Powder into Rock, for a Belly Full of Pizza
The Story of Samuel
Written by Alexandria Asmus
I heard the jingling of keys. Tap. Tap. Small hits to the door, jabbing, trying to fit the key into the lock. Click. It opened. The windows were black behind the tattered blinds. The smell of polluted air and car oil drifted in as he clumsily pushed open the door. Thomp. Thomp. Thomp. His feet were heavy on the floor. He let his bag crash to the ground. Leaning over to take off his boots, he fell sideways into the wall. Thud! He smelled of foul sweat and liquor.
My mom hurriedly put a few dirty dishes in the sink and tidied up the counter. Using both hands, she wiped the front of her shirt, pulling down on it to make sure it was in the right place. She brushed a few strands of hair behind her ears.
“Car-men!” came the slowed voice of my father. She immediately stood up taller and glanced in my direction. “Where … where … is my food?”
“I’ll make you something. What do you want?” She took a step back as he stumbled toward her.
“God, woman! I need … need my food. You never have … ready when I … come!” His words were slurred and slow, but his volume reached deafening levels.
“Sorry, Antonio. I’ll get you something right now. Just sit down. You’re scaring the kids.” She reached for his arm.
“Stupid woman!” He raised his hand and slapped her across the face.
My little sister, Erica, let out a whimper. She tried to be quiet. She knew spankings came when she cried, but she was only 5, so she couldn’t help it. She sat in the living room watching them, wide-eyed, body tense and lips puckered like she was sucking on something sour. One-year-old Nicholas sat near her, holding a small toy. At any moment, he would break.
“Please … please!”
My mom put her arms up to protect her face. He shoved her into the wall. Crash! A frame fell to the floor.
Nicholas opened his mouth, and his face immediately turned crimson. Long breath in, then a loud, painful wail. Three-year-old Ian squeezed Erica’s hand tighter. They sat huddled on the floor together.
“Have you been ta … talking to him again? You … you’re sleepin’ around, aren’t you?”
“No! No! I told you I haven’t!”
He raised his hand in a fist. Slam! It came down on her chin and chest.
Every muscle in my body tightened. He raised his fist again. Slam! It landed on her cheek and knocked her to the ground. He tripped and caught himself on her shoulders, grabbing her shirt, trying to pull her to her feet.
Nicholas’ cries rang out, piercing the air and making me grit my teeth. Both Erica and Ian had tears running down their cheeks.
My dad raised his fist again. I jumped toward him and grabbed him by the leg. At 7, my body undoubtedly made a laughable match for my sturdy father.
“Get off her!” I screamed. In one sweeping motion, he swung his arm down, his palm landing flat on my chest and shoving me to the ground.
I blinked, terrified of what was to come. He turned back to my mother, letting her be the outlet for his rage.
I quickly got to my feet, picked up crying Nicholas and said, “Come on, let’s go,” motioning to Erica and Ian. I took them down the hall to the closet, a place that had been their safe haven many times.
“Stay here, okay? Everything’s going to be okay. Don’t be scared.” Erica nodded, with Nicholas on her lap and Ian to her left.
Someone had to say it. It’s going to be okay. I repeated it to myself. It’s going to be okay.
I looked at them one last time, crouched on top of shoes, underneath hanging clothes. I slowly closed the closet door.
Comforter. Protector. That is what I needed to be, so that is what I became.
That fight landed my mom in the hospital for days. She finally decided to end it with my dad and whisked me, my brothers and my sister off to California to heal up for a few months at my grandpa’s house.
When we came back, my mom met another man. Things were pretty good for about two years. He wasn’t perfect — always trying to control her and putting locks on the fridge to make sure we kids didn’t take food when we weren’t supposed to — but he didn’t hit her. And that was a good thing.
She dragged me to his work one day, saying, “Come on, son,” as she hastily grabbed her coat and purse. I knew the routine. Mom was furious, ready to confront him about some other woman he was probably seeing. She wanted to make a scene. They always worked it out, but that time, he surprised her.
