A Gangster, a Tainted Reputation, and a Kingdom That Loves
(guest post by Jeremy Nicholls)
I stood on the blighted corner of Broadway and Wilson chatting with Ahmed. This particular day, I could feel the judgment coming down from certain factions of society. Stares were aimed in our direction and it wasn’t just the rich and affluent young urbanites, judgment also came from the men and women who shared shelter beds, soup kitchen lines and the sidewalks with him. It was a strange, but not unusual feeling, yet I knew that love was calling me to give Ahmed my full attention.
Jesus speaks passionately about this: when he lived and spoke of the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus displayed how irrational kingdom relationships will and need to be. It means inviting poverty stricken folk into our homes for a meal, fellowshipping with people of disrepute, cancelling debt and giving beyond all rationality! Jesus wants members of His Kingdom to befriend undesirable people and tainted folks by inviting them to banquets and feasts. Such fellowship will result in risking our reputations, being ripped off and losing more money than we may have.
When Jesus called Zacchaeus down from the tree, he demonstrated a form of subversive living. This simple action made an enormously radical statement by proclaiming Zacchaeus as someone who was considered vitally important within the Kingdom of God. Yet ironically, Jesus did not stop there, he went to his home and supped with him! Zacchaeus had a reputation; he was a tax collector, and was therefore known as a con artist, embezzler, bully and a thief; he was someone that all society (rich and poor, Jew and Gentile) deemed worthy of contempt, alienation and rejection. Through this act of kingdom love, Jesus also suffered consequences and was despised for it, yet Zacchaeus became a new man. What he told Jesus he would give back to the people he had robbed and the amount he was going to give to the poor does not make logical sense! Mathematically, it does not add up! The response of Zacchaeus was an irrational act of non conformity, and he began, that day, living out the agape love and generosity of the Kingdom, just as Jesus had done for him.
Jesus was rebuked, despised and scoffed at for associating with the tax collectors, prostitutes, sinners, lepers, beggars and demon possessed. Jesus sacrificed reputation and time by stopping to talk to the Samaritan woman at the well and another woman who had a bleeding disorder and he disgracefully allowed children to come to him. Jesus made it clear that his Kingdom is for people that society has rejected and abandoned.
Working at Cornerstone presents me with my own dilemmas. There are so many people with different personalities, affiliations, struggles and addictions that I find myself having to battle my pride continually. The daily question is; do I save face by ignoring or do I humble myself and fellowship with the alienated?
Shannon is physically obtrusive, he pulls my beard, cannot control his vulgar tongue and laughs insanely, while cracking jokes and singing Barry White songs in my ear. People cringe at his overbearing personality and stare, but he needs kingdom love. Lil’ Freddie sits hunched on a street corner with his dirty pants, snotty nose, unkempt hair and smoke stained fingers. He scratches his lottery tickets and tosses them in the breeze. When people actually notice this invisible man, they view him as unsightly and disgusting, they snarl when I crouch to talk to him, yet he needs Kingdom love. Daily, I walk the short block from Clifton to Broadway. I hug, shake hands, exchange friendly fists and stop to chat to people often labeled as prostitutes, crack heads, junkies, winos, gang bangers, loiterers and crazy homeless bums. Every time I fellowship with this rejected community, I risk being labeled and dubbed a detriment of society. Ironically, many wearing the rejection label also feel justified in questioning why I would consider stopping to speak to “that type of person”. Yet, all these “labeled” men, women and children desperately need the love that spills forth from the Kingdom of God.
If we live Kingdom ethics, the same questions the Pharisees asked of Jesus when he went to Zacchaeus house should be asked of us: Why are you eating with that thieving tax collector, that thug or that gang banger? Why? Because the box we put people in, a box which is built upon our judging of others, will rip open when we develop risky relationships with the love of God’s Kingdom; we will start to see their heart, their pain, their needs, their love and their amazing gifts!
Ahmed has a tainted reputation! He is known by police, the homeless community, condo dwellers, social workers and his fellow gang members as a ‘straight up thug!’ In his 42 years, Ahmed’s life has consisted of being chronically homeless, bouncing in and out of prison, struggling to conquer different addictions, violence, times of slinging drugs and earning a highly regarded position of General in one of Chicago’s biggest gangs. Exacting revenge and punishment is the known life and reputation of Ahmed! He was the one who punched Dan in the mouth! As a nephew of a powerful imprisoned gang leader, living the thug life seemed to be his destiny and it is virtually impossible for him to escape. When we walk and talk, people often approach wanting and needing his various services, whether it is cigarettes, revenge, advice, drugs or clothing. When the masses see us walking, what do they think? What do they think when they see me standing on a street corner with Ahmed as he is stopped by a group of local young gang bangers? Who do I become to them?
Ahmed lives with the brutal scars of gang and prison life. His body displays almost fatal knife wounds, because he fended for his life in some Illinois prison gang riot. Yet, his heart displays the almost fatal wounds of alienation, captivity, slavery and retaliation. Ahmed is in bondage and he continues his wrestling match to lift these devastating chains of despair.
Through this risky relationship I quickly discovered Ahmed’s real name is Leonard. Ahmed is his gang name and it is tattooed on his body. His many acquaintances only know him as Ahmed, yet I desire is to call him Leonard. He has a wonderful and beautiful side. It may take a coffee or some rib tips, but through simple communication and some genuine interest the thug is transformed into a loving caring child of God.
Due to Leonard’s criminal history, an alcoholic girlfriend with homeless children who struggle with similar issues and the ongoing pressures of his past gang life, finding a permanent job has proved fatalistic. He is a picture of perseverance, yet because he is man of commitment and passion, the above obstacles continually push him back. Part time positions and trainings have come and gone, yet he continues to fight. He wants, dreams, prays (yes, really prays) and hopes that someday, somehow, he can live a “normal life” with his own place, while supporting a loving doting wife and working a “straight up job”.
Leonard uses his leadership qualities, poetic gift of the gab, extreme courage and love to rescue fellow strugglers from their plight. We have spent hours trying to redirect his aggressive demeanor into a positive disposition, by using slogans like “promote the peace.” Through his compassion, energy and concern, he has often pleaded with me for assistance, so we can help and protect the “brother or sister” in need. We tracked down Tyrese on an insane crack binge and succeeded in detoxifying him. He brought me Cathie, who was about to be evicted with her sickly uncle and 2 children. He has advocated for dozens of men and women who were sleeping on the brutally cold hard Chicago streets and I was able to help a lot of them reside inside our (or another) shelter. We spoke of the passive Antonio, who had already lost 6 toes due to frost bite and we were able to give him a warm bed. When I brought him in, Leonard hugged him, shed tears of joy, cooked him a small meal, gave him a warm coat and set up his bed. He is a man who loves and cares passionately for Uptown’s voiceless and unlovable masses, yet he battles the cycle he finds himself in and is constantly looking to escape his present bondage.
Through developing a risky relationship with a thug named Ahmed, I found myself putting my reputation and fear on hold, so I can help him in his wrestling match to escape and be rescued from the addictive life of thugery I know love is a choice; a choice to fight his internal battle with him, somehow displaying the love of Jesus which breaks the chains of bondage! Kingdom love simply shows Ahmed, that he is God’s “fearfully and wonderfully made” Leonard` to me!