May 27, 2018
Scriptures: Matthew 25: 31-4, Ephesians 5:21
“What’s Your Assignment?”
Kalief Browder. Kalief Browder was a heroic young Black man who at the age of 22 took his own life because of the trauma the injustice of our justice system plagued him with. He grew up in Bronx, New York and was the youngest of 7 children, all of whom (except the oldest 2 siblings) were adopted. He was the smallest and affectionately called, “Peanut” by his mother. He was known as a cool guy who others enjoyed to be around and didn’t really cause too much trouble. On the night of May 15, 2010 at the age of 16, Kalief and a friend were walking home from a party when all of a sudden they were surrounded by police cars and accused of robbing a man 2 weeks prior. Despite a search that resulted in finding no evidence of stolen property and pleads of innocence by Kalief and his friend, they were both arrested. The events from that Saturday night on changed the trajectory of Kalief’s life forever.
I became enthralled by the Kalief Browder story after watching a docu-series about his life on Netflix one Friday night. The first time I heard his name I was watching the documentary called 13th, also on Netflix (I like Netflix) this was a thought provoking, well put together, history telling, deserving of high praise, piece directed by the wonderful Ava DuVernay, which dives into the nation’s unbalanced prison system, which according to statistics in 2014 and used for her film in 2016, 2.3 million (or 34%) of the total 6.8 million in prison during that time was populated with Black men. She briefly touched on the abuse Kalief suffered as a 16 year old boy wrongfully imprisoned for stealing a backpack and sent to all places, Rikers Island to await trial because he could not afford the $3000 bail amount. He spent more than half of his 3 years there in solitary confinement. 16…3 years….in solitary confinement. How did this happen, why did this happen? Don’t try to imagine his days there because you can’t. You can’t possibly imagine the suffering he endured as a 16 year old boy. Her synopsis of his story touched me, so I googled him and began reading about his horrific ordeal. I was captivated, enraged, and saddened by what my heart had been exposed to, how could this be his truth? Then what seemed to be a litany of events occurred one after another, stories of Black men young and old being murdered and executed for no reason at all. This was becoming once again America’s truth. I am the mother of two black boys, would this be their truth? I threw myself into all things labeled, “activism”. I read anything I could that taught me about the criminal justice system, systemic racism, mass incarceration, environmental discrimination, intersectionality, and so much more…the story about Kalief became somewhat hidden. As time passed I began to notice meticulously placed ads pop up in my Facebook feed inviting me to read articles that dealt with my new found passion and one day there was an ad suggesting I watch the docu-series titled, “Time: The Kalief Browder Story”, but I turned a blind eye because I didn’t want to face his truth yet again. I knew this time there would be more, more details about the injustice and mistreatment our Black men (young and old) face on a daily basis, more agony to bear. I personally couldn’t handle his story. But some time later a Facebook friend of mine posted a status that read, “ya’ll gotta watch the Kalief Browder doc on Netflix”…so I did. I had to. I knew exactly what was pulling me towards his story and it was the Holy Spirit, God had a purpose.
There were six parts and I watched all six in one night. Each part played out his background story, what happened to him behind bars, the trial that never happened, the mental breakdown he suffered, the negligence of the police force and the court system, his time after being released trying to adjust to society and gaining notoriety because of his story, and finally to his untimely death and his mother’s fight for justice. Despite knowing how his story would end, I felt a ray of hope and joy for him watching part 5 because it highlighted a young man who was enrolled in college and doing so well, a young man who was being celebrated and interviewed on various outlets to talk about his determination to stand up for the truth no matter the pain he suffered because of that determination. He was being celebrated because he would not succumb to the lie the system wanted him to tell, his spirit would not allow him to admit to something he had not done. He did not commit a crime and he did not allow anyone to convince him otherwise, no matter how long he lay alone in the dark, being denied food and water and subjected to inhumane conditions. He knew the truth was indeed going to set him free. I felt at ease watching part five, I felt like…he’s going to be OK, he’s going to make it, he got through it, but there was part six. He didn’t get through it, he wasn’t OK, and he was still suffering. He was still mentally scarred, he was emotionally broken, he couldn’t handle the after effects and he stopped the pain the only way he knew how. After watching I sat in silence, my heart was heavy. I thought about my 17 year old son. What if my teenaged son were locked up in an adult prison with murderers and rapists for stealing a backpack, how the turmoil would immediately strip him of his innocence. I thought of Kalief Browder’s mother and the three years of sleepless nights wondering what her son must have been going through, not knowing it was worse than what she could possibly imagine. I began to cry and I called out to God, please tell me what I can do. What can I do God to help Kalief, to help others like him? I can’t just do nothing now that I know what happened to him. Please tell me, show me. And in that moment He answered me and told me to write Kalief’s story and share it in my own words with the church. I didn’t start right away because I thought it wasn’t enough….wasn’t there more God, don’t you want me to fight a good fight, aren’t I supposed to be marching somewhere taking down the New York police department by myself? “Oh, Tiffinee” He said, “take it down a notch” (smile) So, I said ok I’ll write, but I still hesitated. I told my mother to watch the series. I explained it was going to be riveting and take her through a wave of emotions, but I insisted she watch, assuring her she would not be disappointed. So she did, and during our conversation about our interpretations of the series, she had a very insightful perception. She said to me, you know how the Bible states Jesus is going to come back one day, but we don’t know when, I think, she says, He comes back through people right here on earth to teach a lesson or bring people together for a greater cause, and He came back through that young boy. I’m intrigued, I say, go on. And she broke it down this way…starting with his mother, being adopted Kalief was given to his mother, not necessarily miraculously as Jesus was to Mary, but he was a gift, and she believed Kalief was a special boy and served a special purpose. She believed in him wholeheartedly. His adopted brothers and sisters and close friends who stuck by him during his ordeal made up his twelve disciples. The court system was his Pontius Pilate. His adopted father was Judas because once Kalief decided to sue New York’s court system his father turned on him and became greedy for the potential money Kalief could receive. And then there was Kalief himself, a quiet spirit, with kind eyes and a good heart. Everyone who knew him said he was such a sweet person, a sweet soul…but he had a fight in him. While incarcerated he suffered terribly, being beaten by both guards and inmates repeatedly, left unclean and desolate, but never giving up, never wavering…his spirit would not allow him to give up. He believed in the truth, he would not let the physical conditions determine his spiritual condition. As she went on I immediately began to picture in my mind the terrible beatings Jesus endured, the humiliation, as he was being led to the cross where he would ultimately be crucified. He never wavered, His faith remained He still loved us and asked for us to be forgiven because we did not know. And I thought does He come back through people here on earth? Who had He worked through? So I began to think about it and three individuals came to mind.