“It’s over, Carmen! I’m done. I want a divorce. I’m leaving you for someone else.”
And just like that, my mom’s world came crashing down. She ended up in the hospital again, but from her own doing. She took a sharp knife, pressed it into the soft skin on her wrists and let it slice her blue veins. She was ready to end it all.
After that, she started disappearing a lot. She’d go over to my uncle’s house and wouldn’t come home for days. She stopped sending my siblings and me to school. Laundry began to pile up. Dishes rotted in the sink. She tried to hide it from us, but eventually she started coming home high and bringing the drugs with her, learning very early on that if she let other people get high at our house, she could get drugs for free.
“I seriously hate this dude,” I sneered to my older brother, David.
“I know. Piece of crap.” He made a spitting noise under his breath as we peered out from around the corner. A scruffy, fat man stood just inside the doorway, talking with our mom. My brother was only 14 months older, but he was my partner in crime and my support system.
“Let’s try it today. Make it work to our advantage.” He gritted his teeth.
For weeks, we’d saved the crinkled bills the druggies gave us when they got high at our house. They felt guilty seeing little kids running around, so they threw a few bucks our way.
We had saved $40 and had the grand idea to buy some crack from our mom’s dealer, sell it to the countless people who used our house to get high and make a profit. We were sick of starving and sick of seeing our siblings cry.
The dealer left, slowly hobbling to his car. My brother and I ran out back and caught him as he climbed inside.
He stopped and looked in our direction, annoyed.
“Get out of here,” he snapped.
“What could we get for this?” My brother flashed three $10s and two $5s. The dealer raised his eyebrows.
“I could get you double that.” He knew what we were asking. We didn’t want to buy the drugs to use them. We wanted to turn it around and make a profit, just like he was doing.
That’s when it began. People came over to get high, and we’d say, “Hey, we got more stuff if you want it.”
They wouldn’t believe us, telling us, “Get out of here! Go play with toys or something.” But every night, around 3 or 4 in the morning, when their highs began to wane, they’d say, “You guys really got something?” and we’d make double or triple what we’d paid.
“You want some pizza, guys?” I smiled at my younger siblings as I flung open the door and held out the warm pie.
Erica, Ian, Nicholas and José ran to me, grasping for the box.
“How’d you get this, Sammy?” Nicholas mumbled with his mouth full.
“I’m a real man now. David and I are going to take care of you guys, all right? Don’t worry about a thing.”
They smiled and nodded, not sure what I meant, but happy enough to have a belly full of pizza and hoped there was more to come in the future.
David and I learned the trade. We turned powder into rock, turned sober into high and turned change into hundreds. We weren’t hungry anymore, and we were determined to help our siblings have a normal childhood. We took them to the circus and to the amusement park. I was no longer just the comforter and the protector, but the provider. A real man, I thought. A real man and only 13 years old.
“Mom!” David’s voice was hoarse and furious. “Mom! Get out here! Give me what you stole!”
Whack! He slammed his shoulder into her bedroom door, both hands grasping the handle. Whack! He used his entire body weight, the door trembling under the pressure, but Mom had wedged a dresser in front of it, anticipating David’s rage.
“Mom! Open this now! Just give me whatever you have left!”
Our mom had developed the nasty habit of stealing the drugs we wanted to sell. She found them wherever we hid them, so we started sleeping with them in our pockets. The night before, she snuck into our room and slyly stole some out of David’s pants while he slept.
She couldn’t fight the urge to get high. But what made David most upset was that we’d paid the rent the day before. We’d used drug money to pay the bills, take care of the house and take care of our siblings.
After paying the bills, we were broke. We needed every ounce to keep food on the table. But my mom didn’t care about that. She took the drugs, got high all night and left us to our own.
