By all standards, our theater event at Victory Gardens last Thursday was a resounding success. Despite the mid-summer date, and one of the largest midtown traffic jams in recent memory due to the filming of Transformers 3, over fifty friends of PCG were able to join us. The play, A Guide for the Perplexed was superb. Make sure to see it.
We had two speakers at the pre-play reception, both of whom have been in jail for drug offenses. Both have fought their way back with strength and courage. Their experiences speak directly to PCG’s work in helping ex-offenders get a second chance in a society that makes this almost impossible.
Dante grew up in public housing. His mother had 14 children. Only four are now alive. All the others died from drug overdose or violence. His mother was often not home in the evenings. A lot of men moved in and out of her life. He carries a scar on his head from her violence.
Dante managed to do well through high school and entered the military after two years in college. He returned home to care for his mother after two tours of duty. When she died, and his brother suffered an AIDS-related death, everything suddenly seemed too much for him. He turned to drugs. Eventually he found treatment, and he is now a counselor himself in a half-way house setting.
I will long remember his opening comments.
“I’ve thought about the words ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’ I have always had this thought that no soul really has a choice about where it’s born or how God chooses to bring that soul to earth.”
You know, I could have been a Cambodian rice farmer, I could have been a Russian midget in the circus, I could have been so many other things, but God chose me for a purpose. I was born into an African American family on the South Side of Chicago, in poverty, in the projects, in Robert Taylor homes.”
At the very least, these words call us to empathy. If we take seriously his observation that none of has a choice about the circumstances to which we are born, doesn’t it follow that each of us – but for chance – could be facing the struggles that have been so difficult in his life?
Circumstances separate us, perhaps now more than ever before. We live in a time of massive income inequality and gated communities. But if much of this separation is due to chance—or at least things over which we have no choice – isn’t it also true that what we have in common with each other is far more significant that what separates us?
Dr Martin Luther King told us of the ways we are connected to each other. This is tangibly true: “We are everlasting donors to known and unknown men and women. When we arise in the morning… we reach for soap that is created for us by a European. Then at the table we drink coffee which is provided for us by a South American, or tea by a Chinese or cocoa by a West African. Before we leave for our jobs, we are already beholden to more than half the world.”
But our connectedness is also spiritually true. Social activist and preacher William Sloane Coffin was paraphrasing Dr. King when he asked: “’Am I my brother’s keeper? No, I am my brother’s brother or sister. Human unity is not something we are called upon to create, only to recognize.’”
Dante reminded us all of our common humanity. His courage, and his words, are a gift that will help to define our work, and inspire our purpose, in the months and years ahead.