Justice

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Justice

Because of Dave

September 4, 2018 by

“Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore, never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.” - John Donne, 1624

Because of Dave, I once spent the better part of a Sunday afternoon shackled to a bench in a dingy Harlem precinct house.

Because of Dave, I learned to wean myself off books and newspapers long enough to learn how to play Casino, and even to beat him.

Because of Dave, I learned that even if the only way to finagle a roof over your head in winter is to pretend you’re in love so that someone takes you in, you can still be a decent human being and exude a measure of dignity and purpose.

Because of Dave, I learned what a body looks like after falling thirty feet from a train trestle (he was caught jumping a turnstile late one night and tried to run for it) and how long that badly broken body takes to recover, if it survives.

Even if someone has a tough-as-nails exterior there may still be a reservoir of vulnerability, tenderness, and generosity welling up just below the surface.

Because of Dave, I know the way to some of New York City’s most forbidding places. Like the Tombs, the city’s ancient catch-all for pre-trial inmates – the first stop on the line for anyone who runs afoul of the law. Bellevue, including the sterile lockdown unit where nurses vie with armed guards as they tend to their charges. Riker’s Island, that sprawling Dickensian hellhole of a prison complex where the agonized sighs of some ten thousand men and women rise each morning and each night, out of sight and out of mind, just a stone’s throw but still worlds away from the tourist-clogged avenues and gleaming towers of midtown Manhattan.

Because of Dave, I learned that even if someone has a tough-as-nails exterior – scraggly, unkempt appearance, bloodshot eyes, and a volatile, defensive temperament – there may still be a reservoir of vulnerability, tenderness, and generosity welling up just below the surface.

So who’s Dave? Suffice it to say that, like his brother Keith, who died after one too many bottles of pills and vodka, Dave struggled, life-long, with a plethora of demons. Add the trauma of a miserable childhood, a tumultuous adolescence, and a predilection for addictive behavior (possibly genetic, who knows), and it’s no wonder that his life devolved into an odyssey of endless moves: from youth centers to jails, from jails to shelters, and from shelters to hospitals; and that his resumé, if he ever had one, would reflect an endless series of encounters with prison guards and parole officers, doctors, and drug, job, and housing counselors.

Keith and Dave Peck
Dave (L) and Keith

Suffice it also to say that he was, in effect, destined from early childhood to be kicked to the curb; someone who was doomed to fall through the gaping holes of America’s tattered social safety net; someone bound to be chewed up, swallowed, and spit out again by the cruel maw of a society – ours – that rewards, first and foremost, greed, ambition, charisma, intelligence, and power. Dave had none of these, unless you count his street-savvy. But that was more likely a reflection of his indomitable will to survive and his uncanny ability to prove that he was a cat with nine lives.

Back to my arrest ten summers ago in Harlem: it all began because my wife and I belong to a church that had taken in Dave and his brother on numerous occasions over the years, offering them a temporary room here and a part-time job there, trying to keep them out of trouble, and helping them navigate the messes they found themselves trapped in when they got into trouble anyway.

Like other members of my church, I had visited Dave in jails and in hospitals; I once took food to him after he had spent the night at a bus terminal. I was in touch with his parole officer. Like others, I had tried to help him foresee the legal consequences that tend to catch up with you when you engage in illegal activities. And then, completely unexpectedly, the police were after me.

As it turned out, Dave, who was once again living under the uneasy eye of the law, had jumped parole, and though I knew nothing except that he had apparently skipped town on a Greyhound, supposedly in the direction of Washington D.C., the detective assigned to the case didn’t seem to believe that I didn’t know more. There were intimidating phone calls, and then the unnerving, surreal surprise of being ambushed by two cops and arrested, at gunpoint, on a sunny day in the middle of a crowded park. Hours later I was let go, after being told it was a case of mistaken identity (now it was my turn to be incredulous). When I made it clear that I wouldn’t leave the police station until someone told me who the wanted person really was, I was shown a warrant… for Dave.

The message seemed clear enough: in the eyes of the NYPD, Dave was an incorrigible, dangerous criminal. Certainly there was nothing romantic about him or his rap sheet. He was erratic, unreliable, easily driven to dishonesty and to making excuses for himself; and he could be violent when he was drunk or high. But ultimately, for those of us lucky enough to know that he had another side, none of that completely defined him.