Bang! Bang! Bang! There came a loud knock on the front door. I pushed back the blinds and saw our social worker holding a clipboard.
“David! It’s the social worker!” He hadn’t heard the knock in the chaos. He quickly turned toward me, wide-eyed.
We knew the drill. Get Mom into the shower. If Mom was in the shower, the social worker couldn’t know she was high. Then, we could talk her into coming back a different day.
“Mom! Get in the shower! Get in the shower now!” David pushed on the door again.
“I didn’t take your stuff, David! I don’t have it! Leave me alone!” She breathed quickly.
Thump! She slid the dresser from behind the door, and David flew in. She shoved him.
“I don’t have your stuff, David! Get away from me!”
“Get back here, Mom! You need to get in the shower, now!”
He reached for her wrist, but she pushed past him.
Bang! Bang! Bang! The social worker knocked again. My mom looked toward the door suddenly, hearing the knock for the first time.
“Mom, it’s the social worker. You need to get in the shower.” He grabbed her arm.
“Get off me!” She shook free, walked quickly to the door and flung it open.
“Would you tell my son that I don’t have his dope?” she aggressively asked the social worker.
“Are you kidding me?” She could tell my mom was high and on a rampage. She glanced around and saw David and me, shocked at what my mom had just said.
The social worker didn’t know what to do, so she left. But the next day, she came back. With the police.
They knocked down the door. “We’re here for the kids!” My siblings scattered. We always knew this was a possibility. The social worker had come many times before. Now it’s happening. Erica took the little ones and hid in the back bedroom. Ian climbed to the roof of the neighbor’s, hoping not to be spotted. The police found them and took them. They told us that David and I could stay, perhaps thinking that at 14 and 13, we were old enough to run away from any foster home.
I woke up the next morning furious at my mom. David and I pleaded with our uncles, aunts and even our dad.
“Family has first rights! Please get our siblings back. All you have to do is say you’ll take them, and they get to come home. We’ll keep taking care of them, just please get them!”
But no one stepped up. So they stayed in foster care. For years. David and I would go visit them every Friday. We used drug money to buy them toys and games and other things we thought would make them happy.
“Mom’s doing just fine,” we told them reassuringly. “Just focus on school. Everything is going to be okay.”
But Mom wasn’t doing fine, and we didn’t know if everything would be okay. After our siblings got taken away, Mom stopped getting welfare checks and food stamps, so things got even tighter financially.
We let anyone and everyone get high at our house and stay there as long as they wanted. We figured if they stayed there, they would spend their money there, and we would have enough to pay the bills. We didn’t like it, but we adapted. We did what we needed to survive.
“Where do you want the couch, baby?” I asked. Beads of sweat dripped from my forehead as I carried our couch with a friend into our new living room.
“Just against that wall.” My girlfriend pointed, her belly slightly round with her small bellybutton protruding from underneath her shirt. When I was 17, my girlfriend got pregnant about the same time as David’s, so we decided to get our own places. We never stopped taking care of the bills for Mom. No matter how mad we were, we couldn’t stop caring for her.
I set the couch down and put my hands on her belly. “I love you, Cristina.” I kissed her on the cheek. “And I love you, Ana.” I kissed her bellybutton.
I was ready to have a normal life. I wanted to give my daughter everything I never had, and I promised myself I would never be like my dad. I got a job — a real job — and earned money the legal way for my family.
Only a few months into my job, my co-workers started asking me for drugs. Everything in me wanted to change, but it was so easy to get clients and to make double what I was paid at work.
Every Friday night, eight people met me at the bank to pay me for drugs. I wanted a better life for my daughter. I made more money, and I figured I’d be around more if I didn’t have to work a nine-to-five. So six months in, I quit my legit job. I went back to selling drugs full time and prepared to be a father.
“Babe, the water is off.” Cristina woke me up, the windows still dark.
“I thought we paid it,” I said groggily.
