Facing over a century behind bars, Roberto Wahid Lewis found a way to re-center himself and, eventually, start a new life on the outside.
This is an edited version of an essay by Roberto Wahid Lewis that appears in the book of essays Ordinary Men, Extraordinary Lives: Defining Moments, compiled and edited by Jim Sharon.
Each person who has ever lived has a story about some event that forever changed his life. Mine is no different, except for time, place, and circumstance.
I will never forget the night my mother walked into my bedroom and told me my father was dead. I was nine years old. At first, I wasn’t quite sure what she meant, but as the day unfolded the story of his death was revealed to me, my four brothers, and two sisters. At the time, my mother was pregnant with my youngest sister. My father was stabbed during an argument in a bar. I remember my mother telling me, “We will be alright; we will make it.”
As we prepared for the wake, I remember feeling very sad. At nine, I realized I would never see my father again. The night of the wake, I went up to the casket and saw my father lying there, lifeless. I touched his face and hands for the last time and as the tears streamed down my face, I vowed never to cry about anything ever again in life. Filled with rage, I pledged to my father that I would kill the man who took him from me. As a nine-year-old child, I didn’t really understand anger or how detrimental it can be if not addressed. As they lowered my father into the ground, I would not allow myself to cry nor would I allow myself to grieve. All I wanted was to kill the man who had taken my father from me. It wasn’t until 50 years later, while talking with a dear friend named Fatima, that I finally grieved my father’s death.
As far back as I can remember, everyone always told me I was just like my father. My uncles would tell me stories that nobody would f— with my father because he would jump off his feet and knock them out. Growing up, I took no s— from anyone, either. I would fight at the drop of a hat. I felt no pain, so being hit didn’t affect me. If I was in a fight, I would be as brutal as I possibly could be to the person I was fighting. I remember one time, after beating a guy senseless, I dragged him to the curb, took his foot, laid it on the curb, and jumped down on his leg. I left him there screaming in pain. I believed what everyone had always told me—that I was just like my father. I had also internalized that, like my father, I would not live long. (He was 30 when he died.) My only prayer to God was that I live to be 15; that was the age I had set to kill the man who had taken my father’s life.
Between ages nine through 15, my anger and disrespect for the law grew even stronger. The man who stabbed my father was never prosecuted, so I lost all respect for society’s laws. By now I was stealing cars, burglarizing homes and businesses, dealing marijuana. I had also joined one of the most powerful street gangs in Chicago. Being in a gang made me even more reckless, and I had the reputation of shooting first and asking questions later. Among the gang members, I was known as someone you did not want to cross. I was able to convince a couple of my gang brothers to help me carry out my plan to kill the man who took my father’s life. We had access to just about any kind of available street weapon.
By the time I reached 15, God had already brought more suffering on my father’s killer than I could ever have inflicted. I guess the thought of taking a life was more than he could bear. By now he was homeless and could often be seen in the streets, smelling like urine and feces. The day I approached him to kill him, he was drunk and smelly. My gang brother told me that I would be putting him out of his misery if I killed him, that I should merely let him suffer the way he was. So we just turned and walked away from him. I never thought about taking his life again after that. I asked my father to forgive me for not following through on my pledge to him.
Over the next few years, I found myself immersed in the life of the underworld. I was shaking down tavern owners, selling protection to business owners, and controlling a prostitution ring. All the while, the idea that I wouldn’t be here for much longer pervaded my thoughts, so I was going to do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted, and no one was going to stop me. The more I got away with, the more emboldened I became. The anger never left, nor did my contempt for the laws of society. I missed my father, and I often wondered what my life would have been like had he lived, but I constantly thought, “This is my life now and I’m in it for the long haul, however long that may be.”
At the age of 19, I was charged in a 20-count indictment, subsequently convicted on two of those charges, and sentenced to 100 to 300 years in prison. At the time, the special prosecutor told the judge and jury that I had no respect for the law. In prison, there is a “law” that prisoners live by, and I would not respect even the prison code. The prosecutor added that the only way I should ever leave prison was in a pine box. The next day, I was in a maximum security prison, immediately wondering, “How can I escape from here?”
I settled into prison life fairly easily. At that time, the gangs literally ran the prisons. I had the status of a gang chief in charge of one of the most powerful gangs, so I was able to get just about anything I wanted. I needed movement in order to plan my escape, so I got a job working in the maintenance department. I started as a plumber and later learned how to weld. My job took me all over the prison, even into high security areas. All the while, I was looking for an escape route.
In 1978, the government decided it was going to take back control of the prisons. In the middle of the night, they went from cell house to cell house, gathering who they considered top gang leaders. They loaded us onto a bus and transferred us to various other prisons. Some were transported out of state. I was sent to another maximum security prison.
I remember walking into the room where the orientation was to take place. The moment our eyes met, I felt something shift inside me. The program consisted of yoga, meditation, health, hygiene, and organizational skills. I took to the yoga and meditation like a duck to water. I found myself being more calm and relaxed, and thinking more rationally. The teacher and I would often have one-on-one conversations. We would talk about a wide range of subjects. When I told him that I was never supposed to get out of prison, his response was, “This does not have to be your prison. It can be your retreat, your sabbatical, your church, your masjid—it’s up to you.” That made so much sense to me. From that moment on, I never considered myself being in prison.
I cherished his friendship, and to this day cherish it even more deeply. I felt supported in a way that I had never felt supported before, even in the gang. No matter where he traveled, he always stayed in touch with me, always letting me know what was going on in his life and always concerned about me. There was never a doubt in my mind regarding his level of sincerity, and I actually began to feel love from a real human being. As my mind questioned my heart as to what was going on inside me, things began to shift externally as well. My meditation became part of my daily routine. I began to read and study anything I could find regarding spiritual life and spiritual practices.
As I settled into my new lifestyle, with the various practices that kept me at peace with myself, I still had to deal with the reality of my situation. One reality was that I had to appear before the parole board. For many years, the board denied me parole, but I found consolation in their denial. Somehow I knew I was not going to be in prison for the rest of my life. I knew that God was not done “cooking” me yet. I found peace and relief in knowing that. There comes a point in all of our lives, no matter where we are, that we must look at our life and then decide if we want to continue in the same lifestyle, or change. No matter what one’s status is or the amount of time and energy one has dedicated to a particular ideology or concept, if that no longer feeds the hunger inside, one has to have courage enough to let it go. That’s what I did. I resigned from the gang, relinquishing my title and authority. I knew and accepted the inevitable consequences of my actions—retribution from the gang. I survived the attack on my life. I was stabbed in the neck, back, and head and almost lost a finger.
I am remorseful for all of the bad and wrong things I did in life, but I cannot undo any of them. With the support and guidance of my Sufi Sheikh and my community, I hope to reach my destiny. I have been out of prison since 2002 and have been married since 2004. I own my home and business. The same dedication and devotion I applied to being a bad guy, I am applying toward being a loving, serving human being. I love life and appreciate each and every day.
Nobody could ever convince me that miracles don’t happen—I am living proof. I lived on the dark side, and I know what it’s like to be in the mud and slime of the underworld. Now I have the opportunity to experience living life as it was designed to be lived, free of fear. My journey hasn’t ended; it has only begun. I have risen from the depths of hell. I will continue to hold my Sheikh’s hand and follow his instructions, because his guidance and God’s Grace have molded me into the person I am today.
Roberto Wahid Lewis, having long ago left the underworld, has dedicated the remainder of his life to loving service and continual spiritual pursuit through his participation in an Illinois-based intentional community.
photo by threat to democracy / flickr