Posts Tagged ‘forgiveness’

Michael Vick is an episode of ‘This American Life’ waiting to be produced. It seems everyone has a take on Vick, from the vehement critics he earned with his despicable off-the-field killing and torturing of dogs for which he served prison time to the adoring fans who have forgiven Vick as he has resurrected his professional football career in a way that has the phoenix considering retirement. Amidst persistent controversy and criticism, the remarkable comeback of Mike Vick unveiled its latest chapter on Sunday December 10, 2010 in a contest that appeared to be more a microcosm of his life’s journey than simply another game.

I was following the Philadelphia Eagles-New York Giants game this past Sunday while running at the gym, paying particularly close attention to the performance of the Eagles’ Quarterback, who doubles as the quarterback on my little brother Eric’s fantasy football team. Eric and I were competing in cyberspace to determine which of our fantasy teams would be in competition of the “Daddy Pants” league finals this Sunday, with the first points of our annual brotherly competition at stake. I won’t go into details, but the competition is a big deal, so I was pleased to see that Vick, who has been playing out of his mind this season, was performing at a very pedestrian rate throwing for only one touchdown and accumulating less than one hundred yards passing as the fourth quarter got underway. With Philadelphia down 31-10 with less than eight minutes to play, I headed home from the gym, confident that if Eric’s team should out-fantasize my own, it would certainly not be due to the exploits of Number 7.

Of course, upon checking the update of our fantasy football battle, Vick had somehow accumulated an insane 99 points during my drive home resulting in a 38-31 Eagles’ Vick-tory and the demise of my fantasy team. The Eagles scored a mind-boggling four touchdowns in the final eight minutes to overtake the Giants and sole possession of first place in the NFC East with two games to play, while making a strong case that the first two letters in MVP stand for Michael Vick. I should have been shocked, but it seems extraordinary occurrences are commonplace for Mr. Vick these days.

Just over a month ago on November 15, 2010, Vick set an NFL record by accounting for five first half touchdowns against the Washington Redskins in front of a national audience on Monday Night Football en route to six touchdowns in three quarters and a 59-28 demolition of Washington. The performance was so dominant that it inspired 11 time national sportswriter of the year Rick Reilly to dedicate his weekly ESPN column to the headline that is Michael Vick.

In his article entitled “Time to Forgive Vick Is Here”, Reilly argued Vick paid a reasonable the price for his crimes against animals by serving 18 months in the notorious Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary which could easily have cost him his entire career. Reilly didn’t make the case that Vick’s delinquency should be forgotten, but did ask what more could justifiably be asked of him:

“The man is contrite. He is humbled. He is chastened. He has already given 24 speeches for the Humane Society. He has dismissed his old friends, has even run from them when they show up. What else is he supposed to do? Move into a dog kennel himself?”

The article piqued my interest when Reilly mentioned Vick would be using his off-day the following week to travel to Hillhouse High School in New Haven, Connecticut to talk about the evils of dog fighting. As a social worker in New Haven, I am often in the city’s schools dealing with emergent crises, but over the past year I have walked the halls of Hillhouse so often I feel like an honorary staffer.

From fellow El Capitan alum Kevin McAdam playing with Vick first at Virginia Tech and then with the Atlanta Falcons and then our Chargers nearly selecting Vick with the first pick in the 2001 NFL draft (which they traded to Atlanta for receiver Tim Dwight and draft picks that became LaDainian Tomlinson, Tay Cody and Reche Caldwell), I often felt Vick’s story was just a step away from intersecting with my own, even if only insignificantly. So I found significance in his plans to be present at Hillhouse and found my way into the school’s auditorium on November 23, 2010 in hopes of discerning whether the talented performer’s repentance act was genuine or just an attempt at a career makeover.

New Haven advertises itself with the slogan, “It all happens here,” but for a day it didn’t seem like such an exaggeration as both Vick and Bill Cosby were in town to speak to students. The Hillhouse kids didn’t seem to mind much that they were missing out on Cosby as they were brimming with energy and weren’t paying much attention to either Assistant Principal Ms. G or Principal Carolina’s appeals to quiet down. I made my way through the packed crowd and found a seat among the soon-to-be state champion Hillhouse High School varsity football team, less than a 40 yard dash from the stage prepared for Vick.

