get into their world, and try to understand the pressure and anxiety of this bold, new, technological age– one that they have never been without. Just telling them, “Don’t touch, don’t look, don’t listen, and don’t play” isn’t working. Let’s get involved in the conversation– and also look in the mirror and ask ourselves, as grown folks, how we are using this little “Dream Machine” in OUR pockets. Young minds are overloaded and bombarded with information like never before– and they need some relief. See you on the field.
Are you at a low point? Have you bottomed out, or just feel stuck? I want to encourage you that God is still in the miracle business, and it is NEVER too late… In 2004, I was at the end of my rope. I had failed, fallen, and almost lost all hope– on the verge of giving up once and for all. I felt so lost that I spent both Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners all alone at the Waffle house that holiday season, feeling quite sorry for myself. I struggled mightily with this all-important question: could I get up, and rally for a comeback, just one more time? God is faithful and LOVES the underdog, and a miraculous comeback– as a matter of fact, if you read your bible, he specializes in it– and He appears to especially love using “Knuckleheads.” The tougher the case, the more the glory when He turns the curse into a blessing. Who knew that He would use my folly, failure, loss, and pain for His glory and the foundation of my great life’s work? He began to put me back together and low and behold, out sprang a new dream in my heart. I found sobriety and love again, and began a journey that would take me around the world, and beyond my wildest dreams.
Today, just thirteen short years later, here is what He has done so far: I have a wife who is in love with me, as I am with her; I have two kids in college who respect me and call me their role model, and I could not be any more proud of them– as well as two wonderful grown sons and their beautiful wives who we adore; I have a grandson who is the joy of my life; I have a Mom who has never left my side, and has been my “Ride or Die” since birth; I have a sister who is my “secret hero.” I have a step-father who adores my Mom and takes care of her, as I always dreamed she would have– and an awesome little brother; I have In-Laws I love; I have a calling, and a family business, that I love so much that I often do it for free (and a wonderful Uncle as a Partner who keeps me straight!); I have two dogs who think I hung the moon (though they love my wife the most); I have more friends than I have time to hang out with; and I have made peace with my Dad, who broke my heart when he tragically passed when I was in college… I could go on, and on, and on. Suffice it to say that God has stalked me, chased me, carried me, and rescued me more times than I can even remember, though the trip is still filled with uncertainty, fear, and doubt from time to time, as I learn to continue to trust in Him… PLEASE don’t give up, the dawn is breaking and your salvation is on its way. Don’t quit five minutes before your miracle happens– perhaps today is your day, and your victory is right around the next corner– light shines brightest in the darkness. All these years later, I can tell you this: I’ll never look at that Waffle House quite the same way, ever again. #NeverGiveUp
This a powerful story that is hard to communicate in just a few words how amazing it really is, but I will try. Just three weeks ago fifty men in a tough Mexican prison began the Power of Peace Project’s “40 Days of Peace” Program. Many of these men are affiliated with gangs and cartels and many are rivals. In this prison the men are packed twenty to a cell because it was built for 2500, but currently houses 5600 inmates. All these men went through the two day launch with us, signed the peace pledge, received the wristband and a journal, and committed to forty days of nonviolence– with daily journaling and action challenges, weekly small groups with their rivals, and a paper writing assignment that will precede a graduation celebration at the end of the project. In three short weeks this was an issue that came up this past week in the weekly meeting: out of the fifty men, only one man (named Julio) is not in a cell with any of the other POPP initiates. The cell he is packed into has no other POPP brothers and he is the only one with the wristband and journal—and he stands out. One of the brothers stood up and said: “Our brother Julio is all alone in his cell! What can we do to protect him?” My partner Jeff asked why he was in a cell all alone. They responded: “He’s not all alone, he just doesn’t have any Power of Peace brothers with him.” I am in awe. In three short weeks these men are concerned that their brother is “all alone” because he is not surrounded by the POPP group. They have already owned it and are protecting it. Imagine what could happen over months and years… The Power of Peace.