“Me, too. Give me some money, and I’ll go pay it.” Her belly rested on the mattress as she leaned over to get the money. It looked like a balloon with too much air in it.
Bang! The front door swung open. Chaos erupted. The SWAT team ran in and grabbed us both, pulling me out of bed like a rag doll. They dragged us into the living room, being more forceful with Cristina than they should have been.
They handcuffed me and sat me in a chair. They brought Cristina into the bathroom to question her separately.
“Where are the drugs at?” a tall, stern man wearing a black vest and black helmet yelled in my face.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said sarcastically.
Growing up, everyone always told me, “The first case is for free.” That meant that no matter what, you were going to get probation if you got caught.
“Tell us where they are!” His voice pierced the air.
“You have to do your job and find it! I make more money in a month than you do all year!”
Cocky and confident. The first case is for free.
They brought Cristina into the living room. “They said they’re going to take our daughter away, Sam!”
Tears streamed down her cheeks.
“They can’t do nothing! I’ll be out tomorrow, you’ll see!”
They took an old T-shirt and tied it around my mouth so I couldn’t talk anymore.
I went to court a few times. They gave me a $10,000 bond, and I paid it outright. Getting caught by the police didn’t deter me from selling drugs. It actually did the opposite. I felt invincible. I bought my way out of trouble, and I could do it again.
A few days later, my baby girl was born. Ana Cristina, the most beautiful creature I had ever laid eyes on. The desire to change surfaced in me again. I wanted to be a good dad, but getting caught fueled my confidence in the lifestyle I had.
We rented a new house, and I refused to show up for court. If I lay low long enough, this whole thing will blow over.
Laying low and continuing to sell drugs meant I got to spend a lot of time with Ana. I held her and taught her to sit up and walk. Every moment I spent with her was a joy. She didn’t leave my side.
“You better stop loving on that baby so much or she’s not going to want me at all!” Cristina said, laughing.
We were inseparable.
Three years later, I turned 21, my daughter turned 3 and my beautiful son, Alejandro, turned 1. I got caught again. This time with a $250,000 bond. There was talk of a 50-year sentence.
I paid the bond outright once again and went on the run. Cristina, Ana, Ale and me. Just the four of us, moving every so often, buying different cars, always laying low.
Cristina walked out of the kitchen one day and asked, “What are you doing? What’s wrong?”
I sat in a living room chair, holding Ana in one arm and Ale in the other. Tears dripped from my chin onto their heads. Cristina walked over and rubbed my arm.
“What’s wrong, baby?”
“They just don’t know.”
“What do you mean, they don’t know?”
“They just don’t know that at any moment I can be taken away. That all of this can be stripped away from us any day.” I sniffed.
She leaned over and wrapped her arms around all three of us. I couldn’t bear the thought of losing my family and my precious kids, but I couldn’t run forever.
“Hey, man. Why don’t you come pick me up? I got someone who can give you a real good deal on some kilos.” My cousin Matthew had a smooth, slow way of talking.
“Sure, man. I’ll come over. I’ll see you soon.”
I headed to his house. The music drifted from my speakers, windows slightly cracked. Matthew jumped in the car. Family hooking each other up, I thought.
Mathew gave me directions to a neighborhood where this guy lived. I turned the corner and immediately saw four police cars and a roadblock. He set me up. My hands tightened on the steering wheel. I can’t go to jail.
I punched the gas, hitting 75 miles per hour by the time I reached the roadblock.
“Whoa! Slow down, or you’ll kill us!” Matthew screamed.
Cops pointed their guns at me, yelling at me to stop.
Our heads and bodies slammed forward as I hit the roadblock. I heard a loud crash! and stepped on the gas harder. I gripped the steering wheel, but it felt hard to turn. My tires were flat. I heard the noisy tat! tat! tat! of helicopters above us and sirens following close behind.
“You set me up, man! I can’t believe you set me up!” I yelled as I swerved.