Principal Carolina announced he would bring Vick out and the excitement reached a fever pitch. With no Vick in sight, students began to give themselves whiplash with every preemptive shrill of excitement, believing the quarterback was capable of entering the room like a ninja, stealthily from any direction (ironically the Giants looked as if they shared this belief on Sunday in their attempts to tackle Vick in the 4th quarter). Screams started to accompany any athletic black male who entered the auditorium looking for one of the last seats as we appeared well on our way toward a fire code violation.

Vick entered stage right and the crowd erupted, but not as loud as I expected as it appeared some kids had already lost their voices and others had stoically convinced themselves that after five minutes of false alarms, they would no longer be punked, even when Vick actually showed up. The applause was generous and without any hint of dog lovers voicing their disapproval. I wondered if Vick’s reception would have been colder had he shown up in the suburbs or if he hadn’t recently ascended back to the level of NFL star quarterback.

Vick’s earrings glistened in the spotlight and he flashed his celebrity smile. He was dressed in a solid gray pullover, dark jeans and black tennis shoes worn in the style of 2015 Marty McFly.

Accompanying Vick was Wayne Pacelle, a Hillhouse graduate, current President/CEO of the Humane Society of the United States and second fiddle in the eyes of the kids. Pacelle began by noting the Humane Society’s goal of stopping animal cruelty in all its forms and noted he and Vick were present to bring awareness to the Society’s End Dog Fighting Campaign which has already made stops in Chicago, Charlotte, Washington D.C., Baltimore and Philadelphia. Pacelle presented as thoughtful and well educated, but realized people had not flocked to see him and sat down after commending Vick for getting up at 6:00 am on his day off to take a train from Philadelphia to New Haven, and stating that the star athlete is not mandated by the conditions of his Probation to perform any community service in the form of public speaking.

In contrast to Pacelle, Vick did not project himself as a polished public speaker nor an intellectual, but he did appear genuine as he began his story. Introduced to dog fighting at the age of eight, Vick claimed he he never considered dog fighting to be inhumane and admitted both that he was unwilling to listen to the advice of those who told him it was wrong and that he had not cared about potential consequences of his involvement. Vick then confirmed the adage that ‘no criminal expects to be caught’ when he acknowledged that the gravity of his orchestration of dog fighting rings didn’t register with him until he was arrested and convicted.

Vick appeared to be at his most vulnerable when he admitted to repeatedly lying to his mother when she questioned him about whether he was involved in dog fighting. Vick’s mother did not find out the truth about her son until he was arrested, breaking her heart. Vick, who had signed the richest contract in NFL history in 2001, filed for bankruptcy in 2008 while serving his prison sentence and told the students, “When I was sitting in a prison cell, I wanted to give up, I really did.”

Vick made known that his nation-wide school campaign against dog fighting is part of his attempt to help more dogs than he has harmed and sternly warned that as a result of his conviction “all the laws have changed” and “if you fight dogs, you’ll serve a prison sentence.”

It turns out it actually was Vick who approached the Humane Society with the idea making amends through speaking to kids in an attempt to eradicate dog fighting, perhaps lending some credence to his answer to a student question that he feels he can best demonstrate his rehabilitation by owning and caring for a dog after his probation expires. Vick said his daughter sees people on a daily basis with dogs in their condo complex and asks him if she can get a dog too. Vick looked pained when he recounted that he can’t currently get a dog for his kids due to his “ill-advised actions.”

Vick reported, “I think I’m being used by God” and advised those gathered to “always believe that you got to keep God first.” He continued, “(God is) the only reason, the only reason, that I’m standing here today.” He almost appeared to laugh and professed, “Some of the things I’m doing now, playing at the level I’m playing, I don’t know how I’m doing them.” I’m not sure any of us know how Michael Vick is doing the things he is doing, but it wouldn’t be far-fetched to view his story in light of Biblical redemption narratives or its metaphors about rising on wings of Eagles.

