Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.
–Matthew 5:44, King James Bible
Turning Leaf isn’t a faith-based organization, but when a student comes to us with a story heavily punctuated by loss, and yet has “love your enemies” tattooed on his bicep, it’s worth noting. The idea of loving one’s enemies is heady, particularly in a group of men whose loyalties are to the streets, which are never loyal in return.
At 28, JB is still young. He has his life ahead of him. His past has been difficult to overcome, but with the help of Turning Leaf and his own resilience, we know he can do it.
This is JB’s story.
* * * *
“I’ve been to damn near every school in Summerville at one point or another,” JB says early in our conversation. His mother worked at a kidney dialysis center, but with three children at home, she struggled to make ends meet. The family moved a lot, and while the children always had clothes on their backs and food in their bellies, things were definitely difficult. The neighborhoods in which they lived were rough; drugs and violence were commonplace. When JB was only 14-years-old, he watched a friend get shot to death in the street by thugs cruising his neighborhood. It was his first brush with death, but it wouldn’t be the last. Not by a long shot.
From the youngest age, JB was expected to help his mother with money. At school when he was very small, he sold candy his mama purchased using EBT. The few dollars he made went toward rent payments and food purchases, but still, ends didn’t quite meet. When JB was a teenager, they moved back to a place they used to live. He found his old group of friends, and when he learned they were selling drugs and burglarizing people/places, he dove straight in. “I was fifteen or sixteen years old,” he says. “The money, the jewelry, the cars, the clothes. It all fascinated my eyes.”
Besides, with two other children at home to provide for, he knew his mother would appreciate the financial opportunities of the streets. “I was the oldest,” he says. “I’d see her crying, frustrated, and I knew I had to help.” His motivation those days was simple: wake up, make some money, sell some drugs, and find his next link (burglary target).
JB’s first arrest came when he was only 17-years-old. He was selling drugs out of his house with four of his friends. There was an altercation. A shooting. All four boys were charged with first degree burglary, shooting into a dwelling, and attempted murder. The charges were dropped, but the damage was done: the police knew JB’s face. Since then, he’s been arrested at least 15 times.
JB was kicked out of school in the 12th grade, and he wasn’t allowed to attend an alternative school. He tried adult school but dropped out after a few days. His mother kicked him out of the house, so we went to live with his dad. That only lasted a month before he wound up back at his mother’s. He got a job at Taco Bell that lasted a couple years, but JB kept hustling on the streets.
But the hustling lifestyle isn’t an easy one, nor is it safe. When JB and his homeboy, his closest partner, went to Myrtle Beach for a night, things fell apart. JB and his friend separated on the strip, each of them talking to a different girl. A few minutes later, the street was buzzing: someone was shooting people just down the road. There’d been words exchanged. An altercation. Then someone with a gun started shooting. People died.
JB wasn’t worried. He and his friends were young. Invincible. But then his homeboy’s mama called. “She was crying, just saying, ‘My baby, my baby, he’s gone,’ over and over,” says JB. Still, things felt hazy. Unreal. It wasn’t until he pulled into his neighborhood back in Summerville that the thought daggered him. His best friend. Closest partner. He was gone.
JB quit working at Taco Bell. “I couldn’t work with all that on my mind,” he says. He was 20 years old, unemployed, and running the streets full time.
JB’s next big arrest (and first conviction) came for attempted armed robbery when he was 24. And this is where it becomes pertinent to note: the legal system is vast. Confusing. Utterly inexplicable at times. When JB was sent to prison for this first conviction, he had a set time frame in his head. However, his attorney didn’t like the way some things had gone down, and JB was brought back to court without knowing why. Things happened there that JB didn’t follow, and he returned to a prison on lockdown following a riot. There were no phone calls, no contact from the outside world, so when, two days later, a woman standing at his dormitory door told him it was his release day, JB can be forgiven for being confused. When his mother showed to pick him up, JB rushed her out the door. “I thought it was a mistake,” he says. “But I’m trying to get my piece of freedom!”
Like a dream they left the prison, and for a fleeting moment, JB thought things might be different. He thought he might stay out of prison. But with release a solid six months earlier than he expected, JB hadn’t taken the time he needed to get his head straight. He says, “My mind and my thoughts and my plans hadn’t been gathered already. I hadn’t been able to get my mind stable.” Within 12 hours of getting home, he was carrying his gun again. Within 24 hours, he was selling drugs. What else would you expect? That was the life JB knew.
The next six months were a blur of drug sales, arrests, gun charges, and probation violations. By the third arrest, JB was held without opportunity to bond out. Two days after Christmas, he found himself in federal court facing federal time, and reality set in: he wouldn’t be going home anytime soon.
JB served his federal time, surrounded by older men with far longer sentences, and this time, when his release day came, he was ready to go home, in a better frame of mind and with plans for the future. But in one last twist of fate (and clutter of court systems), JB got some difficult news: he wasn’t done serving time yet. He had another year of state prison to serve for probation violations. Around the same time, he learned he lost yet another friend to the streets. Another life lost, another year to serve. It was a hard time, but JB found himself by mentoring his dorm-mates. Time passed slowly, but it did pass, and release day came again.
This time, JB was determined to do things right. He found Turning Leaf early, but decided he’d rather find his own path forward and dropped out. He was hired on as a temporary employee at a recycling center, but when months passed and they didn’t hire him full time (which would have come with a $5/hour pay raise), he left that, too. He felt himself starting to give up again. Starting to think about the streets.
Instead of selling drugs, though, JB gave Turning Leaf another shot.
This time, everything feels different. JB is determined to succeed. “The classes are the most helpful part,” he says. “Looking around the room, seeing the other guys. We’ve been through the same things. We’re helping and working with each other. We all did dirt, but we’re trying to put the bad behind us. We ain’t kids any more.”
* * * *
JB is living by the scripture tattooed on his arm these days. He’s treating people the way he wants to be treated, working hard to provide his children with the life they deserve. As his graduation from Turning Leaf approaches, he’s focused on using the skills he learns in the classroom to get through life in a responsible fashion. We know you can do it, JB! We’re behind you all the way!