Real life outside the bubble of privilege:
Melvin came to us fresh out of prison where he had been locked up for eight years. He was young—must have been a kid when he went in. His sentence was suspended, and he was released on probation, which meant that he was under supervision and owed regular fees for his probation costs. His offense was a sexual crime, and so getting a job was especially difficult. Few companies hire felons, much less sex offenders. Because Melvin couldn’t pay rent, he was living on the streets.
Melvin heard about Joe’s Addiction from some other folks that are living outside, and he started hanging out with us. I was happy to have another African American join our majority white community, and his winsome smile and cheerful demeanor not only made him pleasant to have around, but helped bridge racial tensions as well. He appreciated the food and friends, and he helped wherever he could. He washed dishes, swept floors, carried out trash. He was often the first to jump when something heavy needed carrying, and he attended church at Joe’s every Sunday. He liked the music, and he bowed his head and folded his hands respectfully when we prayed.
Melvin decided that he wanted to apply for a job at Burger King. He had heard they might hire felons, and the walking distance was about a mile and a half from his camp. He could certainly manage that. He had no ID. No birth certificate and no Social Security card. It boggles my mind that people are released from prison, expected to pay court costs, fines, etc., but they’re given nothing to start the process of looking for employment. Identification papers cost money, take time to receive, and you have to know even how to apply for them. The Joe’s Community helped him track those down and paid for them. Then Melvin went to Burger King and asked for an application. The manager told him all applications are taken online and gave him a web address.
Melvin had never heard of such a thing as an online application, and he had no access to a computer. I know people reading this will comment that there are computers available for public use at the library. Melvin wouldn’t know this, finding the library would not be an easy task and would mean money for bus fare. I gave Melvin access to our computer at Joe’s to fill out an application, and it became clear that he had no idea what to do. Melvin’s family could never have owned a computer, and guaranteed the inner city school he attended didn’t have computers for student use. He looked at the screen with a blank stare.
I sat down at the keyboard and walked him through the long process. He answered the questions, and I typed for him. The “test” part of the application took half an hour to complete. Questions about whether or not he thought it was okay to steal from an unfair boss, how he’d handle conflicts with fellow employees, and what he would do if he didn’t know how to do his job, elicited adamant responses from him. He belted out his answers with no doubt in his mind. He did his best, and at one point commented, “I think their trying to trick me!” He shook his head and thanked me. Said there was no way he’d have been able to do that by himself.
The next day, Melvin walked back to Burger King, where the manager told him she had received the application and now there were forms to fill out online so she could hire him. She assigned him a username and password, which he wrote down and brought to me. We sat down again to fill out the forms in a list of eight different links. Green check marks appeared beside each one we completed. Until we got to the last link. It was a PDF. I knew how to download the document, fill in the blanks and save it, but there was no way to upload it to the website. No green check mark appeared. We didn’t know what to do.
I suggested he call Burger King to ask the manager. He did and was told that she was busy and couldn’t help him at the moment. The next day he walked again. She told him she couldn’t process his application until he completed the online forms. He told her it didn’t work, that the last part wouldn’t finish. He didn’t know how to explain the problem to her.
Discouraged, he came back to Joe’s, and I wasn’t there. He borrowed someone else’s computer, and since he had seen me doing it, he thought he knew how to get back on there and try again. He couldn’t make it work.
Another day passed and the next time I saw Melvin I asked him about his application. He said, “I don’t know what happened, but now the whole thing is missing.” I was confused. How could that be? I logged back in, and sure enough it was gone. I went with Melvin to Burger King. We spoke with a nice lady employee. She said the manager was out, but gave us advice about the website.
Back at Joe’s, we tried the suggestions to no avail. He called Burger King again, and the exasperated manager gave him a phone number to call for help with the website. We called. Somehow, Melvin had created a second account. It was an internet/technical mess. After fifteen minutes on the phone, the woman suggested that we just start over.
When I got off the phone, I let out a few choice cuss words. Melvin laughed. “Pastor!” he said, “Don’t be angry. It’ll be okay.” I sighed, and we started over.
There are more details, but I will just say that it took us two whole weeks to finish and submit a completed application to Burger King. Melvin grinned when he finally came through the door with the announcement that he got the job. He could start whenever he could get some black pants and black, nonslip shoes. The Community at Joe’s Addiction supplied them. When I say, “The Community at Joe’s Addiction,” I mean the folks that hang out and do life together. Many of these people live on next to nothing, but when a need like this arises, they pool their funds and help one another out.
Melvin went to work. He was a good worker. He was punctual. He worked hard. He smiled at both customers and bosses who told him what to do. It was great to have some money in his pocket. He was still living outside in a tent, and life was still pretty hard, but he was able to pay for bus fare to and from his probation meetings, and life started feeling hopeful. His hope inspired some of the other guys to look for work. Melvin carried himself with pride, and his joy brought life to our little community.
About two months into his new employment, Melvin woke up late on a Saturday morning. He looked at the time. He was going to be late for work! He felt awful. He remembered that when he’d gone to sleep last night, he wasn’t feeling so good. Now, his body ached, his head hurt, and he was pretty sure he had a fever. He was supposed to be at work in ten minutes!
He called Burger King and told the manager that he was sick. He said, “I can still make it up there if you want me to. I’ll be a little late, but I don’t know if you want me to come. I’m really sick, and I think I have a fever.” The manager replied, “Don’t bother to come in. I told you when we hired you that if you were going to have to miss a shift for any reason that you need to call at least two hours ahead, so that we have time to find someone else. You didn’t do that. So don’t bother coming back at all.”
I watched as Melvin descended into the darkness of depression. Several times I offered to help him with another application, but Melvin just shrugged. He said, “It’s not worth it.” His probation officer got angry with him, because he wasn’t paying his fees. She put some extra restrictions on him and told him to get a job or she was going to send him back to prison. He quit going to the meetings.
He came to Joe’s less frequently, and we missed him. When I’d ask the other guys in the camp about him, they’d fill me in. He’d started using drugs and was running with some bad dudes. The last time I saw Melvin, I asked him, “What is going on, man? What are you doing?” He said, “I don’t know. It’s just stupid. I don’t give a sh@;. They can come get me if they want me.” And “they” did. The police arrested Melvin, as he was walking down the street one night. He’s back in prison, where he will sit for some more years.
I didn’t know Melvin when he committed his original crime. I do know that he was twenty-two when he was convicted. How many of us did stupid stuff when we were young adults? I’m not excusing Melvin’s behavior. I believe that people should be held accountable and that society must be kept safe from future harm. But I also know that Melvin was a child when I met him. He had never grown up, didn’t know how to do adult life. Who knows what Melvin’s parents did or did not teach him? Melvin spent eight years in prison. Then the conditions of his “life on the outside” made it simply impossible for him to succeed.
Sometimes the hole of despair is just too deep. Hope cannot reach that low; or maybe a person cannot hold on to the edge of Hope from inside that crater of despair. I dream of the day when every valley will be filled. We are the ones holding the shovels. What will we do?
(Melvin’s name has been changed to protect his privacy.)