Vick has overcome giant obstacles in his Joseph-like rise from prison to stardom. To put things in perspective, the man who was incarcerated just 18 months ago is currently the NFL’s leading vote getter for the 2011 Pro Bowl (well ahead of the likes of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning), guaranteeing that even if it’s not always sunny in Philadelphia this season, Vick will be able to bask in the Hawaii sun come late January. After Sunday’s victory over the Giants of New York, Vick gave credit to his teammates and again thanked God for the opportunity to participate in one of the “greatest comebacks of my career.” At this rate, Vick’s return to prominence may well someday be considered one of the greatest comebacks of any career. And while many remain unconvinced, I’ll count myself among the believers in Michael Vick.

“Good evening. The first clue anyone had was the woman at the bank; she came to the window to withdraw $15,000. Then in a calm manner, she told the teller that men were holding her family hostage in their nice suburban home. Tonight, a Connecticut jury has done something very rare. They’ve handed out the death penalty for one of two men charged in one of the worst home invasions in memory. That woman at the bank was later murdered back at her home. So were her two daughters. Only her husband lived after a savage beating.”

– Opening lines from November 8, 2010 broadcast of NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams in a segment titled “Killer at Peace with Death Penalty Verdict, Says DA”

The 2007 Cheshire home invasion Brian Williams spoke of involved the brutal torture, rape and killing of Jennifer Hawke-Petit, Hayley Petit (17) and Michaela Petit (11) by two men, including Steven Hayes who was sentenced to die this week. The crime and the resulting criminal court proceedings have received a fair amount of national news coverage as demonstrated above and have been especially heavily reported on here in Connecticut as the tragedy occurred in our own backyard. The crimes were committed approximately eight miles from where I and my family live, but the case hit even closer to home on Monday morning.

I work in an unpredictable field and can honestly say that three and a half years in, I have not had two identical days on the job. But some days journey beyond unpredictable into the unbelievable and November 8, 2010 was that kind of day. Through a series of highly improbable circumstances, I found myself in the cell block of the New Haven District Courthouse Monday morning with the same Steven Hayes that would later headline the evening’s national news.

I had been escorted into the holding cell area by an attorney and was told I would have to wait to complete my affairs, when I looked up and locked eyes for a brief moment with an inmate that seemed strangely familiar. The man was pacing in a holding room less than ten feet from me and I nodded in his direction as an acknowledgment of his presence and a sign of basic male respect. He faintly narrowed his eyes in receipt of my gesture, but his response was not one of contempt as much as it seemed to be one of bewilderment. As if he had not received so much as a non-threatening glance in some time.

I knew from entering the Court earlier in the day and walking past a dozen local and national news trucks that a jury was deliberating this day on whether Steven Hayes’ October 2010 conviction of six counts of capital felony charges warranted execution. I also knew from a previous visit to this same Court holding cell area, which room was designated for holding Mr. Hayes when he was not present in the Court room and this man was occupying that room. Instinctively, I knew it was Hayes, but could not be certain as the appearance of the man before me did not exactly match the mug shot of the completely bald and overweight criminal that has been so widely circulated in the press. The man before me had unkempt dark hair growing from the sides of his head and appeared much thinner and unhealthy than the photo of Hayes we have all seen in these parts. I wanted to ask one of the correctional officers if this was indeed the notorious Hayes, but thought better of it as the door to the unidentified inmate’s door was open and I was easily within earshot of the man.

While waiting for further instruction from the Correctional Officers about how to proceed with my own task, I found myself convinced the crazed man nervously pacing back and forth in the tiny room must be the convicted killer. He had a bestial quality about him; specifically striking were his cold and beady eyes that seemed to dart between the area’s inhabitants and yet simultaneously presented as distantly focused on heavy and sorrowful thoughts far from his current material reality. I felt pity for the man as it was apparent his spirit was not well.

