(James) The old James would be so quick to fight. I was very stubborn. But that’s just—that’s how you survive in Chicago.
(VO) If Hollywood was ever looking for a real-life model on which to base a gun-toting, tatted-up, gang-banging movie villain—James Kamara would be a good place to start.
(James) I did dirt. I did things I’m not proud of. I did things that I regret. And now, unfortunately I got to ride around with a pistol just to feel safe. I think everybody in Chicago does. Because you have to value your life like you never valued something before in Chicago.
(VO) Ask him if he’s ever shot anyone…
(James) (laughs) Yeah. I have, yeah.
(VO) … and the answer, to James at least, is obvious. It seems he’s spent most of his life on the business end of a .38 or in the back seat of a police car. So, you’ll excuse him for believing this was the life he was meant to live. Everyone he knows—everyone he’s ever known—always told him that from this world, there is no escape.
(James) I was in the streets heavy. And yes, every single day I get drawn back into it. Because even though I say, “Ok, tomorrow I want to be a doctor, tomorrow I want to be a lawyer, tomorrow I want to change my life around, the damage that has already been done—nobody from the opposite side is going to spare me if they see me because, like, Chicago’s like war. It’s like war between all the gangs. It’s like real war.
(VO) “Stories of Hope” is a podcast about people who meet needs and change lives. In this episode… James Kamara wanted to walk away. But he couldn’t.
(James) I’ve got to look over my shoulder every two seconds—literally, like, that’s just how it is to live in Chicago, man.
(VO) James was trapped. Trapped, until the morning they came for him.
(NAT) people climbing squeaky stairs
(VO) And that day, as soon as his mother opened the door, nothing would ever be the same again.
(NAT) banging on door
(VO) This is Stories of Hope, Episode 16, “The Golden Ticket.”
(NAT) city noise, car doors closing
(VO) They all wore uniforms. All of them, but one.
(NAT) car doors closing, then footsteps down sidewalk
(VO) They walked single file. They didn’t talk. But they probably couldn’t help but notice the huge cemetery across the street. Irony masquerading as geography.
(NAT) city noise, footsteps on pavement
(VO) They stopped at an apartment building halfway down the block, double-checked their address…
(NAT) door opening
(VO) … then they opened the front door and climbed two flights of squeaky stairs.
(NAT) climbing stairs
(VO) Three cops, one civilian—James Kamara never heard them coming. As a matter of fact, when they knocked on his door, one of Chicago P-D’s most wanted was sitting in his pajamas watching T-V.
(NAT) daytime TV (background noise) and banging on door
(James) We hear a knock on the door, but it was like a heavy knock because I think it was an officer that knocked on the door. So, it was my momma that came to the door—it was my mother that came to the door and when she opened it, she opened it wide so I seen all these officers and I’m like, “What did I do?”
(VO) For once, the answer to that question was “nothing.” That day, nobody came to present James with an arrest warrant. Instead, the police had brought a man who’d prepared a different kind of presentation.
(Michael) You’ve heard James talk about, “The streets don’t forget. I’m still a target, I’ve still got an “X” on my back and I might have an “X” on my back for a very long time, maybe until the end of my life. And that’s where I think the Gospel has to come. And so that’s what we are trying to get at with this violence in our city of Chicago.
(VO) His name is Michael Allen. He’s the pastor of Chicago’s Uptown Baptist Church. And his journey to James’s doorstep actually started three years ago, when he and his friends began to notice what was happening around them.
(Michael) We were so alarmed at the issue of gun violence in our city. We began meeting in small groups with other leaders, and so, Together Chicago is like a backbone organization whose mission is to mobilize the church in Chicago to connect with government and business in order to address the surrounding issues of gun violence.
(VO) Pastors and police officers… Together Chicago started there. The hope was—pastors could give men like James something police officers could not.
(Michael) The police have decided and they realize that they cannot arrest their way out of the problem. And so, this idea of saying, “Pastor, would you come with me because I’ve got these ten guys that are troublemakers in my neighborhood and I don’t want to lock them up again.” And then we go on the hunt looking for them, except we’re not looking for them to lock them up. We’re going to give to them hope. We’re going to give them an opportunity, a golden ticket, to say, “Today is your day. But you’ve got to take it. You’ve got to reach out and take it. It’s up to you.”
(VO) For James and Michael, that is how maybe the most unlikely friendship in the history of friendships began… a police escort, followed by a private conversation, followed by a golden ticket.
