At the conference thing I attended in Seattle a little over a week ago, I went to workshop on incorporating faith groups into prisoner re-entry. One of the speakers, Chris Hoke, told a story about a gang-leader he met, José Israel Garcia, known as “Neaners”. By the age of 30 he had spent more than half of his life in prison, including 5 ½ years in solitary confinement due to his high rank in a known hispanic gang. He did not get to this position of power and influence by being dumb, or careless, or lazy; rather he was quite smart. If you didn’t know who he was describing, you would have thought Neaners was an up-and-coming entrepreneur from Forbes or Fortune magazine.
As Hoke was was sharing the story of Neaners, how he spent seven years writing to him weekly. He explained that over time Neaners decided he wanted to go into ministry. He likened it to the conversion of Saul and his interaction with Ananias. Neaners, Hole said, “reminded him of Saul, who later became Paul.” In his explanation, there were several connections he made. Saul was smart, he was a leader, he was willing to support the most extreme measures to accomplish his goals—not unlike Neaners. Law-abiding citizens were afraid of Neaners. I can imagine people seeing Neaners on the street and avoiding eye contact. I can see them shrinking into the background, doing everything to avoid contact or confrontation. This is how Christians likely behaved around Saul. It is no wonder, that when God told Ananias to go seek out Saul, Ananias wanted to remind God about who Saul was. “Lord,” Ananias answered in Acts 9:13-14, “I have heard from many people about this man, how much harm he has done to Your saints in Jerusalem. And he has authority here from the chief priests to arrest all who call on Your name.” Ananias was concerned, and understandably so. But, Saul was God’s chosen instrument. And maybe Neaners is too.
I walked out of that workshop with one striking thought: I need to be more aware of the marginalized in our society—not only are they the type of people Jesus hung out with, but they also were the type of people God used to change the world.
If you have comments, I’d like to hear from you.