Man, I get serious anxiety even sitting down to pick up this story.
To be honest, I’ve considered changing course, tried finding a way to not tell what happened next. But reliving that afternoon on the Nooksack, the lazy bliss and sweetness of that day, thinking about what forges friendship, I can’t not embark on this other, more painful saga. The two side-by-side give me context and courage to take a run at this.
The next day at the log cabin, after the morning mist had burned off, as the Murphy family, <quote-01>Cisneros<quote-01> family, Hoke family, and you, Wuck, slowly packed, made <quote-02>biscuits and eggs and sausage<quote-02>, started up the whirring vacuum, and readied our kids for travel into the city, I hopped downstairs for coffee and glanced at my phone charging on the kitchen counter.
I’d done a good job of ignoring the emails on my phone up until then; no work on the sly this time. But avoiding text messages is harder. I don’t have a second phone, so I can’t divide my work—the streets—from the lives of my family and friends.
This has been a problem of mine for some time now, but I used to think it was a good thing: dissolving the categories of helper and needy, embodying a more expansive kinship and community. Before Rachel and I got married, I lived with various homies in an old ministry-building apartment for seven years straight. I learned about fatherhood as guys like Ramon and Evaristo—whom you both met during my bachelor week—started their lives over in that apartment, as they gained custody of their kids and began raising them. I was their pastor, sure, but they were also my brothers, my friends.
Anyway, back at the kitchen counter I nudged my phone awake and saw a text notification from a young woman, the girlfriend of a local guy we’d worked with awhile back, planning his reentry, building a community support team.
“Hi Chris when you have time can I speak with you, privately?”
I hadn’t seen this young woman in at least six months, since I’d found out she broke up with—I should change their names—with Gavin. Actually, our correspondence with Gavin himself broke up not long after that—rather suddenly, I recalled.
“Hi Esther, sure thing,” I texted back, briefly taking a seat on the couch before opting instead for the porch and a view of the mountains. “I’m on vacation with my family this week, but maybe next Monday or Tuesday at the church office?”
“Yes that works. Thank you.” Her reply was quick. Then my phone buzzed again: “Honestly I’m a little sketched out about it. I’m nervous. But I think it's overdue. See you next week.”
Happy to have a few more days of fun ahead of me before returning to work, I set my phone on the porch railing and stretched my arms as wide as I could. I found Abram and Renzo running around together and helped them get set up for breakfast at the table. Andy and I discussed sneaking away one more time through the trees, to the huge riverbed and the clanging yellow diamond.
But something about that text exchange wasn’t sitting well. “Privately,” she’d said. The last and only time she’d come to our offices—Gavin wanted his girlfriend to be on the same page as his Underground Ministries support team—she’d met with me and Lulo, my partner in ministry.
I could think of nothing else as I packed up the cabin and helped load the cars for the second half of our week together in Seattle. Tom and the Nurres were flying in that Thursday night for Dodgers games on Friday and Saturday. We’d all stay together at a hip and huge AirBnB in Capitol Hill, blocks from my favorites Elliott Bay Books and Caffé Vita roasters, from Astroturf soccer fields, playgrounds for the kids, and <quote-03>Dick’s Burgers<quote-03> (this neighborhood, by the way, currently hosts CHAZ, the controversial civic experiment all over national news). My anticipation for all this slowed. That text message sank and dragged somewhere deep inside me the next few days, far below the sunny surface, an anchor none of you could see.
Somehow I knew that a big part of my life was about to change.
Denial of this dread flexed heroically in my gut throughout our dreamy days in Seattle together: through our Frisbee fun, tossing an LED frisbee around four corners of the intersection outside our AirBnB, a reprise of the magic we invented outside a Brooklyn AirBnB two summers prior; through <quote-04>the game Saturday night<quote-04>, standing together in Dodger Blue behind the third base dugout, stunned, as Dylan fucking Floro walk-off balked in the tenth inning, Andy and I confused as to why the Mariners suddenly ran off the field, high fiving, why the Seattle fans all around us cheered; through the next afternoon, a Sunday, when everyone else opted to get to the airport early, but you, Murph, treated me to an extra game by your side. I barely felt the dread inside as we and <quote-05>Scott Aldworth<quote-05> leaned far over the visiting bullpen before the game and watched living legend Clayton Kershaw—from almost directly above, like adoring angels—move through his windup, his soaring step and release, the crack of the catcher’s mitt, that artistry both balletic and ballistic I’d only seen on television through my first years as a tenured fan. Through all of it.