Tonight at Hays State Prison the following story was told about Frank, one of our Power of Peace Leaders who was shipped out to another prison two weeks ago. One of our other POPP Brothers was there and witnessed it before he was sent back to Hays this week… The day that Frank arrived, he went to chow at the usual time. When he returned, he realized that somebody had stolen all his store goods out of his box– this is a very big deal, especially when you are new to a prison. There were about fifteen Hispanic inmates there who knew Frank from other prisons and who he is cool with. They decided they were ready to “go to war” to get his stuff back, as everyone knew who was behind the theft. Before anything could happen, Frank got all those men together and got his “40 Days of Peace” journal out and began to teach them the nonviolent principles he was practicing in the program, and how there were other alternatives to violence. The beef was settled nonviolently and now we have more men in yet another prison who are interested in the POPP Program…
The fascinating thing? Anyone can back down and “decide to be a peacemaker” when they’re afraid and outnumbered. But Frank had the muscle and the numbers to get his stuff back AND send a message, but he still chose peace. And he began leading the other inmates and modeling peace in the process. I’m so proud of him… The Power of Peace.
Right now the Power of Peace Project has convicts from Michigan, Georgia and California writing letters of encouragement and support to prisoners in a Mexican prison– challenging them to be peacemakers. In turn those inmates in Mexico are writing letters back encouraging their new POPP family to continue the Struggle. We also have recovering addicts in rehab facilities in the U.S. writing letters of encouragement and support to addicts in Tijuana recovery centers challenging them to continue the good fight. Next those men and women will write letters back providing updates on their recovery. We also have students at the University of Georgia making videos to encourage the Boys and Girls of Tijuana in high schools and colleges there to join the Power of Peace Movement. High School football players in GA are writing to soccer players in the toughest part of Tijuana to inspire them. While the world talks about walls and tunnels, POPP is building bridges of hope and peace between the nations. Help us continue this good work and be a part of the SOLUTION, rather than the arguments. The Power of Peace.
Yesterday when I was at Hays State Prison I found out that one of our Power of Peace guys spent the week in the hole (segregation unit). His spirits were high and he said he wrote the 40 Days of Peace steps on the wall in that dark cell: 1) I will seek first to understand my opponent 2) I will find common ground with my adversary 3) I will walk a mile with the other before I judge 4) I will practice active listening and pause before responding 5) I will practice compassionate communication and use my influence for peace 6) When wrong I will promptly admit it and quickly make amends 7) I will treat my enemy with dignity and respect even when we disagree. (The Seven Power of Peace Principles). Every man that gets sent to that cell will see the POPP Principles every day– many are sent there for nine months at a time. These convicts are becoming Ambassadors of Peace… I wish our presidential candidates would practice them– the prisoners are.
Yesterday was a beautiful day serving with a diversion and recovery program that the Power of Peace Project is partnered with in North Georgia. Every two months I have the opportunity to go and teach the participants and it is one of the highlights of my work. We laugh, we cheer, we cry and we rejoice in recovery and restitution. To see these courageous souls successfully complete a very intensive two year program, as they get back many of the things they have lost, is a blessing to me in more ways than they even realize. I often believe that I am receiving much more from them than I am giving (although they argue with me on that!).
This week’s experience was especially fulfilling. A beautiful sister walked up to me with her daughter. On this particular occasion the courts allowed the participants to bring their families to hear and join in on the two hour class and there we a number of children present in this room at the courthouse. She walked up to me to introduce her little girl and her niece and she look especially grateful, and she was shining. She joyfully told me that the week before the courts had awarded her custody of her beautiful little daughter and that she was beyond words for getting her back. That is one of the toughest things that addicts often deal with is the loss of their families– especially their children. My heart was filled with gratitude that I was able to witness this miracle. Many of these people are heroes to me, as they overcome incredible odds and turn their curses into blessings and their mess into messages of hope. I am so proud of her, and I believe that she and her little girl will continue on this journey of recovery together.
These are my brothers and sisters in this good fight and I will continue to join in this righteous battle side by side with them. We will continue to search for miracles together and see what God does next. I for one am continually blown away that I am fortunate enough to be “front row at a miracle.” The Power of Peace.
Over the past few months I have been going into one of the most dangerous areas of Tijuana, Mexico. Why would I go there? For the wonderful teens that live in an area known for crime, violence and international drug cartels. Through an amazing nonprofit organization called “Bridge to the Future” and their partner U.S. organization Letics Sports, Inc. these kids have found a safe haven utilizing soccer to get them off the streets. The success of this program has led to a partnership with the Power of Peace Project. Next week I will go back and we will launch our “40 Days of Peace” program with 200 teens in that very tough community. I cannot wait to see them again.
