I do not know if this story is true, though it may be. And it does not matter if it is. For the one who told it to me it is true, that I do believe.
Frank was a frightening man to look at. He had deep set eyes, long stringy hair and a mouth that could still flash the rage that was once permanently there. All of this was heightened by the inch thick glass that separated us and the telephones we could barely hear each other through.
He told me about how he came to do the things he had done. How he had understood them to be how people are supposed to act towards one another.
At three, four and five he watched his father say he loved his mother. Then he watched his father beat his mother. To his young mind these two were one and the same. To love someone was to hit them. For the majority of his life this learning was not challenged.
I do not know much of Frank's teen years, but over the course of his life he fathered eighteen children. When I talked to him he was in contact with four of them and knew where ten were. Eight remained a mystery to him.
Eventually, at some point, his children would come to Frank and say, “I love you daddy.” To Frank this was a challenge, a threat. A threat that must be stopped before it could turn into anything more, before it became the violence his father once inflicted on his mother. So he would react with violence of his own, before the violence he expected could be done against him. Frank would beat his child, also likely the child's mother, and leave. It wouldn't be long before he was with another woman and another child was along the way.
Frank likely had contact with gangs all his life and at some point he became a full member. More than that, he was a collection agent. When someone owed money his job was to go get it. He was in charge of others, a manager of sorts, as no one would do this work alone. According to him he did his work well.
The change began at a meeting. At the house of one of the members they sat in the living room discussing whatever is discussed at gang meetings. A rival gang drove by and opened fire into the house. Everyone dropped to the floor and as bullets thudded into the couch cushion inches from his face Frank prayed for his life. That he would survive. He said the words just came out, he did not think about it as a prayer then, but now is confident that is what it was.
Frank did survive and continued his work.
A few months later he and his crew were sent to collect two hundred dollars from a man who had not paid his debt. On this job Frank decided to stay in the car and keep lookout as two others went to get the money. They had been inside longer than was normal so Frank went in to see what was happening.
What he found was the man who owed hog tied, lying beside a bed. He was praying for his life. That he would survive.
These two events started the change. It was not easy, quick or instant. He did not cut the man loose and forgive him his debt. But a commitment was formed inside Frank as he heard the words of his prayer coming from that man’s mouth.
He had spent much time in prison and when I met him he was inside again. No one can say if he will be able to completely remove the violence from his life, but when I talked to him he had spent as much time trying to as he had been a gang member.
One of his greatest places of hope was in his painting. He had never touched a brush before he went inside, but in prison the one thing that exists in abundance is time. Another prisoner showed him the basics and he found a passion for it. He worked tirelessly on his technique, studying the art of other cultures to see what he can add to his own style.
When I asked him about how he understands love now he tells me of a couple who came to visit him in prison. They did not know each other, but were connected through an organization. They asked nothing of him beyond talking. He slowly realized that they weren't waiting to ask something of him. They weren't looking for what they could get from him. They weren't assuming he was going to take something from them. They just wanted to know how he was doing, to hear him tell his story, and to help in any way they could to make it so he doesn't hurt anyone else.
For him, now, love is these people.