For James Stewart his time in prison burns like a hot iron on his day to day life. Though yellow and wrinkled, the prison discharge papers smoke in the pockets of his pants. They remind him of what he used to be. Outwardly, Stewart is Brother James, a preacher roaming the NYC streets.
Twenty five years ago, Stewart was a gangster in the Bronx. He sniffed cocaine and sold dope in the projects of Edenwald Houses. Stewart entered the field as an independent dealer after the “41 Crew” were rounded up by Federal authorities.
The houses had begun to change from safe to dangerous in 1986 when the crack cocaine trade first appeared there. Through violence and organization, the 41 Crew monopolized the trade out of their headquarters at East 229th Street and Laconia Avenue in the Williamsbridge section of the Bronx. When they were arrested, the gang had a hand grenade, a shotgun, semi-automatic handguns and a military assault rifle. After the crackdown, about eleven smaller gangs and a number of independent operators sprang up. There was constant friction and Stewart remembers being shot, stabbed, and robbed. After 10 years of life in the projects, he was caught with dope and sentenced to 3 years in prison. He got out about eleven years ago.
Post-incarceration, Stewart was taken under the wing of Pastor Tony Blake of Operation Restoration Ministry in Astoria. Pastor Blake, at that time, was a neighbor of Stewart's girl friend in Queens, who is now the ex-con’s wife. Stewart said he was “sick and tired of the things he was doing” prior to jail and craved for order in his life. Stewart's revelation came when God said to him, “You have work to do.” Stewart gave his life over to Jesus and started to prepare for his calling from God.
The ex-con felt that he grew up without anyone caring for him. Although he is pretty smart, his teachers put him down as remedial and never encouraged him. Stewart got to the point where he didn’t care about anyone else either.
“I know at one time I was on that path that I don’t care; no one loves me, and I just want to do what I want.” Stewart says that God had to go deep into his heart to repair the damage.
“But God worked on me; you could feel it. He worked on it, and I changed. There are certain things I used to do that I don’t want to do anymore.” An avid reader, he has self-taught himself to an amazing level.
Today, eleven years later, the ex-con is a changed man and the father of three children living in Astoria. However, recently Brother Stewart’s spiritual and mental preparations were put to the test. It came in the form of a message from a former gangmate's mother who desired Stewart's presence for her dying son. She had heard that Stewart had changed his life and thought he would be good for her son.
We sometimes find ourselves returning to uncomfortable areas of our past. We wonder why so many years go by in order for us to learn lessons about life. The mother’s message to Brother Stewart gave him the opportunity for reflection on his own redemption.
Despite widespread media reports about stories of faith transformations among former prisoners like that of Stewart, social scientists have been slow to examine the phenomenon. However, the number of media reports and a changing religious climate has brought social scientists to reexamine the importance of moments of circumspection by ex-prisoners. UCLA criminologist James Q. Wilson, the co-author of the broken window theory of policing that guides the NYPD, dryly summarized his discovery, “Religion, independent of social class, reduces deviance.” Newark, New Jersey is also studying a two year effort that employs work incentives and faith-based mentoring to bring down recidivism rates. Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes is pioneering a faith-based and community partnership with the court system in Brooklyn. Nationally, more than 700,000 prisoners will be released and two thirds will return to prison. This is extremely expensive. So, moments of introspection by ex-prisoners that lead to a positive social path are being closely examined by social scientists and governments alike.
Stewart, of course, reflected that he could have been in that hospital bed. After a long addiction to drugs and alcohol, his friend had developed seizures. While leaning over the stove to light his cigarette, Greene had one and fell onto the flames. His girlfriend only knew something was wrong when she smelled burnt flesh.
Stewart says that he heard the phone call as one from God to return him to his gang neighborhood in the Bronx. Stewart and his ailing friend, Charles Greene, used to do drugs together there and were business partners in the trade. “I couldn't judge him, I was with the crowd too,” says Stewart.
Stewart went to pay respect to his suffering friend. He certainly couldn’t chastise him. Arriving at Jacobi Medical Center, Stewart found Greene laying on his gurney in the burn unit in Building 6. “He was all messed up,” Stewart recalls. Greene was motionless. “I touched his hands and whispered 'This is James... God loves you,'” recollected Stewart. “He started moving, but I didn’t want to say too much because I know he was hurt—but he was moving. So, I cried and left.”
Stewart's past came back to haunt him again in the form of a funeral. Two months after Stewart's visit to Jacobi, he received another phone call from Greene's mother. This time, it was to announce the date of her son's funeral. Stewart marked the date on his calendar.
On the day of Greene's funeral, a mild summery day in July, Stewart put on his best clothes and kissed his wife and three boys goodbye before he left for the Bronx. He traveled by subway, connecting from one train to another, through three boroughs. Riding the train gave him the comfort of friendly, ordinary life. “I like to mingle with the people. You can talk to people while you are going down there.” Stewart greeted people with a hello and “God bless you!” He was centering himself within the mass of humanity in the city that go to work, go back to their families and raise their kids with love and care. He drew strength from them as he went.