Matthew flung open his door and jumped out. I heard muffled grunts, but I was driving too fast to know how he landed.
Suddenly, my body slammed into the center console, my seat belt tightening against my chest. A police car had rammed the back end of my car, and I felt gravity’s pull as it spun to a stop. I unbuckled and fell out of the car.
Somehow, I got to my feet and started to run, hearing police officers shouting, “Stop! Get down on the ground!”
I didn’t make it far before my face was smashed on the pavement with cops piled on top of my back.
“Sam, you’re going to jail for a long time,” the officer said as he put me into the back of the police car. It had only been a year since I cried in the living room with my kids in my arms. All I could think of was my family.
It sounds weird, but my first night in jail was the best night of sleep I’d had in years. I wasn’t thinking about raids, watching my back or the next drug deal I had to make. I just slept. My choices had caught up with me, and I’d have to face the consequences.
I thought that I might be able to pay my bond again. Money got me out of trouble before; money could get me out again. But they set it at $1 million. I couldn’t pay it.
For two years, I sat in the county jail awaiting my sentence. The weight of the wait crushed me, but honestly, I was more eager to know the verdict than I was to know the charges. I couldn’t stand not knowing. I missed Cristina, Ale and Ana.
One day, I used my phone call to talk to Ana. I needed to hear my 5-year-old’s sweet voice.
“How are you, honey?”
“Daddy, I promise I won’t cry no more.”
“What, honey? I know you’re a big girl now.”
“But I promise I won’t cry no more.”
“I know, baby. You’re a big girl now. You don’t cry anymore.”
“Okay, then will you please come home?”
My chest squeezed, and my vision became blurry with tears. Ana thought I wasn’t coming home because of something she did. She thought I was punishing her.
“Oh no, baby. It’s not your fault. It’s all because of me. I love you.” I hung up the phone. I needed to know when I was getting back to my baby.
I sat in a cold room as my lawyer called the judge and the district attorney. He jumped right in, fighting to get me fewer years in jail.
“Gentlemen, this young man was only 22 when he got caught. Now he’s 24 with a family and kids to support. Can’t you make anything work for him?”
“I’ll offer him 16 to 32 years, open sentence, but he has to take it today. Right now.”
I let out a puff of air.
Sixteen to 32 years? That’s the rest of my life!
My lawyer put the phone on hold. “I know it seems like forever, Sam, but they can get you for 68 years, heck, maybe even more. You might want to take this.”
All I knew was that 16 was a whole lot less than 68. I nodded reluctantly.
He took the phone off hold. “We’ll do it, gentlemen.”
Several days later, I pleaded my case to the judge. I told him about my childhood, my abusive father and my drug-addicted mother. I pleaded that this had all begun because I needed to take care of my siblings. “We were starving! Something had to be done,” I begged him.
Our old social worker even told the judge about my upbringing. He seemed to soften a little knowing where it all began.
The D.A. had a different approach. “Your Honor, this young man is no longer that little boy. He’s not taking care of his younger siblings. He’s not starving and selling drugs to pay the bills. He’s an adult now and making more money than anyone could dream. This goes way past a little boy’s sob story to care for his brothers and sister.”
It was true, and I guess he was more persuasive than me. The judge agreed and gave me the maximum sentence: 32 years.
Ana will be 38, Ale will be 36 and I’ll be 56 by the time I get out of here! What about Cristina? I don’t know if she’ll wait around that long.
“They might cut off some time later on. You might be back for reconsideration.”
My lawyer tried to console me, but I didn’t believe him. I prepared myself for the worst so I wouldn’t set myself up for disappointment.
In a way, I was relieved. The waiting game had ended. I knew what I needed to do.
For the first few months, I observed. I watched how everything worked from the inside. I quickly realized I could make 100 times the profit selling drugs in prison than I did on the streets. The game began again.
I convinced female guards to deliver drugs to me from the outside. Other guys had their girlfriends give it to them during visits, and I bought it off of them to turn it for a profit.