These kids will begin their journey as young peacemakers and become models in their schools and neighborhoods of what it takes to heal a wounded community. The coach of this soccer club, which currently has ten teams, gives every kid a nick name– so of course they have initiated and adopted me into the club and given me one as well. They call me Rambo! We are also piloting a program where these Tijuana Teens will connect with other young people in San Diego and Los Angeles. With all the drama surrounding the upcoming election where our nation is talking about constructing walls and blocking tunnels, POPP will begin building bridges of Hope and Peace, and children will be the catalyst. I believe this model can be further developed and replicated around the world utilizing youth, sports, and the Power of Peace. Join us and adopt a Tijuana Teen. For only a dollar a day ($40 donation) you can support them through their 40 Days of Peace and also connect them with a kid in the U.S. It is a for healing between our nations and our kids will lead the way!
I’m stepping off the plane in Johannesburg, South Africa, half way around the world. I’m looking for a small, young Indian man named Raj. We’ve never met, nor even talked, but he is my connection and I have no plan B. He knows what I look like, but that’s about it. Luckily, Raj finds the tall lanky American and we set off on our adventure. I am finally in the land of Mandela again. I have been intrigued and fascinated with this great man ever since I read “Long Walk to Freedom” years ago. I have always wanted to come back to this historic place and finally it has arrived; the last time I was here was in 1995 after Mandela had been elected president. I have come all this way to try to get a place at the Gandhi Global Peace Summit that will begin in two days in Durban. All I know is that I received a mass email about this conference that is held once every six years. It is hosted by Ela Gandhi, granddaughter of Mahatma Gandhi, and noted civil rights leader Dr. Bernard Lafayette. Freedom fighters and peace icons from around the world meet and discuss solutions for world peace. The 14th fourteenth Dalai Lama is represented, as well as dignitaries from India, Uganda, Egypt, and other war-torn countries from around the world. I just want to be present and sit at the feet of these great people and learn what I have been sent there to learn. I just hope that they will let me in, and that I can get a seat and see the stage from where I am. But I have no idea what is in store for me.
When I learned that I would be making this historic trip, I proclaimed to the church that I would not only be visiting Robben Island where Mandela was incarcerated for eighteen of his twenty- seven years, but that I would also be speaking in a South African prison. The only problem? I had no connections, invitations, nor did I even know of any specific South African prisons. I just reasoned that I would figure it out when I got there; I do a lot of things like that, and have found that it is a fascinating way to live: call your shot, and then go and search for an open door. My driver and interpreter was a wonderful young Zulu man named Mulu. Halfway into my trip and after the conference had already begun, Mulu called and said that he had a couple of friends who wanted to meet me. I told him that I would be honored and that we could have dinner together that evening. He said that they couldn’t meet until late and that there was one more thing that I should know about them: they were former gangsters and had done time inside a place called Westville Prison. That sounded like it would be right up my alley, so I quickly agreed.
We went to a mall in the middle of nowhere at about ten that night10pm. It was an adventure to get there as we drove through red lights so that we didn’t have to stop, as Mulu informed me that we would risk being car-jacked if we slowed down. We met up with his friends, and we immediately hit it off. They told me about growing up in Apartheid South Africa, and what it was like to do hard time there. They spoke of the Westville prison that was built to hold 7,000seven thousand men, but currently houses 12,000twelve thousand. They shared about their change and their conversion behind the walls. I was fascinated. The mall was closing and we had to leave, but as we hugged and made our way to the door, I asked them an important question:. “Any way you guys could get me into that prison?” They looked at me a little strange and said that they knew the chaplain. I asked them to see if they could get me in, but then I threw in one more request: “It has to be tomorrow morning.” The problem was that it was already 11:00pm at night, and if I was going to get in, it needed to early the next morning, so that I could make it back for the second half of the conference.
The next morning Mulu called me early. He said that his friends had phoned him and said that they didn’t know if they could get me in but it was worth a try, and to get me there by 8:00ameight. As we drove into the main complex I was overwhelmed at the size of this prison. As we approached the gate I prayed that God would open the door. Thirty minutes later we were inside and getting cleared through security. They took me up a long spiral walkway and put me in a large room with no windows. This part of the prison is old, dark, and dank. We waited for what seemed like a long time and then finally men dressed in orange jump suits began to file in. These were Zulu convicts and many of them had blank stares and deep scars. Many were political prisoners, and others were hardened criminals, while others were just desperately poor people in a bad place. I was told that because of overcrowding, they had a system where they had to share cots with other inmates and when their sleeping time was up other inmates would just kick the bed to let the other man know it was their turn.