(James) I don’t like police at all. So, when I seen all these officers at my house, I automatically wasn’t interested in nothing they had to say. And it took him to tell them, “Stand down” or “Stand by” or “Stay outside for a minute.” And he came in and he was talking to me and I don’t know what it was about him but it kind of made me let my guard down.
(Michael) I just talked to him. I said, “Dude, Trust me. I’m here to help you. This is not a trick. There’s no bait and switch. I live in your hood. And so, all you need to do is make one call. Here’s my card. I don’t work for the police, but I work with the police so you can trust me. And I’ll help you if you’ll let me.”
(Michael) And in the case of James, before I even got back to my office, he picked up the phone and called and said, “Hey, you were just at my house and I can use some help. Can we talk?”
(NAT) (Michael) Now, remind me of your girlfriend’s name? (James) Which one? (laughs)…
(VO) They got to know each other over scrambled eggs and bacon. One breakfast led to a hundred more.
(NAT) (Michael) I’m still waiting for us to do that double-date—you all come over to the house…
(VO) And when Michael asked James what he could really do to help him, James had a ready answer.
(NAT) (James gets in car) (James) Hey Pastor… (Michael) What’s up dog? (James) Tired man…
(VO) James needed transportation. Lots of transportation.
(NAT) car noise (seat belt, etc.?)
(VO) As part of his old-life exit strategy, he was wanting to go to school. But because he was who he was—he couldn’t get there.
(Michael) When I asked him, “What can I do for you? How can I help you?” he says, “Well, I need a ride to school.” And I said, “Ok.” But he explained the reason why he couldn’t take public transportation to get to school.
(James) I don’t take public transportation because that’s playing Russian Roulette. The wrong person sees you or the wrong crowd sees you, this is how people get killed.
(VO) So, Michael volunteered to drive James to school—very early, every morning. And even though they had to leave before the sun came up, it was a pastor’s dream. Michael got to spend hours and hours with a willing, captive audience.
(NAT) (Michael) You still have that Bible app on your phone? (James) Yeah, I do.
(Michael) I said, “What time do I need to pick you up?” And he’s like, “5 in the morning.” And I said, “5 in the morning?” I said, “What kind of school is open at 5 in the morning?” And he goes, “Well, that’s the deal is—it’s on the far South Side and I’m on the far North Side.” And it was winter. But for me, I wanted him to know that this is the real deal, this is a real relationship.
(NAT) (car noise) Back in the day, there used to be a mantra that was trending called WWJD (James) WWJD? (Michael) That means “What would Jesus do?” (turn signal noise)
(James) Man, if you wake up at 5 in the morning to take somebody across the city, it feels good that this man took an interest in my life. It was like, man, this man really cares about me.
(NAT) (Michael) Just like you were talking about the other day, after a while of hanging out with me, you started to think… (James)… about what would you do… Oh, alright, I see it—I see the concept.
(James) And, at that point it was like a challenge to me. Like, “Man, I got to make him proud now too.” Cause it was like it’s not even just making my mother proud no more at this point. I got to make him proud too.
(VO) Picking someone up every morning at 5 a-m, driving them to school, and talking to them about Jesus along the way—it’s amazing what that can do to a guy. All those people James Kamara once knew—the ones who said there’s no escape from his old life… it turns out, all those people were wrong.
(Michael) It is dangerous for him to come into the neighborhood where our church is and I understand that. So, he’s never heard me preach. He’s never been to one of our worship services. But James calls me his pastor, he calls me his mentor. And this is—this is Christianity. It’s another level of Christianity that I’m not sure he was familiar with until we had a relationship.
(James) I could’ve just been another statistic of Chicago. But I remember when I told him I had graduated, the smile that I seen on his face—it made me feel good because, it was like, this man had hope in me, man. So, the fact that—if the me five years ago could look at me now, honestly, the old James would be so surprised, man. He would be so proud though at the same time. He would.
(VO) This has been “Stories of Hope” from Send Relief. Today’s episode… “The Golden Ticket”.
(VO) There are people just like James in most every community in North America—people who feel trapped in a life of crime and poverty. Just like Michael did, you and your church can meet needs and build witnessing relationships with them. For tips on how, go to send-relief-dot-org. And to learn more about how God is using Michael and Together Chicago to change the lives of people in their communities, visit them on the web at together-Chicago-dot-com. That’s together-Chicago-dot-com.
(VO) If you liked what you heard here, rate us and leave a review on Apple Podcasts. That will help other people find us and enjoy these stories too. And join us in two weeks for another episode of “Stories of Hope.”