By Kenneth Williams
In June of 1998, I was asked to do something that filled me with sorrow, which I´d never been called upon to do before. The request so caught me by surprise, totally unprepared. But then again, who is ever prepared to bury a loved one? I was asked to be a pall bearer for the late Matthew Johnson, a 13 year old boy who had accidentally shot himself in the head while playing with a loaded gun he never should have had. But you know how it is with gang bangers, they’re intoxicated by the tough boy mentality and reputation.
Pistol-packing stimulates the masculine ego. Having an equalizer can make a man feel invisible, evenwhen he´s not. Young Matthew found out the hard way he´s not made out of air, but flesh, bone and blood; his lack of knowledge and understanding of the dangers of a gun cost him his life.
Matthew and I were homies, brothers of what we called “The Struggle.” We grew up in the same gang-infested neighborhood; we both lived as outlaws, who ran the streets of Pine Bluff, Arkansas, living dangerously on the edge. There was an age difference between us: when he was 13, I was 19. He was my apprentice, influenced in like-manner as I had been influenced by other older gang bangers. We were also bonded through a relationship I had with his sister Demetria. Matthew was the uncle to my daughter. Right before Matthew´s death, he lived with Demetria when it was safe to do so. He had run off from his foster home and found shelter there. He no longer attended school, fearing apprehension. The juvenile court had ordered the police to pick him up, therefore he went on the run.
Most of Matthew´s time was spent on the streets where he made his hustle. He burglarized people´s homes and cars, which is where he most likely came into possession of the weapon he used in ending his life. He, along with other delinquents, was kicking up so much dust his sister Demetria grew very concerned about him. She expressed these concerns to me, feeling that I could somehow pull his coat tail.
During one of my visits to pick up my daughter Matthew asked if he could ride along. Seizing the opportunity to converse with him, we turned a few corners during which I encouraged him to slow his roll some. I completely understood the dilemma Matthew faced. His life was a repeat of mine. Staring into his life was like looking into a mirror. I was ten years old the first time I was sentenced to a boy´s school for reform. After my release, I committed recidivism over and over again. I fled just about every foster home my case worker placed me in.
At sixteen years old I was sentenced to prison for first degree escape from “The Arkansas Serious Offender Program” and for second-degree battery. I received two five-year sentences to run concurrently. After serving two years and two months, I was released on April 2, 1998, under parole supervision. Just by having Matthew in the car with me, knowing the police were searching for him, this violated my parole conditions. I felt as if there was only so much I could tell Matthew concerning his behavior. I had no desire to come across as a hypocrite. My life´s choices were far more toxic than his. I spared him the “Do as I say, not as I do” speech. For the most part young people end up doing exactly the opposite: they do as you do, not what you say. But still, I felt obligated to tell him, “Pull back some.” If anyone knew of the dangers he faced living the way he was, that someone was me.
In hindsight, now that I look back, I might have told him enough to satisfy my conscience. To say I did something. And although we always say we could have done more, I could have done much more to deter him from his reckless decision making. Had I done so, perhaps his fate could have been altered. It pains me to say, I and others came up short in the role model category. Notwithstanding, we more than contributed in the “Dropping the Ball” department, and no amount of tears I can shed now will change that!
If only this was an isolated case, perhaps it would be more bearable; regrettably, it´s not. People all around the world struggle with the premature loss of a loved one. And, like myself, they find themselves asking the questions: “Could I have done more?” “Why didn´t I do more?” The guilt of an inadequate performance can be a deal breaker, if not dealt with appropriately. Due to my inaction, I had to look upon the stiff, cold face of Matthew at his funeral. As my eyes were fixated upon his lifeless body in utter disbelief, my ears were filled with the cries of grief which came from those whom loved him. He seemed at peace in his casket, a peace which eluded him in life.
He was only thirteen years old when his life was snuffed out. By his own hand, the blow of death struck him. That very same hand had thrown up the “pitch fork” which represented Gangster Disciple. That hand had greeted me in the manner gang members shake hands. That hand had been used to hold beers and marijuana blunts up to his mouth. That hand was not resting neatly at his side, where it could no longer harm him.
The mourners who participated in Matthew´s funeral did not attend because Matthew was a gangster, but because he was family and a friend. And if, without my knowledge, someone did attend his funeral to pay their respects just because he was a gang member, their presence was so small they went unnoticed in a city like Pine Bluff, Arkansas, where there´s no shortage of gang bangers.
A funeral is the last time to pay final respect to the person who has died. Any true friend would attend, and yet Matthew´s gang family…who pretended to care so much for him…was missing in action. Let this be a sign to all gang members.