During the final innings of that last gifted game (for my birthday, you said), I had the Sunday blues like never before. We would file out of the stadium, the last of my friends would disappear south on a flight to our hometown, and I would drive north with my family, something terrifying awaiting me either Monday or Tuesday; I didn’t have the courage to text her to confirm which.
If you’d have asked me about—or listened to me describe—my relationship with Lulo up to that week, I would have said he was my best friend. There was no relationship like ours in my life, in his, nor anyone else’s I knew of.
I’ll leave that sentence ending in a preposition; it should feel a bit off.
For five years I had a book in the works to tell our story. I’d even been awarded a small research and writing grant to develop it: Thicker Than Blood: Gangs, Trauma, and the New Family of God. I’d turned down my acceptance to Duke Divinity because I wanted to be home in Washington for Lulo’s release date. He’d become <quote-06>family<quote-06>.
Lulo was the local gang leader who first called me pastor. He was my Virgil, guiding me into descending circles of our valley’s underworld, starting with the jail where we met. He then connected me to his cellmates and homies for pastor visits, then into late night gang meetings upon his release, early morning court hearings, late night police confrontations, drunken motel rooms, sober conversations over coffee while he hid from his enemies in my ministry-building apartment.
I guess I haven’t yet had the heart to slow down and tell a specific story in these letters, to lovingly paint in dialogue, sound, gesture, voice, and emotion one of <quote-07>the hundreds of scenes<quote-07> I tucked away in my heart and journals to one day write at length. I might eventually break down from general summary into scene at some point, but not yet. I’m not trying to be coy. <quote-08>I just can’t do it this morning<quote-08>.
Maybe just a sketch of chronology for now?
All this started around the same time Rachel and I began dating: 2006, more or less. On several occasions, the three of us—Lulo, Rachel, and I—sat in my bedroom at the ministry building, a half-loft in which I couldn’t stand up straight, talking late into the night. Back then I had a full head of hair, and Lulo was bald as fuck, gangster status. When things came to ruin a decade later, it was the opposite: in our last photo together I am bald as hell and Lulo has grown a sharp, polished mane. My face has acquired fine, dark lines around the eyes; Lulo’s facial tattoos have all but disappeared after years of donated laser treatments.
Back then, when he got <quote-09>locked up for the second time<quote-09>, Lulo challenged me to make time to write him every week, to take our friendship seriously. We ended up exchanging weekly letters for the next seven years.
Part of my anxiety in telling this story is not just emotional but tactical: how do I relate the saga of me-and-Lulo within just a few pages, within a single letter—this story I’ve been living and preparing to condense into <quote-10>a book of its own<quote-10>?
In 2014, Lulo released from prison—from IMU—directly into living with Rachel and me for six months here in Mount Vernon, in a just-big-enough house we bought with Lulo’s release date in mind—and with the WANTED advance as our down payment. Lulo and I soon traveled the country together on a shoestring book tour we’d pieced together, reading excerpts about our relationship in bookstores and seminaries, at conferences. After all that, we came home and continued the story we’d planned through our boxes and boxes of prison letters.
Part of the plan was to build a garden and small home here in the Skagit Valley where homies could plant tomatoes and “smell the roses an’ shit.” Lulo had mapped it all out in pencil on the backs of commissary invoices from IMU units. It would be a place where homies could feel safe, where they could be kids for a few months, live in a loving home with a huge fridge full of food—these lonely migrant children recruited too quickly into street warfare. And there were so many. We had a rare underground railroad of access to the bottom of the penal system: Lulo’s twenty-plus years through several tours of Washington State’s highest security prisons, all his cellies and tiermates and networks of homies; my decade of chaplaincy with gang members in our valley, themselves stuffed into far-flung prison compounds around the state with their own cellies and tiermates they’d asked to write me. Together we had a deep and rare roster of untouchable men who trusted the two of us with their last remaining hope for a different life.