I sent money home to Cristina, Ana and Ale. I even sent money to my mom. I could no longer be the comforter and protector, but I could still be the provider. I paid rent and bills and found myself right back on top again. For two years, I owned the place.
“Come with me, Sam, we’re going to the captain’s office.” That can’t be good. The guard unlocked my cell, and I followed him, hoping for a smack on the wrist.
“We have reason to believe you are involved in a drug trade within prison walls.” The captain’s voice sounded stern. He motioned to the guards, who came over and handcuffed me before I said a word.
“You are sentenced to Ad Seg for a minimum of two years, and your behavior will determine your release date after that.”
Ad Seg was administration segregation; prison within the prison. Maximum security. The hole. Twenty-three hours a day alone in a cell with one hour to look out a window. Total isolation.
Six months passed. I stared at the graffiti on the dirty wall of my cell. There were no cellmates in the hole, but other Ad Seg prisoners shared their war stories through the doors of their cells. I imagined them puffing out their chests, trying to convince the others how big and bad they really were. I joined in, never forgetting every detail of my high-speed police chase.
The chaplain came to visit me one day and told me that my grandma, who was about to go into surgery, was on the phone.
“Sam, she’s having surgery to remove her leg from the knee down due to her diabetes. She wants to talk to you before she goes under.”
I eagerly put the phone up to my ear when we got to the chaplain’s office. “Hi, Grandma. How are you?”
“Well, I got to cut my leg off, and I don’t want to do it, Sammy. I’m not about to have anyone take care of me!” She was strong-willed, even moments before losing her leg. “Do me a favor, Sammy. Get your life together, okay? Get back on track with God.”
“Why, Grandma? You’re not going anywhere.”
“You never know, Sammy. You never know.”
The chaplain led me back to my cell and told me he would update me after the surgery. As I waited, I thought about my grandma.
“You know I love you, right?” She’d pinched my chin with her index finger and thumb. I was only 8 years old.
“Yes, Grandma. I love you, too.”
“You’re special, you know that? I don’t know, there’s something about you. You’re special.” She put her hand on my shoulder.
“I bet you say that to all your grandkids, Grandma.”
“No, no. You’re special. I mean it.”
When we were young, my siblings and I visited our grandma often to see her and my dad who lived with her.
“You should love your dad, even if the whole world hates him. One day, God is going to come back, and you’ll be glad you kept loving your dad.” She affectionately tousled my hair.
She used to take us to church, and I loved it. Everyone smiled at me and said, “Good morning, Maria!” to my grandma. No one was high or telling us to shut up and leave him or her alone.
Walking through the church doors felt like entering another world. It was an escape from reality. I loved my grandma for taking us there, but the moment we walked through the doors of our house, reality slapped the heavenly church music right off our lips.
Back to our mom and strangers getting high, pipes and lighters everywhere, rotting carpets and clothes. God had no place in that filth.
Hours later, the chaplain knocked on my cell door.
“Surgery went well, Sam. Your grandma is doing fine.”
I sighed. Stubborn Grandma Maria. I knew she’d be fine. I slept well knowing she made it through surgery, and I smiled, imagining her waving people off as she insisted on pushing the wheelchair herself.
The next morning, the chaplain came to my cell door again. I anticipated his words: Your grandma is on the phone, ready to talk with you now that she’s awake.
“I’m sorry to tell you this, but your grandma has passed.”
“What? You said the surgery went well. You said she was fine!” I stood up from my bed and stomped toward him.
“Sorry, Sam. Your grandma survived the surgery, but she passed three hours afterward.” He left me, knowing he couldn’t say much else.
I sat back down on my bed. Get your life together, Sammy. You never know. God’s going to come back one day. You’re special. I love you.
My grandma’s words played over and over again in my head. She was the only person who believed in me. The only one I knew who had ever lived with hope.