Within forty-five minutes, we were dancing, and singing, laughing, and cheering. Here I was halfway around the world and I was experiencing the same reactions and responses as I did from prisoners in America. The only difference was language and culture, but the hearts were the same. Their living conditions were much more desperate, and their spirits longed even more to be free. Once again I was reminded powerfully that we are all humans and we are all in this thing together. I could see the longing for liberation in their eyes and I could sense it in their spirits. I was amazed how God had led me to the exact men that could get me into the exact prison that I had proclaimed that I would enter just weeks before. Fascinating… As we finished and walked back through the gate, I marveled at what had just happened. I looked at the clock and told Mulu that we needed to get back across town as fast as possible, and that maybe I could still make it to the conference by lunchtime.
As we got back to the university and I ran back to the building where the Peace Summit was being held, I busted through the doors right as lunch was almost over. I hurried to the buffet line and got a plate of the Indian Cuisine and made my way to an empty table to wolf down my food. On my way in through the doors, I ran into a new friend who is the founder of War Resisters International out of NYCNew York City. A fascinating and brilliant man with a bald head, thick glasses, and a long white beard. He asked me, “Did you get into the prison, and did you get to speak?” I said with a smile that yes indeed, I had! Then he made his way back into the crowd. As I sat there eating alone, I was interrupted by a nice, polite Indian woman. She was there representing the Premier, and she was involved in the development and implementation of the agenda for this important conference. This meeting is held only once every six years and the speakers are carefully chosen and invited far in advance of this event.
She said’, “Excuse me, Mr. Cummings, I have a question for you. We have heard that you visited a prison here in Durban this morning, and that you spoke to the prisoners about non-violence. We would like to know if you would be willing to speak.”
I was stunned. Trying to swallow my food in order to be respectful, I replied, “Of course, I would be honored. When would you like for me to speak?” She quickly said, “Right now” and led me by the arm away from my table and up to the podium. They began to introduce me immediately and said that I had some things of importance that they would like for me to share. Before I even had time to prepare my remarks, I was holding the microphone. There I was in a tee-shirt and blue jeans, with Ela Gandhi and Dr. Bernard Lafayette in the front row. But I was honored and privileged to have the very important opportunity to present to peacemakers from around the world about the Power of Peace Movement, and how we were teaching Gandhi, King and Mandela nonviolent principles in prisons and inner city schools back in the states. I was overwhelmed with gratitude and amazed at what had just happened. It was beyond my wildest dreams, but exactly why I had come all the way across the world. I just didn’t know it.
People keep telling me that this is not a good idea, that it would be dangerous. They told me the timing wasn’t good, and that my type would not be accepted there in that place, especially not now, with all that was going on. But I felt like now was the exact time to go; any other time would make no sense. This was the right time, and this was the right place; and these were the exact people that I needed to go and meet, and the exact people that I needed to learn from. How would I know if I do not go? The nation has been in an uproar over the killing of a young black man named Michael Brown by a white officer named Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, just outside of East St. Louis. The country rioted over the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles almost twenty five years ago, and then our nation was divided once again by the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida just a few years ago. Now this latest tragedy, along with the Eric Garner case in New York closely following it, has exposed an ugly reality in our country that not much has changed, and that the racial divide is as deep as it’s ever been. Everyone has an opinion and everyone is choosing sides, and most are not afraid to broadcast that opinion, though many know very little about that which they are arguing. They only believe what they have watched, read or listened to in the media, but they have not gone and seen for themselves. I think if you haven’t walked a mile in the other’s shoes then it is better to listen and learn rather than preach. I have been guilty of that many times before.
So after I finished a series of events in a Kansas prison, I drove across the state line and headed for Ferguson. I didn’t have much of a plan but I felt a strong call pulling me. I’ve heard that voice many times before and simply followed it, and that has made all the difference. So I listened, and I drove. There had been recent protests and even riots in that community, where businesses were burned, looted and destroyed. It had gotten so bad at one point that the National Guard was called in and tear gas was used to disperse the angry crowds. I began to drive through St. Louis and on to Ferguson trying to find the exact spot where the killing had taken place just a few weeks earlier. The whole country was on edge over a grand jury decision as to whether they would charge the officer in the killing. I could sense the tension as I got deeper into the community. But I couldn’t find the street because I didn’t know where I was going. How would I know if I didn’t find someone to ask? So I saw a young man and a young woman sitting on a grass bank waiting on a bus. I pulled over and got out of my car. As I approached them they quickly noticed that I was not from around there. The young man happened to be black, and so was she. He had some fascinating artwork on his face and was wearing a Miami cap turned up and to the side. I asked a few short, but very important questions.
