One Saturday, I went with some people from the Vineyard to hand out sandwiches at Washington Park. Afterwards, I hung around to talk to some of the people in the park. The park is known for drugs and violence, so everyone was pretty stern. Once in a while I’d hear someone cussing and yelling in anger. But for the most part, it was pretty quiet.
In my trunk I had an old badminton set that I’d been hauling around. I was sitting on a bench with some people, and I asked if anyone was interested in setting up the game. I received some blank looks and silence. I was going to give up the idea when someone from behind the bench said, “I’ll do it.” I looked around and saw a young man that I’d never met before. I rose and introduced myself. He smiled and said his name was Robert. I asked, “You really want to set this up?” “Sure, I’ll do it for you” he responded.
We walked over to the car and retrieved the set from the trunk. “How does this go?” he asked. I admitted I didn’t know, and he said he’d figure it out. We spread out the net and the poles and he started to piece it together. I wasn’t really expecting much, since I’d received such a cold response before. Most of the people there were addicts or alcoholics, and sports wasn't their thing. But Robert looked engrossed in the project, so I just let him go ahead. I sat on the bench talking, and most of the others in the park were eating their sandwiches and drinking their soda out of a brown paper bag.
I received a call on my cell phone, and had to run a quick errand. I asked Robert if he’d be in charge of the game, and I’d be back shortly. He agreed, so I left. I was only gone about 20 minutes, and wasn’t sure what to expect when I got back. I guessed the worst that could happen is that someone took the game and sold it. If Robert did get it set up, it was probably just sitting there not getting any use.
When I pulled up, I saw a crowd gathered over at one end of the park. As I approached I heard laughing and joking as if a big party was going on. Then I realized – they were playing the game! Those that weren’t playing were waiting their turn to play. As they raced around the net, they would fall and laugh if they missed the play. Some commented on their old bones not being used to this. Others were serious and tried to slam it every time, and hooted if they made it. No one was keeping score, because that didn’t matter. They were just having fun like they hadn’t had in a long time.
I got to know Robert better after that, and we talked as though we were old friends. Much later he told me that he’d been a drug addict and the day we met, he was depressed and intent on using. But he didn’t have any money. When I asked about setting up the game, he had actually been on his way to rob someone. But he had so much fun that day, he forgot all about it. He said he realized how messed up his mind was, and that day knocked him back to reality and he realized what he’d become.
That was the first step on his path to change his life. Last I knew, Robert was holding down three part-time jobs. He stopped smoking crack, but he still drinks heavily, and gets into fights. He reads his bible and prays every day. He said he’s never again thought about robbing anyone since that day.