But it had to start with the two of us.
On his second night out in 2014, pale from over a year in the hole and swimming in an XXXL black hoodie and sweatpants, Lulo stretched out on the couch in that same cabin on the Nooksack River. This was a place I’d taken homies to decompress from their concrete hell chambers, to talk safely after years of tapped collect calls. I remember the two of us staying up late talking in our adjacent twin beds upstairs, like two kids at a sleepover.
On that same table we arrayed with biscuits and eggs and sausage in 2018, Lulo made me a “prison spread” as he’d promised to do for years. Imagine a pile of all the overpriced, processed junk food available on the commissary menu, stuff packed with all the salt, spice, and flavor intentionally withheld from mess hall offerings 364 days of the year. We’d purchased it all easily enough at the mini mart on the way up to the cabin, what inmates scratch and save for months to be able to assemble on a saran-wrapped steel table in their units: flour tortillas as foundation, chili cheese Fritos poured out like nacho chips, maybe some flamin’ hot pork rinds as well, then summer sausage chopped with a laminated prison ID card and scattered over the pile, jalapeño cheese dip gooped over the mess, then—wait for it—two Cup o’ Noodles, any flavor, cooked and drained of excess broth, slopped about the crunchy bounty. Rachel arrived the second day at the cabin just in time to see this perfect pile on the table.
“That looks disgusting,” she said.
I just stared at it, smiling: this carceral cuisine I’d only heard about for years suddenly served up by a veteran. <quote-11>The realization of this long anticipated meal was more delicious, however, than whatever we forced ourselves to swallow in the coming minutes<quote-11>.
Lulo paused as his excited slurping and crunching turned to awkward chewing. He wiped his mouth. “I never thought I’d say this,” he said to us, “but, I dunno, this shit is kinda nasty. Tastes hella different out here.”
He looked back at the pile of what just a week ago was of unspeakable value. “Well, I gotta chalk this one up for the homies.” So we kept taking dutiful handfuls—he and I—like prisoners, no plates. “Maybe we’ll do this every year on the anniversary of my release date,” he offered as we plowed along. “Kinda like a reminder of where I don’t wanna go back—where this shit is the best thing to look forward to in life!” We laughed and chewed.
We were great at inventing traditions like that. Reminders, covenants, ebenezers in the wilderness away from Egypt, cairns along the trail between two worlds we knew we were blazing together.
It’s crazy to tell some of this story to you both in this form. Not only in letters (my form of communion with men in prison all these years), but in a wider narrative approach starting at that cabin on the Nooksack. That space you also shared as my friends during summers before that day with Lulo (my bachelor week three summers earlier) and after (with our families and little children four summers later). That cabin is one of the few shared spaces where both my childhood and gang-graduate friends have built memories with me. That very table where Lulo and I made the “spread,” the freedom meal, was the same table you both carried out onto the porch with me and Andy for rib eyes, salmon, and cake—a meal to celebrate birth and baptism alike.
Before I continue in my next letter the story of betrayal that follows, the denial of relationship that sadly took its course, I want to end with that table—that common table that held different lives of mine, different friendships, different stories with different plots, a table that holds for me so much shared <quote-12>memory<quote-12>.
That table is probably bare this summer, the cabin empty and silent as I write, closed to guests during this pandemic. Yet as I return to it in writing with you both, I find it heavy with an assortment of madeleines, so to speak—as well as a cup of emotions I’m not sure I’m ready to swallow.
[1/2] Tap Next to continue
[1/2] Tap Next to continue
[1/2] Tap Next to continue
[3/4] Tap Next to continue
[2/4] Tap Next to continue
[1/4] Tap Next to continue
[1/3] Tap Next to continue
[2/3] Tap Next to continue