I asked, “Excuse me sir, can you help me?”
“Whatcha need?” he said.
“I need your advice,” I replied.
“About what?” he said.
I went on. “I would like to get your opinion about something. I’d like to know what you believe the solution to this big mess is. I need to know from someone who lives here.”
The whole vibe and energy of the situation quickly turned. Here I was, a white man that was obviously from out of town, walking around by myself asking questions to complete strangers in a neighborhood that was on the brink. He seemed to sense that I wasn’t a cop, or a reporter, but perhaps just a friend. I politely approached, I called him sir, I asked for his help, and then I wanted his opinion; treating him as an authority. They were wonderful and offered a very articulate and reasonable opinion. Then I asked how I could find the place that I was looking for.
“You mean the hot spot?” he said.
“Yeah, I guess that is what I’m looking for.”
He directed me, with a little grin, and then I gave him a street-hug. I said “I got nothing but love for you man.” And he said “I love you too, sir.” I got back in my car and headed to the hot spot.
As I drove down the street that had seen the rioting just days before, it looked like a war zone. Row after row of store fronts were boarded up, and the QuikTrip was burned to the ground, as well as other businesses all the way down that road. I stood in front of the stores and talked to people as they came out. I asked a young man where Michael Brown’s apartments were, and he pointed up the street, “Just head that way, you’ll see it.” I walked on and eventually came to the spot. There was a make shift memorial with flowers, teddy bears, balloons, candles and other loving gestures piled up in the street. There were also signs that had been propped up that read “Stop Killing Us” and other heart-broken messages. It was eerily quiet and deserted, and then slowly people began to come out and walk up to me. There I was, all alone wearing my “Hope is the New Dope” tee-shirt and walking around the site and saying hello to anyone that approached me. I offered the same questions that had already worked: “Excuse me, can you help me? I need some advice and your opinion. What do you believe that the solution is here?” It was like magic. Before I knew it there was a small crowd around me and I was interviewing people. By the end of my visit to that tragic landmark, we were hugging and posing for group photos, with peace signs in the air— at the exact spot where Michael had been killed. Whatever your position is on that controversy, it’s hard to argue with love. That picture (above) is a prized possession, and it reminds me that people are just people, and these were just heart broken, hurting families. They were beautiful and they treated me with nothing but love and respect. I wonder who would have predicted any of that by just watching the news… I wonder.
I am getting “shook down” and inspected very thoroughly as I get through the gate in a Mexican maximum security prison. There are guards high above, up on the walls with AK-47s. This is where high risk inmates deep in the heart of Mexico are incarcerated. I am not sure what to expect as I prepare to speak to about three hundred convicts dressed in khaki uniforms. I am accompanied by my friend and mentor Johnny Moffitt , a former motorcycle gang member from Texas. Having been locked up in the seventies, he loves convicts and they love him. He has been doing this for almost forty years and has been in prisons all over the world. He and I met when we were booked to speak at the same prison ministry conference in Orlando and were mistakenly put in the same room, and literally had to sleep in beds that were four feet from one another. We have been friends ever since.
Speaking with an interpreter is an interesting experience. There is a rhythm that develops and it becomes like a dance. Unlike speaking to American audiences, you have time to think of your next sentence for longer than usual. The inmates look at you, then look at the translator and respond. There is a delay before they laugh or cheer and it is fun to wait for it. These men are intense and hanging on every word. In the crowd I know there are cartel members, drug dealers and murderers, but they are not what you would imagine. After the message, they line up to come and pay their respects and ask questions; more so than in U.S. prisons. They are so grateful, at least they were with us. I would not know how they act when we leave or before we come; I just know that around us there is a mutual respect and dignity, regardless of our differences.
Our host is a beautiful evangelical church in Puebla, about an hour from Mexico City. The pastor there is a former Miss Mexico and she and her husband lead a ministry that is exploding with a number of different locations in multiple cities with tens of thousands of converts. Because her churches are not mainstream and are growing so fast, she has been heavily persecuted by the more powerful religious denominations down there as well as those practicing the occult. There have been plots to kidnap her and kill her from time to time, and they live on a compound with high walls and armed guards to protect them. But still she boldly preaches and her churches continue to grow. Her driver is a former government body guard who now works for her to provide protection and security. We preached at her church several times while in Puebla and our team stayed on the compound. These were the most hospitable Christians I have ever met, and I have met them all around the world.
