My authenticity was challenged in prison. I wasn’t incarcerated for committing a crime, but I was certainly a prisoner of ignorance. It took the wisdom of an “outlaw” to set me free.
It was 2008 and Amelia and I were in Guatemala to receive our second adopted son, Elliot. We traveled to Guatemala several times during the course of our adoptions and were blessed to have a friend named Joel, who serves there as a missionary. We wanted to document the culture for our children, so we asked him to show us the real Guatemala – the non-touristy places. On this particular trip, Joel pulled out all the stops. He invited me to meet some gang members in a maximum security prison. To be honest, hanging out with gang members in a prison wasn’t on my bucket list. But I reluctantly agreed to go.
We were required to leave our passports with a guard at the front desk. This was the first of many uncomfortable experiences that day. My passport was the only identification which undeniably proved I was a US citizen, and not a permanent resident of the facility. But this unnerving experience pales in comparison to what followed. A guard took us down the back side of the prison, through several locked double gates. We were stamped on our arms after passing through each secured area. As we passed through the final air lock and turned the corner, my heart was racing. In front of me through heavy steel bars, was a long, dark, gym-like hall, lit only by a few small windows high above which were also covered with steel bars. It was like a anarchist’s nightclub. The air was thick with dense smoke and loud Reggaeton music growled from every cell. The guard opened the heavy gate and after we entered, he locked the gate behind us and disappeared. Joel explained that if the guard entered with us, that he would likely be killed by the gang members. I thought, “That is comforting, I don’t want to see anyone killed.” Just as that thought raced through my mind, I turned and was surrounded by over a hundred men tattooed like war paint from head to toe. I quickly remembered why this wasn’t on my bucket list.
Thankfully most of the gang members were distracted by the entertainment we brought with us – a dentist – with tools, but no anesthetics. He set up shop at the back of the cell block and began to work on teeth as each patient tried their best to look tough during the procedure. I stayed close to Joel. After all, he was friends with these guys. Slowly, I let my guard down – which is ironic, because I am certain I looked like a deer in headlights. I began to look past the tattooed faces and realized that many of these warriors were just kids. One gang member shared his story with me … and then … he challenged my own story.
He knew I was visiting with a missionary and said,
“You Christians are in a gang just like us. You follow a leader. You have symbols, language, customs and code – just like us. The difference between your gang and my gang is that you have the luxury of being a hypocrite. If we aren’t authentic to our gang, we’re killed.”
Wow. I had no response to that – only questions.
Who am I? What leader do I follow? Am I a hypocrite?
I quickly realized that had we not adopted our sons, they could have ended up in a prison like these young men … and I followed that train of thought back to my own life. If I had grown up with these limitations, I too would likely be in this prison. I would have made the same decisions as these gang members in order to survive.
I had to respond. I couldn’t just adopt my two sons and move on with my life. I was responsible for the things I had seen. I wasn’t a lawyer, doctor, or engineer. I couldn’t do those things. But I was a creative. I had other creative friends who could join me to tell stories that would expose needs and inspire response to make a difference. That’s how our organization Athentikos (Greek for authentic) was born to expose and inspire through the art of story.
What does it mean to be authentic? Here are a couple definitions:
Not false or copied; genuine; real: an authentic antique
Having the origin supported by unquestionable evidence
Authenticity is a powerful and humbling attribute, because being authentic reveals the good, the bad, and the ugly. It reminds us that we aren’t perfect and we can’t do everything on our own. Practically speaking, being authentic means acknowledging our strengths and weaknesses and confidently abiding in that identity to integrate into community with others. Like the young man told me in prison, being authentic identifies you with your “gang”. It undeniably links you your leader and connects you to others identified with you, who fill different roles.
In my case, being authentic means humbly being identified with Christ as my leader. I also means using my uniqueness in purposeful existence; it means using my creativity to tell stories that help solve problems. But it also means acknowledging my limitations and depending on others because I cannot do this on my own. I am only a small part of a much larger story. Being authentic necessitates interdependency lived out in faith, hope and love.