“… I was in prison and you came to me.” (Matthew 25:34-36)
With the cool air of the holiday season comes a longing for the people we love. Sadly, there are many we are no longer able to see. And, in the midst of this pandemic, that number has grown. However, there are some whose presence remains even in their absence.
Why do we wait so long to acknowledge the positive impact people have on our lives? Too often we let people die before we extol their virtues. Then, sometimes, we even tell lies to make them sound like better people than they were. Sound familiar? I’ve done this too many times and I won’t do it anymore. Instead, I will share with you the truth of two people who have genuinely earned my praise.
The woman who loved me enough to pay for my college education is dead. Ms. Doris Buffett changed my life and I was only able to thank her in person once. Yes, I wrote a letter or two expressing my deep appreciation, but have since questioned whether I did justice to the blessing she was to me.
Shaun Libby, one of my incarcerated brothers (I use that term very selectively), wrote a piece to honor Doris that made me laugh and want to cry at the same time: “The World Lost a Real Life Superhero on 8/4/20” (visit sunshinelady.org/remembering-Doris to read it). He convincingly makes his case for why Doris deserves the title “Superhero.” Of course, those of us who were directly rescued by her don’t need convincing.
People like Doris seldom find their way into prison. This environment is one starved of love, affection and encouragement. Yet every once in a while, somebody amazing deliberately chooses to make a difference in the lives of those who need it most.
Another woman who has helped transform my life through love is Ms. Kandyce Powell, Executive Director of the Maine Hospice Council. Some of you may know her, as she is a gentle, soft-spoken, yet fierce and brazen advocate for the underserved, the undesired and the voiceless. Regardless of her surroundings, she has a way of filling any room she enters with a warmth that is not easily forgotten. Even those who hate her for the love she gives cannot deny the power of her presence.
Love is a dangerous word in prison. We are to relegate it to the letters we send home. We can say it quietly at the end of a phone call to our mothers or children. For a long time, that was it. Then, after a few months under Kandyce’s tutelage, you couldn’t stop me from telling people I love them! It was strange at first. People started looking at me like I was crazy. Now, six years later, I hear men hollering from one end of the hallway to the other, “I love you, brother!”
Imagine that. We’re surrounded by steel, concrete and sorrow every day. Yet men who have feared love for most of our lives are learning how to express love to one another in a healthy way. This directly translates into our family and romantic relationships. Many of us have been traumatized by those who professed to love us, yet turned around and abused or abandoned us. So this newfound ability to give and receive genuine love is no small thing. Previously, “love” was a word used as a tool of manipulation, or something to say out of obligation. Now it is a way of life, a daily commitment, a true expression of concern for others. Love is no longer just a feeling; it is an action.
After meeting Kandyce, there is not one human being on the face of this earth who can convince me that one person can’t change the world. But, unfortunately, even powerful agents of change reach limits while working inside an archaic institution built upon a foundation of oppression and dehumanization. Having dedicated 17 years of her life to empowering society’s living dead, Kandyce’s ability to work with us was unceremoniously and inexplicably ended in 2018. While we have two wonderful people providing outside support to our hospice program, Kandyce will always be loved and missed. Her legacy continues.
This column isn’t just about two amazing women who changed my life and the lives of countless others. This column is about you and your ability to have a positive influence on the people around you every day God chooses to give you breath. Don’t waste your days. Put your humanity on the table. Allow yourself to be vulnerable. By doing so, you give others permission to do the same.
Dangerous? Yes. Scary? Just a little. But with persistence it gets easier, until it becomes a way of life. Then you begin to receive the blessing of seeing your efforts echoed in the lives of others. And you never know: somebody might turn around someday and write something good about you — before you die.
Leo Hylton’s sister, Rosie, is organizing a fundraising campaign to cover tuition expenses for Leo’s pursuit of a Master’s degree via George Mason University. Donate via this link.