For the first time in my life, I had no access to my coping mechanisms. I couldn’t smoke weed to calm my nerves, I couldn’t drink or beat someone up. There was nothing. An empty cell with gray walls and no one to blame.
My eyes scanned the room, furiously wishing for something to take away my pain. They landed on a black-faced book with the word “Bible” printed in gold lettering across the front. From that moment on, I started to read. For 23 hours a day, I did nothing but read and sleep.
My favorite story was the prodigal son. It was the story of a young man who took his inheritance before his father died and used it on prostitutes and partying. When the money ran out, he began to starve and decided to go back to his father to apologize. Surprisingly, when he returned, his father wasn’t upset, but instead ran to him and hugged him, delighted that his son had returned. He forgave him and even threw him a welcoming party.
I hated myself for what I’d done, but the Bible told me I was already forgiven, just like the prodigal son who came back to his father. It told me we are separated from God because of our evil ways, but Jesus died so we would no longer have to be separated.
For so long, I’d blamed everyone else in my life: my dad for beating my mom, my mom for getting high, the system for taking away my siblings and the law for taking me away from my family. But then I realized, I was the only one to blame.
In a cell, alone, without my family, without drugs, without money and without an identity, all I had were my choices that led me to that moment.
All my life I had tried to be the comforter, protector and provider, doing whatever I needed to do to be those things for the people I loved. But I did it in all the wrong ways. In the end, I couldn’t do anything or be anything for the people who needed me.
My choices were like a straightjacket. Everything I tried to control squeezed me tighter and tighter until it started controlling me. I had to let it all go. I had to let God take care of my family and my sentencing and, for the first time in my life, me. I had to finally let him be my comforter, my protector and my provider.
After I started reading my Bible, I no longer told war stories with the other Ad Seg inmates. I didn’t want to brag about my past. I wanted to walk into a new future.
After two years in the hole, I went before the review board to see if I could be released back into the general population. My release was denied.
“For trying to manipulate the system, you are now sentenced to another two years in Administration Segregation.”
I truly wasn’t trying to manipulate the system. I wasn’t even sure how to do that from inside a cell 23 hours a day, but it didn’t matter. I wanted to be angry, to blame the system for ruining my life and taking away visits with my family for another two years, but instead, I decided to trust that God had a different plan for me. I trusted that he wanted me in the hole for another two years so I could keep reading my Bible and learning more about him.
I began to pray to be released from Ad Seg and from jail sooner than my 32-year sentence. Something deep inside told me that I would be let out early. I prayed and pleaded with God.
Finally, I rejoined the general population, seeing a lot of new faces and a few I knew before I went into the hole. My old clients sought me out and asked me for drugs, knowing I’d always been able to get them anything they wanted for the right price.
“Nah, man. I’m not doing that stuff anymore. I’m clean.”
I smiled at everyone who glanced in my direction. That made some guys want to fight me, shoving me up against the wall. I let them do it and didn’t retaliate.
Everyone started calling me Brother Sam.
“Why are you so happy, Brother Sam?” they would mock me. “I’m only in here for five years, and you got a 32-year sentence. How come you’re so happy?”
“I’m just trusting God now. He’s got a plan for me.”
I patiently prayed for God to shorten my sentence.
In the meantime, I told everyone I could about God’s forgiveness.
“You shouldn’t be hanging out with those guys. You’re not like them now.” Dan, another Christian, pulled me aside. “You shouldn’t talk with them.”
“Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do? God tells us to love other people and to tell them about his love for them. How can I do that if I don’t talk to them?”
For years, conversations like this happened over and over again with other Christian inmates. They wanted to segregate themselves and to stay away from the riffraff, as if talking with them would somehow make them dirty.
I may have stopped fighting and selling drugs, but that didn’t stop me from schooling some guys on the basketball court or on the baseball field. They would say, “Brother Sam, I didn’t know Christians could hit home runs!”
