Sanctuary

For a century this inner-city church has served as a refuge. But its most important mission has always been outside the walls.

The manager told him his check wasn't there. So angry he couldn't think straight, Barry demanded all the cash the center had on hand. The manager handed over $800. As Barry ran from the office, the knife fell out of his coat. Looking back, he saw a woman in the hallway pick it up. At that moment his head cleared, and he knew he was in trouble.

And indeed he was. Barry was arrested, convicted of robbery and sentenced to forty months in the medium-security prison in Buena Vista.

In 1982 Barry was sitting in his cell at a halfway house, thirty days removed from freedom, when he started listening to a conversation in the cell next door. From the sounds of it, an evangelist was visiting another prisoner. As the preacher talked, Barry found himself growing more interested. The preacher began citing certain passages in the Bible; Barry picked up a copy that had been left in his cell and began fumbling at the pages so that he could read along. The other prisoner didn't seem terribly interested in what his visitor had to say. But as the man started to leave, Barry called to him. "I want some of what you were trying to give him," he said.

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The minister stopped and assessed the young black man. He smiled. "Tomorrow we'll be having a fellowship meeting in the day room," he told Barry. "If you show up, I'll see what we can do to get it for you."

The next evening Barry went to the meeting. The room was filled with prisoners and ministers and lay people visiting from the outside. They were praying and laying on hands for blessings, even speaking in strange tongues. Barry felt something tug at him inside. He made up his mind to commit his life to Christ.

"You'll have to give up all your wicked ways," the minister warned him.
"I will," he shouted, and meant it.
Until he got out. He spent his first day of freedom with a beer in one hand and a joint in the other, cursing up a blue streak. Whatever voice he thought he'd heard at the fellowship meeting, it couldn't compete with the siren call of the streets.

For the next two years Barry made his living as a petty thief. He considered it staying out of trouble, because he didn't get caught. But soon stealing radios to pawn for ten bucks wasn't enough. He wanted serious money. He wanted to dress like his heroes, the thugs and the pimps and the drug dealers. And the only way he saw to do that was with a gun.

He kept his fear at bay by smoking joints dipped in embalming fluid...and with a 9mm semi-automatic pistol, the baddest gun on the street at the time--cops didn't even have them yet. And he started sporting the gangster look: a wide-brimmed fedora, a long coat with big pockets for easy access to his gun, and a pair of shiny black shoes.

But Barry's new lifestyle was making him crazy. Even those who initially benefited from his crime sprees, using his money for their drugs and booze, began distancing themselves from him. Barry was crazy enough to get himself or someone else killed, and they didn't want to be in the line of fire when the cops or a rival came looking for him.

He couldn't get together with Galen's mother without the two of them fighting. Her family tried to keep him from seeing the boy, and Galen's grandfather even pulled a gun. "I just want to see my baby," Barry would yell. But the little boy had been told his daddy was a bad man, and he'd scream and run if he saw Barry.

Even his mother wouldn't let Barry sleep in her house. He was still her son, so she'd feed him a meal when he dropped by, but then he was back on the streets. And when she moved in with her daughter, Barry had to stay on the porch while his meal was handed out to him. His own sister was afraid of him--and what disaster he might bring down on the rest of his family. High on embalming fluid, afraid and homeless, some evenings Barry would stand in the dark and look through the windows, crying like he had when he was a kid too afraid to face his father.

In these years, Barry went in and out of jail for a variety of petty offenses, but nothing heavy enough to get him sent to prison. Each time he was locked behind bars he found Jesus, only to lose him again once he was set free. One night he was sleeping on a park bench when he had a dream that he was kneeling in a grave. Below him were thousands of watches. He was desperate to know what time it was, but the watch faces were cracked and all the hands frozen. Finally he found a watch with its crystal intact, but he still couldn't see what time it was. He could only hear it ticking.

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