What made this trip a little different and definitely more difficult was the fact that I had broken my shoulder pretty badly just a few days before this trip. The doctor had told me that I shouldn’t travel and that I would need surgery to repair the broken shoulder joint. Well, there was no way that I was going to cancel this trip and that was all there was to it. So he set me up with a super-sling that not only kept my arm in the right slot but also wrapped around me and held my arm tight against my body. With a little pharmaceutical help, I was on my way to Mexico. I figured it would only help in some of the dangerous places we were going!
That Friday evening we had a large worship service in this mega-church. I had mentioned to Pastor Sheets, who was leading our team, that I wanted him to have our team pray that I wouldn’t need surgery when I got back to the states, because I didn’t have time for it. Pastor Sheets has been preaching all over the world for over fifty years and has done this type of service many, many times. He began by saying to the large audience “The Lord spoke to me this evening, and He told me that we needed to have a healing service. You see we have this young man on our team who recently broke his shoulder. The doctors have told him that it will require surgery, but he doesn’t agree with that. Tonight we are going to pray for him.” Now you must understand that I wasn’t raised in this type of church. These were Holy Ghost Christians and just didn’t fit into my box. I was quite uncomfortable that he had called me out. He went on: “I’d like to ask this young man to stand up, right there on the front row.” I was embarrassed, and my face turned blood red. I reluctantly stood up and they began to cheer for me. I wanted to sit back down, but then he started to sing in one of the most beautiful voices of prayer that I had ever heard.
I still didn’t believe in what he was doing, but I wasn’t going to get in the way of this beautiful gesture. Slowly, one by one, beautiful Latino worshippers began making their way to the front and they began to lay their hands on my shoulder. I was resisting gently, until I finally closed my eyes and endured it. Suddenly I heard what seemed to be a very clear voice, but no one was speaking to me. It said, “Are you really going to be so arrogant that you do not accept the gift that I am trying to give you?” I slowly lifted my good arm above my head and just let go. I focused on the song, the vibe, and the spirit of this wonderful, loving congregation and went with it. We finished that night with lots of hugs and a few tears, and then we continued with our prison tour. I can’t tell you that my shoulder was immediately healed, for that is not my story. But I can tell you that when I went back to the Emory University Specialist in Atlanta upon my return, he looked at the new x-rays and scans and told me that I did not need surgery any more. Today my right shoulder, the one that I had broken, is much stronger and more mobile than my left shoulder. I had learned a very valuable lesson: stop thinking you know when you don’t know, and stop trying to put Him into your own box. He doesn’t live in boxes, nor does He fit.
In this African tribe, when someone does something harmful, they take the person to the center of the village where the whole tribe comes and surrounds them. For two days, they will say to the man all the good things that he has done. The tribe believes that each human being comes into the world as good. Each one of us only desiring safety, love, peace and happiness. But sometimes, in the pursuit of these things, people make mistakes. The community sees those mistakes as a cry for help. They unite then to lift him, to reconnect him with his true nature, to remind him who he really is, until he fully remembers the truth of which he had been temporarily disconnected: “I am good.” (What if we embraced this practice with our youth, instead of punitive justice first?) #restorativejustice
Motivation is a powerful force. It is amazing the lengths to which a person will go, and the depths a person can be pushed to when properly motivated. I am witnessing this first hand as I am in attendance at the world famous Angola Prison Rodeo. Angola State Prison is the biggest prison in the US housing over six thousand inmates, with the majority serving life without parole. Once known as the bloodiest prison in the world, Angola has gone through a radical restoration over the past twenty years. This is the fiftieth anniversary of the convict rodeo and thousands are in attendance seated in an outdoor stadium constructed for this event. I have grown close to a number of men who reside in this prison built on eighteen thousand acres of rural Louisiana farmland. Once a slave plantation, it is bordered on three sides by the Mississippi river. I have a friend in Angola Prison who has been there for over fifty years. He has been at Angola almost as long as I have been alive. Tall, strong, and tough, you would never know that Mr. Starks is eighty-two years old. It is as if prison has preserved him. He has been an elder in the prison church for over thirty years, and he has taught me things about life at Angola that are invaluable. Why would I not listen to a man with his wisdom, experience, and life lessons? He has shared stories with me about that place that have helped me understand my work better, as well as the human condition.