And I would reply, “Being a Christian means putting Jesus at the center of your life, not becoming a loser!”
I loved telling people about how God forgave me and how I no longer needed to live my old lifestyle because he was my protector and provider.
After years of prayers, I got into an accountability program typically reserved for people who had never been in the hole. I knew deep inside that God was shortening my sentence before my eyes.
“Aren’t you Sam?” members of the accountability program would ask. “I’ve heard about you. No one knew how you were getting so many drugs in here. You must have been rich!”
There were even people who knew me from the streets. People were shocked to hear I was clean, expecting me to pull them aside and say, “I’m just playing their game until I get out of here.” But I didn’t. I wasn’t. I told them God had forgiven me, and I was living a new life, confident I would be out of jail soon.
Sure enough, I completed my program, and in an instant, my 32-year sentence got cut to 13 years. Nineteen years shaved off! I couldn’t believe it. That was you, God! Nineteen years of seeing Ana and Ale grow up. Nineteen years of learning how to work a real job. Nineteen years to reconnect with my brothers and sister and tell them about the love of God. When I got out, I felt like I was the prodigal son who was going home, and God was throwing me my welcoming party.
Pastor Steve began, “Now I want you all to know I’m not a perfect man. Today I’m up here telling you the Bible says to be humble, and yet I’m one of the most prideful men you will ever meet. Every Sunday, I have a battle in my mind as I come onto this stage. On one hand, I know God wants to use me to teach you something from the Bible, and on the other, my pride wants you all to like me and to think I’m amazing. So, know that when I’m teaching about being humble, I’m learning right alongside you.”
I was struck by his honesty. At every church I had ever been to, even the one inside prison, I always felt judged by the pastor. It seemed like they were on a different level than me, a level I couldn’t reach. But I could relate to this man. He was real and honest. I could tell that he had been through hard times in his life, too.
My brother Ian had invited me to Resound Church. “It feels like you can learn about God and still be yourself,” he’d said over the phone.
After I got out of prison, I told my mom, David, Erica, Ian, Nicholas and José about how God forgave me and changed my life. Ian looked up to me as a role model and had become a drug dealer. When he saw how changed I was, working a real job, forgiving my cousin for turning me in, spending time with our dad, he started going to church. I loved going to church with him.
My mom, one year sober, had my siblings and me over for dinner.
“Your birthday is coming up, Sammy. What do you want for your birthday?”
“All I want this year is for everybody I love to come to Resound Church with me on Sunday.”
She smiled. “You got it, honey!”
The following Sunday, 40 members of my family — cousins, uncles, aunts, siblings, Mom, Dad and Ana and Ale — showed up at church. Drug dealers, criminals, the promiscuous, addicts, traitors and liars. I felt like a proud alpha dog leading his pack to higher ground. I looked up and thanked God for loving us all.
We crammed around the small kitchen table at my dad’s house, passing plates of steaming food.
“Would you pass the napkins?” Erica asked Nicholas.
“Yeah, ’cause you really need one.” We all laughed.
“I’m going to start work with Sam next week,” Ian announced to the room.
“Yeah, we’ll see how much work you two actually get done.” David let out a light chuckle and smiled at me.
“Hey, there’s always a spot open for you, David.” I loved the idea of us working together as a team again.
I looked around at my family. I’d memorized the faces, but I forced myself to really look at each one. They were the same people I knew and loved, but smiles stretched across their faces, and I couldn’t find a trace of worry anywhere.
No one was yelling, hitting, crying or begging for food. And the best part of it all? It wasn’t because of me. I wasn’t hiding my siblings in the closet, hustling drugs or running from the law. I was just sitting there.
Suddenly, doubt crept up in me, like it did every so often, and I wondered if there was something more I could be doing for the ones I loved. But I fought back the feeling and reclined in my chair, full and content.
I reminded myself of the truth: God had it taken care of. He was their provider now. He was my provider now. And I was free to enjoy.