Far To Fall
GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:
Today, we're featuring stories from people looking for themselves, trying to find out who they are. And our next guest, Chris Hoke - he has become a regular on the SNAP because Chris manages to see the good in people who often don't even see it in themselves. Chris Hoke.
CHRIS HOKE: I'm not a person of great faith, which is, I think, why I'm a chaplain because I'm wanting to get closer. I can't just - like I need to see it. So I think I go to the jail and I accompany guys and I pray with guys because I need to see it over and over and over again to believe - to believe that something bigger is going on, that it's not just accident and pain and entropy and destruction.
This one night has haunted me. I've thought about it. I've thought about it for years. I got a call on my cell phone from some sergeants at the jail. And they said that there was an attempted suicide. And he asked for me by name. And he wanted to meet with me. Could I come in right now that night? I said yeah. They told me the name, but I didn't recognize the name - Edgar (ph)something. So I'm driving through the dark, and I'm thinking, what am I going to say to this guy? Man, this guy who's just attempted suicide and failed. This is going to be awkward staring at each other and him thinking, I'm such a screw-up. I can't even kill myself right. And what do I say?
When I got to the facility, the sergeant told me they couldn't remove this attempted suicide from the emergency isolation room. And I look in there, and there's a young guy, a migrant guy about 22, 23 years old. He was saying, you're the guy that comes in with your guitar and you sing with us. So I was just thinking while I was sitting here in this cell, man, that'd be so cool if you could come in here and sing with me. He said don't you remember me? And, you know, I didn't. He reminded me that about a week earlier, he had been in one of our Bible study groups. And he said, you let me sit in the middle, and you all laid your hands on me because my back was really hurting. And I was miserable, and you all prayed for me.
A few days later, though, I tried to hang myself - last night actually. He was like, I want to thank you, and I wanted to sing, but I'm a - you just tried - wait, how'd you try to kill yourself? And so he backed up. And he tells me the story that basically he's in his cell, and he's ripping up his bleach white bed sheets. But he made a long noose. And he's got it knotted around his neck. And he's waiting for his cell door to pop open for dinner. The door pops open. Edgar rushed out onto the second-tier balcony, knotted his sheet to the railing, and he threw himself over.
Now, somehow when he hit bottom, his spine rippled from head to tailbone, yanked into sudden alignment, straight as a plumb line. Instead of pain, he described the moment as a moment of sudden gusto or pleasure. Maybe you could translate that as relief. Edgar's back pain was totally gone, cured. There he was hanging in his socks, totally lined and alive. And even though the alarms are sounding and doors are clanging open and swing shift guards are rushing in picking him up and taking the weight off his neck, he said he'd never been so happy. Was he happy just because his back was fixed? I don't know. He just told me he had never been so happy. I've sat with a lot of liars and manipulators. And this guy's face was not lying or manipulating. I mean, later on, I tried to verify it with the guards and asked, like, did this really happen? They said we're not clear to discuss any of the situations of that incident. So, I mean, yeah. How did that happen?
He attributed his miracle to us praying for him and laying hands on him. But I wouldn't have given myself credit for that. We've prayed for a lot of inmates and laid hands on them. Well, my first thought was not immediately hallelujah. I believe in science, and I know that a lot of weird things happen. That's not proof of divine activity. I'm kind of spacing out because all the stuff we're talking about, this is where my mind's at. And that's probably why he reached his hands across and was, like, grabbing my shoulders. Like, come on, dude, sing. Sing with me. And I thought it was time for me to do my part. So I finally started to sing. And honestly, I don't remember what song it was. What I remember is just that sweet sound of my voice and his voice bouncing off those cinderblock walls in the suicide cell together, both of us.
The miracle was he didn't look depressed, pissed off or aggressive. He looked very much alive and peaceful, like more peaceful and alive than I felt that night. So something very big and mysterious was going on here more than just his back. The fruit of the miracle to me is that he went from suicide to singing songs and inviting me into his life. I was part of what I want to see in the world. I want to see mystery. I want to see resurrection. I want to see dead people come to life, and that I got to be part of that, for me, made me realize this is what I wanted to do - I mean, something that brought me life. It's beautiful.