I found myself confused and angry behind Matthew´s death. I couldn’t understand why he had died at such a young age, yet not me. My life of crime started way earlier than his, plus I was three times as reckless and rebellious as he was. However, I was the one standing in front of his casket staring down on him. By all reason and logic, the order of death should have been reversed. Tears should have filled his eyes as he stood over my casket. He should have been one of my pall bearers. This enigma plagued me for quite some time. Only now does it become clear to me: God has a calling on my life to minister His Word and to tell of His goodness, His grace, salvation and mercy.
Perhaps you heard it said: “The devil meant it for evil, but God turned it around for my good.” What I have discovered is God has given me a story very dear to my heart, one I can draw experience and wisdom from in order to teach others of the dangers of not warning a brother when you see him headed over a cliff. We are commanded by God to love one another. Love always tells the truth, it´s never selfish, it casts out fear which holds people back from telling others how it is.
Periodically we confess we love somebody; but, is it true love that we have for one another, or is it some other feeling or emotion masquerading inside of us appearing as love? If I truly loved Matthew in the manner that God´s Word describes love in 1 Corinthians 13: 4-8, my conversation with Matthew would not have been what it was. It would have been more direct, compassionate; there would have been follow-ups, which came after the intervention. This is what authentic love looks like, and if you don´t find a similar pattern, then you must not have love for your brother—but rather something else, which could end up costing you dearly.
My young apprentice, whom I blindly led astray, is dead. As for me, I´m on Death Row, the closest a person can come to being in a grave without actually being there. Given the way Matthew and I lived our lives—gang banging—was this not to be expected? I walked in darkness. I loved wickedly; Matthew followed. Easily as we did so; we could have been children of the light who walked in righteousness. I don´t claim to have had no choice in how I lived my life. Quite the contrary, we all have free will and will be rightfully held accountable for our actions, or inactions, by the All Mighty God on the day of judgment: Acts 17:31.
Enticement and negative influences are two powerful forces unleashed upon us all to destroy us; nonetheless, they can be effectively resisted. The case I want to make is that not everyone who grows up in the projects, the hood, the ghetto, joins a gang. Therefore no excuses, there´s enough blame to go all around for this gang mess we are in.
Adolescents themselves are partially to blame if they join a gang. Gang recruiters share in the blame. So do parents who neglect to properly supervise and discipline their children. The police are to blame for not caring enough to crack down on gangs in minority communities. Politicians are to blame for their lack of management with this problem. For not adequately funding gang prevention programs, neglecting a hands-on approach, all of which suggest this problem hasn´t been a top priority to them, and finally, a lot of preachers aren´t speaking out enough against gang involvement. They´d rather preach pleasant non-offensive sermons from the safety of their pulpits, when they should be out on the corners, in front of crack, weed, and gambling houses warning those walking in darkness of the coming judgement if they don´t repent of their sinful ways.
We´ve all dropped the ball in some way, and boy does it show unmistakably in our school houses, in our jails, and prisons our rehabs, and yes…most regrettably, our graveyards too. No sir, Matthew and I aren´t alone. We´re not the only ones who´ve paid a hefty price. The gang epidemic, that has declared war on humanity, can no longer be ignored or left unchecked. Like a cancer, it won´t “just go away” but will consume all the good around it, leaving only death and destruction behind. Only if people begin to set aside their indifference will this gang epidemic be put into check.
Writing about Matthew´s life along with my own, telling of the dangers of gang involvement for others to read it and hopefully share what they have learned with others, this is an effective and creative step towards combating our common enemy that has its ugly claws wrapped around the necks of so many they can´t be counted. It´s highly unique of God to strategically use a former gang member such as myself to connect, resonate, enrich and liberate the hearts of gangsters. The Lord revolutionized my life, utilized the knowledge, resources, and standing I have with gang members to reason with them through my writings. He seeks to communicate with all who have an ear to listen and a heart to obey.
You see, God´s grace is sufficient enough to turn anyone´s life around, no matter what sinister or diabolical thing they may have done. He´s still able to use us. I am a living witness, much like the Gadarene demoniac, a man Jesus delivered from demon possession in Luke 8:27.
The only matter which needs to be resolved, will you allow yourself to be used by God? Where does you allegiance lie? In the Kingdom of Light or in the Kingdom of darkness? No one can serve two masters. I chose the Light; I am no longer blind, but now I see. Permit me to lead you out of bondage, out of darkness to Jesus Christ…who is “The Way, The Truth, and The Life.”
|Kenneth Williams SK 000957|
P.O. Box 400 VSM
Grady AR 71644