This is a real rodeo with inmates who look forward to this all year long. Black, White, and Latino prisoners leave everything inside the rodeo ring as the crowd cheers and roots them on. Before and after the event, life sentenced inmates set up booths and get to sell their wares to free world guests on the prison grounds. Several items that have been made for me by the men in blue have become some of my most valued possessions: an alligator wallet made from a gator they pulled out of the Mississippi; an ink pen my brother Larry made from deer antler; and a belt made from a rattlesnake my friend Griffin killed on the prison grounds. This is a working farm that produces corn, soy, beef, cat fish and many more products that are sold in the free world on the open market for quite a profit, and this famous prison operates in the black financially which is almost unheard of. The warden is a world renowned prison reformist that brought God into this prison and changed everything.
The events that are held at this particular rodeo are not your normal rodeo events. They do have some calf roping, barrel racing, and bull riding, but it is their unique prison rodeo events that set this place apart. Early in the competition the crowd watches a round of “Convict Poker.” Four inmates are seated at a red card table in the middle of the rodeo ring, and they are playing poker (supposedly). A huge bull with real horns longer than my arm waits in a stall, and he is agitated. When he is released into the arena, the first thing he sees is that red table, and it appears as if he cannot believe four men are sitting in the middle of his ring. He snorts and kicks his hoof into the dirt, as he puts his head down and gathers a full head of steam before he reaches his target. Now, the game is this: the last convict to remain seated at the card table wins five hundred dollars in cash money on their books. That might not seem like much in the free world, but in this place it will make you a rich man and definitely change your lifestyle. You would not believe how high a human being can fly when helped along by a two thousand pound bull! Three men lay crumpled in a pile on the dismantled table, and the rodeo clown helps them to their feet as they shake their heads and the crowd cheers wildly. Another cowboy struts across the ring triumphantly and raises his hat in the air.
The very last event, and the one that everyone has come to see, is a true spectacle. All the convicts, probably fifty in number, are gathered in the arena. The biggest, baddest bull awaits them. He is being poked and prodded and severely disturbed in his stall and cannot wait to be freed. He has a red medallion tied to his forehead. The game is this: whichever inmate can successfully remove and retain that medallion gets five hundred dollars. This becomes a free-for-all as convicts are chasing an angry bull and also strenuously competing with one another to wrestle the chip away from his massive, butting head. It is quite fascinating to watch. The announcer speaks over the loud speaker and says, “Ladies and gentlemen, it is time for what you have all been waiting for. Our reigning champion, “Mr. Smith” has won this event seventeen times in a row. He is the favorite.” Imagine the odds: the same man has managed to beat out dozens of other convicts and get that chip seventeen times in a row. He obviously is very motivated, gifted in this area, and has a better strategy than all of the others. The gates open and the bull blasts out of the stall. All you can see is a cloud of dust and convicts bouncing around and flying through the air. Every few seconds the bull emerges from the dust and then the men swallow him up. You guessed it: running out of the crowd and holding the medallion over his head triumphantly is exactly who everyone expects it to be: for the eighteenth time in a row it is “Mr. Smith.” Unbelievable. Desire, motivation, and a good plan make for a very powerful combination.
Once again I am overflowing with joy as we celebrate the graduation of 40 Days to Peace by another two hundred high risk inmates at a prison in the Midwest. Most of these men come out of the tough streets of Detroit and they are in Level Four, which is the highest security level in this prison, which means that they did something to earn the right to be at that level. We have preached, we have commended, the men have shared, congratulated, and even hugged their rivals. This is a moment of jubilation as we have the hip-hop group Gideon Crew & Sunny Day performing a concert and we have prepared a feast for these inmates, something that they rarely if ever get. As we dance and celebrate I notice a group of young inmates from a particular, well known organization. They sat together for the first two days of the POPP launch, and in the beginning they were very hard to manage. They made a point of being a bit disruptive during my messages and they would talk to each other and carry on business, which drew intense stares from other convicts in the gym. This can be a problem at events and programs in prison if it continues unchecked. They didn’t seem to care, as they represent a new type of convict in the US correctional system: the young, tough, fearless, sometime ruthless, inmate. Many have come up through the youth system, and now they are trying to make a reputation, and the older men don’t know what to do with them; and these younger men don’t seem to respect the convict code. Back in the day the older convicts would work things out when they had a problem, man to man, one on one, with their hands. Now the rules of the game have changed: now it’s often three on one with weapons. That’s all the young ones know, but the older guys don’t respect that. This makes for a very intense vibe when they are together in one place, because typically the warden doesn’t allow these organizations in the same room together at this level of security.