That was the last time I saw Edgar. I asked for him two weeks later at the front desk. And the officers told me Mr. Lopez was no longer in their custody. I became more and more of a chaplain there. Music became a bigger part in one-on-one visitations. More and more guys started, like, kind of sharing their wraps and just sing them a cappella and forcing me to sing. Several years there - I'd say three - there was this guy named Javier. He had just gotten out of prison. He landed in a good place, and he wanted to rap about it. So he wanted to get down on a track and add some of my harmonies and classical guitar riffs. So I go up to his house, and so, while Javier was sitting up the mic, I said, did I ever tell you the story of that guy who tried to hang himself in county jail years ago, the guy who survived the fall? It was Edgar Lopez, I'm pretty sure. You ever heard of him? And Javier says, 'course, man. I turned to him. I'm surprised. I'm excited. Maybe I can find this guy and catch up with him. But Javier said, no. He's in Mexico. They deported him a long time ago, probably right after you saw him, Chris. He waited for me to say something more. I was shocked. He says you're asking me because you saw him in the news recently, right? News? Yeah. He got caught up with the cartels down there in Tijuana. I mean, he killed something, like, 14 people.
No. I told Javier we're probably talking about different people. The young man I was thinking of would hurt himself long before going after someone else, let alone 14. That is probably a common name, too, in a big city like Tijuana. No, Javier said. I know the guy you're talking about. Edgar. I grew up with him. I know that guy, man. This is a small town. No. Like, this is not the conclusion to the story. That I would like to celebrate and remember as kind of one of my favorite stories of this as I became a chaplain. This guy's a killer now?
So I go home and sure enough, I put in his name. I type it in. And it had been in four or five Mexican periodicals for several days. On the first click, Edgar's face just filled the screen. And he was handcuffed. And in all the pictures were from him being at a big press conference. And they're shoving those microphones in his face. Fourteen people? Why did you kill them? And his response was something like (speaking Spanish). Like, I killed them like that just for the pleasure of it. And he used the word pleasure, gusto, the same word he used for when he hit bottom - that kind of ecstasy and epiphany and kind of resurrection, beauty, new life. Now he's using - it just felt so creepy. And my guts just went cold.
Yeah, I mean, did this invalidate everything? So I remembered I went to the jail that night. Everything felt different. I waited between the automated doors at the entry bay with my guitar, and the guitar felt stupid. It felt cumbersome in my hands. It made me maybe kind of cynical about these moments that I thought were beautiful there in the jail, that maybe those aren't really transformative at all. What good does it do? They're just going - if they get out, might become a killer.
The more I kept being troubled by the story keeping me up late at night, he didn't just get released the next day and decide to kill people. The Department of Homeland Security came for him. And they shackled him up, and they flew him south. And they dumped them on the other side of the border, where he was immediately scooped up by the cartels. And he was put to work. His hands were put to work by the economy there. And so I think my shame and my questioning of what I did and just if this was foolish really brought me back to a conviction that there was something, I think, maybe holy that happened in the cell that night that was real and that was beautiful, but it was so fragile. You can't take something like that and throw it into a kind of an economic wasteland. But I felt that might have killed my romanticism. If something wonderful happens in jail then that's the end of the story, but it's not.
WASHINGTON: Chris Hoke is trying to continue his own story by opening a farm where prisoners can have a safe place to transition back into their communities. He has a book coming up next year called "Wanted: A Spiritual Pursuit Through Jail, Among Outlaws, And Across Borders." That piece, it was produced by Stephanie Foo.
You're listening to SNAP JUDGMENT. And up next, how long should you pay for a mistake? When SNAP JUDGMENT, the "Identity Crisis" episode continues. Stay tuned. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.