On Belonging – A Word from A Resident

I have been free for 96 days. I am still carrying a lot!

It is no longer the huge meltdowns in the aisles at Walmart or Publix. Now, it is the secret, hidden battle of identity. Who am I? Am I out of place? Does anyone see me? Am I being heard? How do I become one of them (a free person)? Free to laugh. Free to stand around and have small talk without the fear of the conversation turning into an elevator speech that threatens the significance, compromises the integrity, and minimizes the weight of the sixteen years of tumult that I survived!

There are no shortcuts to the landscape and impression of prison on my life. Or any life. I am not only representing myself, but I am also carrying thousands of people with me. People who cannot speak for themselves.

So, I am mindful of the intensity with which I live and operate. This is something I carried in with me last night when I spoke to the Catholic Student Union at St. Thomas More Cathedral, just across from FSU’s campus. The space was boundless and sacred, details and symbols throughout. Though it went well, and the students were so enthusiastic to hear Pre and I speak, I wanted to prove I should be there. That I belonged. That I was not a monster. I wanted to do good! I wanted people to be proud of me, for them to want me around. And that made me even more aware of my greater responsibility–namely, the responsibility to bring nobility to those brothers I have left behind in prison.

For the incarcerated and the formerly incarcerated, all we want it to feel like we are loved, that we are missed, that we belong in a community. We desire to be seen! We are not summed up by our worst mistake. Every morning I wake up with a debt that I cannot describe. I feel like I must pay this debt just to be a part of that thing that makes everybody else human. And until that is paid in full, I do not have a place. To be honest, it keeps me motivated! But it is also exhausting! Leon County Commissioner, Rick Minor, invited me to join him at the MLK parade. I was admittedly very apprehensive. Nevertheless, I joined him. It was epic! I mean just that word. No exaggeration. I want to share a conversation I had with him before the parade.

I asked him about attending the Harvard School of Government. I asked if it was intimidating. He said, “André, absolutely! But every time we would have a speaker come in to talk with us, they would emphasize the fact that each one of us belonged in that room.” He said, “each of them realized our human tendency to feel like we don’t belong.” That moment is a part of my life now. That story he shared with me is now my story. Last night I spoke at Florida State University’s Catholic Student Union and I was right where I belonged.

– By André, Current Resident at Joseph House

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