Stewart recalls, “It was scary” to go back to his former neighborhood and see his past gang-mates. He wondered if any of them had unavenged grudges or resented his new life. The Edenwald area is still a pretty rough area with gangs, drugs and murder. On a website evaluating life in New York housing projects, the consensus was, “One of the worst is Edenwald hands down.” Last year, a 92-year old woman, who was active in Our Lady of Grace Roman Catholic Church, was shot dead by a stray bullet from an Edenwald gang. The FBI and NYPD arrested 21 members of the Bloods gang called “Brother for One Another.” Stewart worried that he was like Martin Luther King or Malcolm X going toward a hostile audience.
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“You know, [it was like] when you want to speak but grown people don’t want to hear what you’re reasoning. That is what I was scared of.” He also felt he would be alone. But then he says God spoke to him, “’You ain’t by yourself. I am with you if you believe.’”
He was one of the first ones in the funeral home. He went up to the casket, got on his knees, and prayed for his deceased friend. “I wasn't there to have conversations. I was there just to do what God told me to do. It was to show myself and tell them who I am, and then leave."
Stewart's face, filled with old scars, is a token of the trials and tribulations of his former existence. In his old Bronx haunts he saw the youth who are now in gangs. Brother Stewart wanted to “let them know they don't have to do what they're doing and that there are other ways of doing things. I didn’t have to say much. People would say, ‘Remember James, where he was? Now look at him.’”
Stewart prayed because his friend’s mother asked him to do so. “I said to the family, ‘God has his way with everyone, he loves everyone. So, if you put your mind to it and open your heart to Him. The same thing God did for me, I know he would do for you.”
Greene’s old friend recalled that they lived as friends through good times and bad. “How are you going to judge a book unless you read it? You can’t skip parts and go to the back; you’re going to miss so much of the inside.” Stewart urged his audience to look at the whole life of his friend. “You have to really read the whole book. And then you can say, ‘I knew this brother.’”
Stewart said he was also there at the climatic end of the story for Greene. He came to the hospital to open an epilogue in heaven for his dear friend. He advised compassion as Greene had slipped beyond human judgment to another life. “I can’t judge my brother that passed: I know he did some things. I tried to speak to him before he passed away, and he moved. I don’t know if that was a yes or no, but he moved when I said, ‘God loves you. Ask God for your forgiveness.’” At the hospital Stewart asked God to come to the gurney on which Greene lay and to operate on Greene’s heart, to spiritually undo the damage.
His words were comforting. Even more, his presence as a new man was persuasive. “Believe me, everyone was happy. The crowd know who I was before.” But as the ex-con feared, some weren’t too happy that he was there, changed man or not.
Stewart says that there is always one person in the crowd who will say, “Go back where you came from.” And someone did. “He tried to get the crowd to go that direction,” Stewart recalled. But the antagonist didn’t get support.
“And I looked at everybody, it was scary. I was there just to do what God told me to do.” Stewart had accomplished his mission and decided to leave before more trouble came looking for him. Funerals in the Bronx can be the occasions to settle scores. “My brothers and sisters were there, and my nieces and nephews. I kissed them and said, ‘I have to go.’” Like Jesus before the crowd that wanted to grab him and touch him, Stewart wanted to leave. He called his wife, “I’m coming now. I’m alright.” However, some were insulted that he was leaving.
His brother accosted him on the way out. “I was looking for you,” he said. “You think you’re better than us?” Stewart worriedly thought, this is how fights begin. So, he tried to calm his brother. He told him that he had sensed trouble in the audience. “I saw people who looked at what I was doing. I saw people who didn’t like what I was doing. I saw things. If I was still here for hours, I’d see different things come up.” Stewart then left.
When asked how life was after Greene's funeral, Stewart said he advised himself to "continue doing what he was doing and don't stop.” He lives in a Queens housing project that has its own gang troubles. The Bloods and Crips uneasily share the turf. Stewart says he hopes that they will come out of their lifestyle. Indeed, he mentioned that some are coming to his church but that they still go back and forth between church and street. “They’re crying out for help. But the heart ain’t really ready, and the enemy’s really fighting the youngsters out there.” But Stewart isn’t giving up. This has been the wisdom that has dominated his post-incarcerated life: Do not give up.
Stewart is demonstrating a different path now. “Don’t get me wrong; it was rough” changing directions in his life. But now people hear about Stewart’s life and observe him today and say, “You’re God’s backbone.” His message is that no matter that your life was a hurricane of hurt, God can bring you through. “It’s like going through the storm,” he says. “Once you come out of the storm, it’s like a better way of doing life. Helping others, teaching others.”
Stewart is proud that he was trusted enough to be elected Treasurer of his son's junior high school. He works at night in a warehouse in Astoria. He has a daily goal: “I want to be the best human being that I could be. Not just for myself, but for my children and for others.”