A Second Chance for Otis MAG

September 12, 2010
By Ben Harm BRONZE, Rice Lake, Wisconsin
Ben Harm BRONZE, Rice Lake, Wisconsin
2 articles 0 photos 0 comments

THUD … THUD … THUD. The sound of my iron crowbar smashing into the spongy, moldy sheetrock was echoed by similar sounds as other members of my church group joined in the destruction of the flood-damaged house. Rivulets of sweat coursed down my face, for July in Mississippi is considerably warmer than the Wisconsin summers I was accustomed to. I was grateful for the monotonous manual labor because it allowed my mind to ponder the previous day’s events.

His words reverberated in my mind, echoing more loudly in my subconscious than the rhythmic hammering in the near-empty house. “I shot him in the chest three times.”

Otis’s words had shocked everyone. A palpable tension instantly filled the air, and every member of our mission group stared at the tall African-American man before us, half expecting him to whip out a pistol.

Otis was the pastor of the church responsible for feeding and housing our group. His congregation loved him, and he was doing everything in his power to help people recover from Hurricane Katrina. When our group stepped off the bus onto Mississippi soil, Otis had immediately dispelled our concerns of racial tension in the deep South with his outgoing personality and ever-present smile. But he was not smiling now.

“I was sentenced to life in prison, and I deserved it. I had taken another man’s life and would repay that debt by rotting in a cell until the day I died. The Lord, however, had other plans for my wretched soul,” he continued.

As I climbed up into the attic and began knocking down the sagging ceiling, I contemplated why God would pardon this man of his despicable crime. Otis had killed a man in cold blood! Surely he should be punished! As I reminisced about the times I had broken the rules, bent the law, and lived to a less-than-honorable standard, I stopped questioning Otis’s slackened punishment. Was I any better? Didn’t everyone deserve the opportunity to right his or her wrongs?

His words replayed in my mind, challenging me to pass judgment on this man: “I deeply regretted my actions. I wanted to undue my horrendous deed but knew I could not, so I vowed that if I ever got out of prison, I would dedicate my life to helping others. God apparently liked this idea. After I had spent 13 years in prison, the governor of South Carolina chose me to be his personal chef. After I served 10 years in this position, considering my good behavior, the benevolent governor pardoned my crime. This highly unlikely string of events has now enabled me to fulfill my vow.”

I tiptoed along the bare trusses and viewed the destruction below. Insulation that had become damp and moldy from the flood adhered to every inch of my body. I did my best to ignore the ever-present urge to scratch at it.

As I recuperated in the shade, thoughts of Otis again flooded my mind. I wondered how seriously he was committed to his vow. My doubts began to melt away like ice cubes in the Mississippi heat as I thought about the families Otis had taken us to visit. The hurricane had annihilated their homes and ravaged their hopes and dreams, leaving them with almost nothing. Once prosperous families were forced to live in tents, and what few belongings they could salvage were stacked in piles. These people had every reason to be angry, but contented smiles adorned their faces. How could they still be happy?

The patriarch of one of these families described what Otis had done for them. This ex-con had taken them into his home for weeks. He and his wife had fed and clothed them and helped them find jobs. When the family was ready to get their life in order, Otis had helped them gather their possessions. He had even taken a collection in church so they had money for food.

My respect for Otis multiplied many times over when I realized that this was just one family out of the 40 Otis had supported. Even better, Otis had convinced our mission group to come to Mississippi to rebuild their homes. Through his church, Otis was dramatically improving the lives of so many in need.

“You seem to be deep in thought,” rumbled a gravelly voice that had appeared out of nowhere. I jumped and looked up to see Daryl, an elderly African-American man who was our electrician. “Your brow has more wrinkles in it than mine,” he commented. “What is troubling you?”

“I was just thinking about the testimony Otis gave last night. Is it all real? The whole thing sounds like a fairy tale. It’s almost too good to be true,” I asked.

“Son, I understand your reasons for questioning the authenticity of Otis’s story,” Daryl said. “Honestly, I don’t know if he has done time in prison. All I know is that this man has worked miracles in this town. Hurricane Katrina destroyed people’s lives, but he has healed many of those wounds. Regardless of his past, Otis deserves all the respect in the world.” I decided Daryl had just given me a precious nugget of wisdom.

A thunderous crash brought me back to the present. My companions had just ripped out the heavy cupboards above the sink. Eager to lend a hand, I grabbed my crowbar and started removing the rotting window frames. As I grappled with the heavy windows, the final words of Otis’s testimony rolled through my mind like the closing credits of a movie: “Every day I thank the Lord for giving me a new lease on life. I use this second chance to atone for my earlier mistakes in life and to discourage others from making the same ones. I learned my lesson.”

Otis might have learned his lesson, but I learned many lessons from him. He personifies forgiveness, charity, and kindness. Otis is living proof of God’s unfathomable forgiveness. This incredible man proved to me that a small group, regardless of race and culture, can work together to make the world a better place. I hope everyone discovers an Otis somewhere in this world.

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