God can change a man’s heart in a moment. So there is my joy, right there – the first real joy that I have ever felt, the joy I have had since I repented of my sins.

That’s because we had seen Dave light up when treated with respect and surrounded by love. We had seen the gentleman in him when shown genuine kindness by a woman, and the natural-born teacher in him when playing stickball with a group of kids and humoring the one who struck out. We had seen how, on coming into a room, he would instinctively and immediately notice the rebellious, withdrawn teenager in the corner, and reach out.

Several years later, on a beautiful evening in June 2014, in upstate New York, some three hundred members of our church gathered outdoors to witness him at his most unforgettable: a man whose heart had melted like wax, whose repentance was so real and so deep that his tears flowed unchecked as he accepted baptism for the forgiveness of his sins.

Johann Christoph Arnold, a pastor and longtime mentor who had refused to write Dave off over some twenty years, despite his on-again, off-again interest in spiritual things, baptized him. At the service, Dave said this:

First, praise God for all your prayers, because they work… and because the light overcomes the darkness. I believe that. And if you want to know why I am crying, it’s because I believe in Jesus, and I am just so thankful. I’m not worthy of what he did for me…
If you have any doubts that there are demons, or that there is a devil, I can testify today that they are real, and they are vicious... But I also believe that God can change a man’s heart in a moment. So there is my joy, right there – the first real joy that I have ever felt, the joy I have had since I repented of my sins.
I want to testify today that I am a firm believer in God Almighty, the maker of heaven and earth, and that he sent his only begotten son for me. He died for my sins. And you know, I haven’t even been baptized yet, but I already feel forgiven, right now, and it is amazing…
When I was writhing just now in pain and agony, that was demons leaving me. So I just have to pray and put everything in God’s hands, in Jesus’ hands… I don’t have faith in man anymore…But every time I was let down, every time I was down and out, and had nothing, God always came through. He never turned his back on me, so I think it’s time that I do the same: to never turn my back on Jesus or on God again.

For most of us who witnessed Dave’s baptism, it was the last time we saw him. Over the next four years, he disappeared for months at a time, only to show up again as if nothing had happened. He moved to a state down south and then came back up north. Periods of stability alternated with longer periods of God-only-knows what. In short, he continued along the tortuous and untidy path he had always walked.

If you want to know why I am crying, it’s because I believe in Jesus, and I am just so thankful. I’m not worthy of what he did for me.

Then, last Thursday, Dave called my brother, another longtime acquaintance and friend of his, from a cell phone on a train. He was agitated, desperate, paranoid – on the run – and heading back to New York City, a place his voices had driven him again and again over the years. But his main purpose in calling was to pour out his sins, and to ask for prayers. My brother assured him of our community’s love for him, and of God’s forgiveness, and prayed with him over the phone. 

Four days later, a prison chaplain called. Dave had been brought to Riker’s Island over the weekend, and on Monday morning he had been found dead on the floor of his cell.

Christ of the Breadlines by Fritz Eichenberg
Fritz Eichenberg, Christ of the Breadlines

Heartbreaking as the news was – I can’t imagine a more depressing place to exit this world – there is no doubt in my mind that Dave did not just die. He went home: home to the Father who sees prodigal sons while they are “still far off,” as scripture says, and receives them with compassion – with open arms and kisses. Home to the Son who said he came not to judge the world, but to save it. Home to the mysterious sphere of unconditional love and unending mercy that some call heaven.

Dave is finally at rest. But there are plenty of other Daves out there. Here’s praying that God gives each of us enough compassion to lift a finger for them, and to open our doors and our hearts to them when they cross our paths. Because one day their bell will toll, as will ours, and it may be too late.

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About the author

Chris and Bea Zimmerman

Chris Zimmerman

Chris Zimmerman and his wife, Bea, live at Holzland, a Bruderhof house in a village south of Berlin.

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  • Chris, thank you so much for sharing your memories of Dave. His heartbreaking story reminds us to stop and look around in the mad rush of life and encourage someone else through a smile or other small act of love and compassion.

    Dan
  • Sometimes the demons just won't let go. The deeper one gets into the darkness, the tougher it is to see the light.

    Mike Mathewson