All it took for Roger to decide not to kill someone was to be reminded he was a child of God.
Roger (not his real name) was an inmate in a Pennsylvania jail when my friend Dave met him. Dave, a Christian Science practitioner and teacher from California, was there to give a ministerial talk as a representative of the local Christian Science Church.
“After my talk, Roger, a great big guy, came up to me and said, ’Man, you really messed me up,’ said Dave as we were having lunch one afternoon. “He said, ‘You were talking about what it means to be a child of God. That’s who I am.’ Then he said, ‘I want to tell you, before this talk, they brought a guy into the jail, and he and I have had this thing going on out on the street back and forth, and I said to myself, I’m going to kill him. Today’s the day. I don’t care what happens to me, we’re going to end this thing, right here, right now.’”
All Dave could do was keep listening.
“He said, ’And then for some reason I decided to come hear this stupid talk. And now I’ve got to go back to my cell, and I’ve got to think about myself as a child of God and what that means, and I’ve got to think about him that way too, don’t I?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, you do.’ By this time, tears were streaming down his face. He gave me a big bear hug and he says, ‘Thanks for messing me up, man.’”
Would that more people could be “messed up” like this.
The truth is, there are probably a lot more people open to this sort of transformation than we think. Not that you could just walk into your local prison, tell everyone they’re a child of God, and hope to see the same results. But when spoken with conviction – that is, to the degree we really do see these individuals as being more than what their rap sheet, their family history, or even what their demoralized opinion of themselves may suggest – these words can have a huge impact.
Dave’s own conviction was born of an earlier experience when a gang member visiting his hometown began stalking his daughter.
“He started showing up wherever she was and following her around,” said Dave. “One day he comes up to our house when my wife and I weren’t there and he says, ‘You’re going to be my girlfriend.’ It wasn’t the sweet-talking, ‘Gee, you want to go out sometime?’ It was boom, that’s the way it is.”
The next day, when Dave’s daughter told the young man that she didn’t want to be his girlfriend, he pulled out a gun and shot it into a nearby ditch. The situation was made even worse when he threatened to “pop” Dave and his wife and take her with him.
That night, as he was out walking his dogs, the thought occurred to Dave that this guy could be lurking in the shadows somewhere waiting for him. It was then that he decided to pray. Really pray.
“I literally stood in one spot out there in the dark for a half-hour, working this through, just listening and trying to hear what I needed to hear,” said Dave. “I realized that, of course, I had to see him as a child of God.”
Even if this gang member didn’t see himself that way, Dave knew that he could – and should – and that it would make a difference.
“The next day, the phone rang, and I picked it up, and it was this kid,” said Dave. “As lovingly as I could – and it wasn’t a big effort, it was real love – I thought, here’s my opportunity.”
The two of them chatted briefly before Dave hung up the phone. That was the end of it. “He completely disappeared out of our lives,” said Dave. “He was just gone.”
“If you think out from original goodness,” he said, drawing on one of the fundamental tenets of his faith, in contrast to the notion of original sin, “you get God out of the box and ask yourself, ‘What does the image and likeness of God or Love, as the Bible defines God, really look like?’”
In Dave’s case this looked like a gang member bowing out of a fight, a prison inmate deciding not to take another man’s life, and who knows how many other situations he may have found himself in where helping someone see themselves as a child of God – or simply choosing to see them that way – made a positive difference in their life.
If it worked for Dave, one can only assume that it will work for any one of us.