My own thoughts drifted briefly and I thought of our new friend Robbie James of the Higher Point Christ Fellowship in the Northeast Denver area. Robbie was present at the Mission Alive Theology Lab last month and is the type of guy that you decide you like before you even get a chance to speak with him. My intuition was confirmed when shortly after his arrival, Robbie asked if he could borrow a copy of The Message from our table and I granted him permission but noted it was a only a copy of the New Testament. Robbie just smiled and replied, “That’s okay. I like the New Testament. It’s in my top two Testaments.” Robbie then went on to share that practicing the presence of the Mission of God begins by consistently being in an intimate relationship with the Father and being attuned and attentive to the Holy Spirit. Robbie said that practically he asks as he comes into each place, “Father, what are you already doing here?” Followed by the question, “Father, what have you authorized me to do here?”

I asked God what he was doing here and became distinctly aware that as I could not explain how or why my life path was crossing with the path of Steven Hayes at this moment, that perhaps God had ordered my steps in this direction on this day for a reason. In asking what I was authorized to do, I felt compelled to pray peace into this man’s life and found myself attempting to literally breathe the Spirit in His direction. I prayed that whatever he was being haunted by in the moment, that he might be able to experience a wave of peace, a release from the grip of anxiety as he awaited his fate. I wanted to speak to him, or perhaps to even physically touch him, but thought either of those actions were sure to get me kicked out of the Courthouse.

It was then that a Correctional Officer invited me to sit and pointed to a chair just outside the door of the inmate’s room. I suppose I should have felt fear, but instead readily accepted my seat and continued my prayer. The atmosphere reminded me of the film Dead Man Walking and of my interaction in 2002 with Sister Helen Prejean, the nun on whom the story is based, which forevermore changed my thoughts on capital punishment.

The Correctional Officer sat across from me looking directly at the prisoner and confirmed that the inmate was indeed Steven Hayes. I now fully realized that only a wall separated me from the killer, as he paced less than a yard away at times. I could see his reflection in a glass pane across from me and found myself studying him. Despite the awful atrocities that the man has committed, he appeared to be consumed with despair and perhaps remorse and I found myself wanting him to find forgiveness. Yet, feet from the man, I asked myself, would I die for him? Would I trade places with him if it meant saving him?

I thought of my beautiful family. Of Shepard, who at fifteen months gives Howard Dean-like squeals of delight when he sees a cookie or ice cream cone and wants to follow me wherever I go, including to work each morning. Of Clara, who proudly reported to strangers last weekend while visiting a children’s museum that “me and my dad, we’re two peas in a pod.” Of my strong and amazingly beautiful wife Jaime, who is my anchor and motivates me daily by the way she picks up her cross and yet still shares her contagious joy by laughing so genuinely that she inspires everyone to laugh along with her. Of our unborn child, whose own blessings we are just beginning to experience through fervent kicks from the womb. And quickly and resoundingly I knew that I would not die for this man Steven Hayes. Yet, the mind blowing truth is Christ did.

I was again struck by the amazing grace of our Lord and Savior. I was so dumbfounded for a moment that I barely registered the presence of four Correctional Officers who congregated to escort Hayes back to Court. Eventually another man, sharply dressed, referred to later by a Correctional Officer as the “Boss” entered the room. His pointed confidence was only briefly deterred when he questioned who I was, rightfully questioning the presence of the only non-officer to share this moment. A moment that I realized shortly thereafter, was the last moment Hayes had before learning that he would be executed by the State of Connecticut. Hayes walked inches in front of me as he was taken back into the Court to face his sentence and Dr. Petit, the man whose family he killed.

The experience of being in one’s presence while their fate is being decided by others, and knowing you are free to leave, is extremely powerful and humbling. And thus, in a strange way, I felt grateful to have been there. I could not however escape the weight of the encounter which affected the remainder of my day. Especially so, as I considered the fact that perhaps I had just participated in some level in a very real spiritual battle and hoped that I had acted as an acceptable proxy for the Kingdom of God. Therefore, I found solace in news that perhaps others found disturbing when I learned later that Hayes had reported after the sentencing that he felt “at peace” with the death penalty decision.