It started out simple enough.
“Sir, could you please help me carry these things?”
Little did I know that my response in the affirmative would lead me to a place where I never thought I would be when I woke up that morning.
The population of the small town where I live doubled recently because of one man. Troy Davis was convicted to death for his role in the murder of a Savannah police officer several years ago. Last month, Davis was put to death for his crimes. And just like every other convicted criminal who is put to death by the state of Georgia, the execution went down right here in Jackson, Georgia.
Usually there are a handful of protesters gathered out in front of the prison on the day that an execution is scheduled. This one was different. The pope had gotten involved. Jimmy Carter had spoken out against it. The execution of Troy Davis was an international story.
So, of course, I had to go check it out.
As I sat in the gas station parking lot across the street from the prison, talking on the phone, two desperate looking women came up to me and asked for my help carrying a bunch of bags and boxes. I hung up my phone and told them that I would be glad to help. Usually, when someone at a gas station asks me for help it goes like this.
“Sir, could you please help me?”
“My firing pin isn’t hitting the alternator. Do you have a crank valve that I can use on it?”
“Yo soy en el bano. Vamanos (as I disappear into the horizon).
But even I can carry a few boxes and bags. I was pretty amped that I actually got to help someone. But I found out pretty quick that I wasn’t being asked to help carry a few bags to some car across the parking lot. They wanted to load up my truck and have me drive this stuff across the street. And by across the street I mean the lawn just inside the prison gates where the attention of the whole world was focused.
And so I found myself driving in my truck with a large man I’d never met before onto the most heavily guarded prison this side of Guantanamo Bay.
As I drove up to our first checkpoint, I had to explain to the officer that I was just helping these folks carry their bags over here. No problem here, officer. I’m just being a Good Samaritan. I’ll be free later next week so you can give me the key to the city then.
And then the guards started searching the boxes and bags in the back of my truck. They found food in those bags. A lot of food. As it turns out, food was not allowed on the prison grounds. I was attempting to carry contraband through what seemed to be a hundred heavily armed guards. Maybe I should have asked what was in those bags. What else was in those bags? The headlines flashed through my mind.
LOCAL PASTOR ARRESTED FOR CARRYING MALOTOV COCKTAILS ONTO PRISON GROUNDS
ATTEMPT TO FREE CONDEMNED INMATE STOPPED WHEN SAVVY COPS NAB IDOIT PASTOR/CONSPIRATOR
Thankfully none of that happened but I did have to pull over to a holding area while the guards figured out why this food was being brought onto prison grounds. As it turns out, the food was for some of the protestors that needed to eat in order to take their medicine. The guards were very accommodating and told me to drive my truck all the way over to where the protestors were gathered. After going through a few more check points I parked next to a couple of hundred protestors and a growing number of members of the media from all over the country.
To say I stuck out would be a lesson in stating the obvious.
All of the media looked like well-dressed movie stars.
There was the woman in the clerical collar.
There was the man trying to preach a sermon.
There were several men in really nice suits.
There was the woman(?) from the very progressive Free Speech TV.
There were scores of people representing groups like Amnesty International and a few others I’d never heard of before.
There were a lot of people singing.
And there was me. Wearing my flip-flops, standing beside my truck while strangers ate chips and tuna sandwiches off of my tailgate. I was soaking it all in. I listened to people talk about how Jesus was a liberal just like them. I listened to people complain about Georgia being a backwards state. And thankfully, I didn’t see any drama. Almost everyone I encountered, guards and protestors included, was extremely nice.
Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t have a hard time carrying on a conversation with a group of strangers who were eating chips and sandwiches off of my tailgate. But these weren’t normal circumstances.
“So, you said your name is Jay, right?”
“Yeah.” Hey! That’s Al Sharpton over there.
“And you said you were a preacher?”
“Sure.” Is that Steve Harvey?
“What’s the name of your church?”
“Baptist.” Where’s Big Boi?
And before I knew it, the sandwiches were done and the protestors were back to the reason why they came to my town and I was free to go but not before some lady took our pictures for the website of her organization. So much for any chance I had at running for president. Whatever comes of that, just know that I was only there as a caterer.
In typical pastoral fashion, I had to ask myself what I learned from this experience. Here are a few things.
Always know what’s in the bag.
Unless, of course, you’re at the airport. In that case, it’s okay to carry bags from strangers or even to allow them to pack your bags for you. What’s the worst that could happen?
Jesus moved towards people who were different from him.
That’s sort of the point of the incarnation (John 1:14) but it’s also something he did throughout his ministry (John 4). I ended up accidentally spending the afternoon with people worlds apart from me theologically, politically and culturally. Jesus did this intentionally. He was driven by obeying the mission his Father gave to him, not by fear of what others may think of his associations.
Know your enemy.
We do no good for the advancement of the Kingdom of Christ by simply repeating the talking points of Ann Coulter or her liberal counterpart. As believers, our job isn’t to convince those who do not know Christ to vote like us but to plead with them to repent and believe in the gospel. This is why knowing our enemy is so important. The enemy isn’t the lady in the CCCP shirt, the dude trying to cram Jesus into a political image more to his liking or Troy Davis. Our real enemy is the one who has been whispering in our ears from the beginning of time, “You will not surely die.”
I didn’t follow the Troy Davis case. If his execution had not have gone down in my town, I probably wouldn’t have given the story much thought. All I know is that a few minutes past 11 on September 21, he was standing before his Creator and bowing, either as one bows before an enemy in defeat or as one bows before a Master in triumphant rejoicing (Philippians 2:10-11). And one day those of us who were on those prison grounds will be in that same position. It won’t matter then whether we were prison guards, protestors or pastors. All that will matter is whether we are carrying the guilt for our sins or if Jesus Christ has taken it for us (2 Corinthians 5:10-21).
Some of the last words Troy Davis ever spoke on this earth were, “I am innocent.”
I hope he was right.