Three large vans slowly pulled up and they piled us all inside and then drove off in different directions. We rode in silence. The driver appeared more agitated than we were. He was young, probably twenty or twenty-one. I could tell he didn’t want to chauffeur us. His parents were probably forcing him. I unfortunately sat in the front seat next to him.
“Why don’t you just get a job?” He didn’t bother to look up at me. “And stop having other people take care of you. Wasting people’s time. I’m just saying.” I didn’t respond. If I said something he didn’t like, he could lie to his parents and get us kicked out. His voice permanently stained snobbish from a life of pampering. “The government just needs to come and round all of you up, and take y’all away. The cities would be so much safer and cleaner. People would be much happier.”
This memoir covers the latter part of my homeless journey, ranging from age fourteen to seventeen, predominately my high school years. The horror of my homelessness is what I call it. Allow me to take you down my path and to walk in my footsteps along my own hellacious underground railroad. If you are reading this in the midst of your own overwhelmingly challenging journey, it is you for whom I write….It is you whom I urge not to quit. I know your pain and through my pain, I wish to give you strength. For everyone else reading this, please understand my story is only one of millions of other homeless people.
“What happened in this country, especially since the Industrial Revolution, was that wild foods were deemed of lesser quality, and therefore less desirable, than cultivated foods. The prevailing attitude seemed to become that if one had to forage for food, that meant that one was too poor to purchase food, and in this Land of Opportunity, where everyone could and should be rich, being poor was akin to being worthless and lazy. Only those who were very desperate foraged, and only in times of extreme hardship … or only for certain foods.”
Walter made me understand why we have to reform a system of criminal justice that continues to treat people better if they are rich and guilty than if they are poor and innocent. A system that denies the poor the legal help they need, that makes wealth and status more important than culpability, must be changed. Walter’s case taught me that fear and anger are a threat to justice; they can infect a community, a state, or a nation and make us blind, irrational, and dangerous. I reflected on how mass imprisonment has littered the national landscape with carceral monuments of reckless and excessive punishment and ravaged communities with our hopeless willingness to condemn and discard the most vulnerable among us. I told the congregation that Walter’s case had taught me that the death penalty is not about whether people deserve to die for the crimes they commit. The real question of capital punishment in this country is, Do we deserve to kill? Finally and most important, I told those gathered in the church that Walter had taught me that mercy is just when it is rooted in hopefulness and freely given. Mercy is most empowering, liberating, and transformative when it is directed at the undeserving. The people who haven’t earned it, who haven’t even sought it, are the most meaningful recipients of our compassion. Walter genuinely forgave the people who unfairly accused him, the people who convicted him, and the people who had judged him unworthy of mercy. And in the end, it was just mercy toward others that allowed him to recover a life worth celebrating, a life that rediscovered the love and freedom that all humans desire, a life that overcame death and condemnation until it was time to die on God’s schedule.