The young men in the back began to get a little more boisterous than normal. Suddenly they charged toward the stage. The warden, deputy warden of security and the security threat group sergeant were in the back of the gym. They noticed the move, but were not in position to do anything about it, and all six of them were headed toward me. That is a moment where time stands still. Completely aware and once again trapped in the present moment, there is no time to be afraid; things just happen quickly. I had no idea why they were coming at me because most of these inmates love me and would never let anyone harm me without some very serious consequences. But they were coming and there was nothing I could do about it. So when they reached me I braced myself. They grabbed me, lifted me up, and began to throw me around— it was kind of like crowd surfing. They were so filled with joy and caught up in the moment that they had decided to toss me around in celebration. It was amazing that anyone even had the idea, much less the inclination to carry it out. All the other convicts laughed and cheered, and even the officers and wardens laughed and allowed them to continue to enjoy themselves. Every time I go back to that maximum security prison, those young guys remind of what they did that day: “Hey Kit, you remember when we threw you around!” Yeah I remember, it’s another day I will never forget.
I am standing under a dark stairway, and out of sight from anyone else in our group. A man stands uncomfortably close, so close that I can smell his breath. His head is shaved, and there are tattoos on his face. His eyes shift back and forth and his body moves uncomfortably. He has been in this place for a long time and he will not leave during his natural life. He goes by the name of “Psycho” and he lives in an eight by ten foot cell in a place that those in the free world rarely see. He has asked if he can talk to me, because he has an important question to ask. This is the first time we have officially met, and we are on his turf. This is Alabama’s death row. Twenty two men currently live there and they have all received the law’s most severe consequence: they will live out the rest of their lives there, and they will all die one day by lethal injection. He tells me that he is indeed guilty of the crimes that he has been convicted of and that he deserves what he has coming to him— an admission which is somewhat rare in this place. I have spent several hours this afternoon with this misfit band of brothers, and on this day they will memorialize a close friend that they have all lost just the week before. This is my first trip to “the row” though I have made a number of trips since that unforgettable Saturday afternoon. His eyes begin to moisten and tears fall over his teardrop tattoos. His voice quivers as he begins to ask the question. I turn to the right to see if anyone else can still see us, which they cannot. My eyes turn back to him and into his deep stare.
“I have a question for you, preacher” Psycho says in a hushed tone.
“What can I do for you?” I reply.
“I want to get right with Him before they take me, and this is what I need to know: can your God save a man like me?” Tears fill his eyes.
That question digs deep into my heart. Here was a man that the world hates, fears, and that many have forgotten, though some never will, waiting on a phone call that he hopes will never come. He is asking me the age old question that so many have asked before. How do I get past what I have done, the choices that I have made, and the way that I have lived my life? My life’s work has become all about how to help people answer that question, and find a way to change. To make amends, heal broken relationships, find meaning and purpose in their lives—and make things right, for themselves and to this wounded world. This random but powerful interaction caused a shift inside of me and got me thinking about solutions.
Prescriptions for Peace… How do you create something out of nothing? The truth is that we are doing it every day, whether we are aware of it or not. It starts with our thoughts– around 40,000 of them a day. Thoughts become things and you begin to create what you hold in your mind space. Secondly you create with your words– around 15,000 a day. Words are powerful and carry unlimited potential. Everything that is, was created first in the mind, as an idea, and then expressed in the spoken word. Next it is ALL about focus: what we focus on expands. Whatever gets and holds your valuable attention today is what you begin to attract, develop and construct– consciously or unconsciously. Finally, we become what we see. You will draw upon your memories and activate your imagination throughout the day today, knowingly or unknowingly– as you daydream and fantasize. What you see in your mind’s eye, as well as outside of yourself is what you eventually become– so surround yourself with and fill your mind with things and people that support your dreams and visions. Don’t buy into the lie that you have no power over what happens to you today. You are co-creating your life by what you think about, speak about, focus on, and dream about– period, point blank. That’s how our Creator did it, and we are fashioned in His image. It’s really quite simple.. You say you wanna be happy? You say you wanna have a great day? Follow the prescription and have the best day of your life. (See you on the field)
Everybody wants peace… It never goes out of style and everyone is always thirsty for it. The world is ready like never before. Grab some and hold on– but give it away too (It’s the only way to keep it)