But then my path to preaching took an unexpected turn.
My sophomore year of high school, I met a girl at a party. We talked on the phone for a few weeks before finally setting a date to meet up again. She lived in the Lincoln Park projects in Huntsville, Alabama. I relied on her directions when I drove to pick her up, but I couldn’t find her house. Before giving up, I decided to get out and walk, in case she spotted me.
That was a mistake. The locals noticed my car circling their block, and a group of young men came over. One of them asked, “Who are you?” His tone invited confrontation: You have stepped into my territory. Why are you here?
Looking around at the plastic bags blowing in the wind, clothes drying on flimsy lines, weeds amid patches of dirt, I could not see anything worth fighting over. But behind the interrogator stood three or four more young men, one with a gun. The weapon changed the stakes of the conversation. It was a question of life or death.
A rush of adrenaline began in my chest. I couldn’t control my rapid heart rate, but I could control my expression, so I adopted a calm exterior.
I had been in this situation before and knew I would have to navigate it so they didn’t feel trapped. I had to be strong but not threatening, certain but not disrespectful.
Who are you? The situation called for a simple statement of my allegiances: I am from Johnson High, and where I live is not your concern. But maybe because there was a gun involved, the question turned existential. I thought, Who am I, really? A boy grown into his adult body, now capable of wielding the same violence I’d witnessed from my father? A kid determined to be the opposite of that man? My mother’s hope?
At 16, I was …