Nelson Mandela remained in prison for 27 years with almost 20 of those years spent on Robben Island, a prison island known for its harsh conditions. Interviews have been written stating Nelson Mandela spent countless days and nights in solitary confinement where he said (and I’m paraphrasing), “there is no beginning and no end, only your mind which can begin to play tricks.” Twenty seven years of confinement and Nelson Mandela remained faithful to his purpose, he remained focused on his calling. His imprisonment changed his country. He became the first black President of South Africa just four years after being released and continued with his work to abolish apartheid. God worked through him all those years in prison, with many of those years isolated where he could have easily given up, but yet he never abandoned the purpose set forth before him.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the person many would say was the pioneer of the civil rights era in the 1960’s, believed in peaceful protests to achieve equal rights for Blacks all across this nation. He was a nonviolent man and powerful orator. When he spoke you couldn’t help but to listen. His words would draw you in with a resounding voice that commanded attention but was melodious to the ear. People were captivated by him, they wanted to hear his words and be a part of his work. He brought an entire race together; his eloquence put a sense of hope in the many that believed in him. His last speech which is widely known as “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” seems to predict his untimely death, which occurred the very next day. He said, “Well I don’t know what will happen now, we’ve got some difficult days ahead, but it really doesn’t matter with me now because I’ve been to the mountain top. I don’t mind, like anybody I would like to live a long life, longevity has its place, but I’m not concerned about that now I just want to do God’s will and He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain and I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy tonight, I’m not worried about anything, I’m not fearing any man, my eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
Mother Theresa a saint who walked this earth whose only mission was to pray and care for those known as the poorest of the poor. She founded various charities and missionaries dedicated to her life’s work. Despite her own health problems, Mother Theresa continued to be a blessing to so many lives on a daily basis. She traveled to a number of different countries nourishing the weak and becoming a beacon of hope to the forgotten. Mother Theresa was a servant of God who only wanted to do His will. She considered the feelings of others before her own. There are many quotes you can find online said by her, but the one that inspires me the most is not necessarily a popular quote, but a simple statement which sums up her reason for doing the work she did, “I serve because I love Jesus.”
Now you may have your own list of those you feel God worked through, but what did these people who I’ve mentioned have in common, they each had an assignment, much like Jesus when He was here on earth. Jesus diligently did what the Father asked Him, not to be swayed and He accomplished His work. Kalief Browder had an assignment, those around him may not have realized it, but I believe Kalief knew there was something greater leading him, something greater sustaining him during his darkest hours; a greater need to do what was right.
My prayer was to do something for Kalief and God told me to write, but I didn’t think that was enough, but God knows more than I will ever know, so He knows my words will resonate in the heart of at least one person today and that person will begin to pay attention and desire a change to take place and he or she will tell another and then that person will take action inspiring yet another and before you know it one will turn into one hundred and then one thousand and so on until the work of God has flooded an entire neighborhood, county, city, state, country…all from the determination of a 22 year old young Black man who knew well within his spirit that his truth would not be silenced and his suffering would not be in vain. His story lives on, each time a difference is made, such as when the moment New York decided to shut the doors of Rikers Island forever, Kalief’s life was celebrated, or the moment people from different backgrounds, race and gender decided to walk the streets demanding laws be changed and police districts be held accountable for their reckless actions, his life was celebrated. God continues to work through him. Each time another heart is captivated by his story, he lives on. He captivated my heart. Ephesians 5:21 reads, “And further, submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Submit-consider the needs of others before our own. Out of reverence-a feeling or attitude of profound respect. Out of reverence for Christ I wanted to use this platform here at this pulpit to serve Kalief, to bring light to how his life was used for good and how I can only pray it will ignite a change in you as it has truly done in me…and for that Kalief Browder, I say thank you. AMEN.