I am amazed at the grace I received
Grace that brought glory days I had perceived
Alternatively still, my faith had grown
On words I had known
Still I toil from morn to morn
To love myself and those that mourn
For grace persist to right my wrongs
The love I’ve lived, the bad or worse
I amazed at the grace I received
The love of Christ that propelled it
To drown the hurt, the pain, my cross
And lift me up from dawn to dusk
The nasty alarm clock shattered Jide Jackson’s dream. His hand slammed the dingy metal bells, shushing it. I should be the one to wake you, he thought. Dragging his body, he swung his legs off the hard bed and slipped his feet into his slippers. The old ones Sweet Ma got him from Shoprite. He sat on his bed, phone in hand, and watched the red light blink before flipping it over. Weeks away from technology had purged him of the need for it. The aroma of breakfast caressed the air. It was good to be back home. Yet JJ remained unhappy.
Harmattan draft blew in from his right. His brows knit together in a frown. He had shut the window last night. He walked up to it and saw it was closed, but a slight crack on the glass led to a break, which allowed air flow through. Just like his life. Just like his relationship with Leah. Just like his friendship with Emeka – should have, could have been solid. But little cracks allowed air to shatter them. Had he always been this selfish in life? He wanted Leah but when she needed him the most, he bailed because he could not handle it. And he did it without so much as a thought for her. He alone had chosen to help Emeka – but now that he thought about it, he had done it half-heartedly. He alone wanted redemption; revenge for the slain, when all they asked for was a big fat nothing. He alone had run away from home on his personal quest of self-discovery. Without so much as a goodbye to the ones who had loved him like their own from time immemorial. He, JJ, he alone was selfish.
He walked into the bathroom – his bedroom being en-suite – and turned on the water heater. It made a whizzing noise, which sadly, reminded him of Emeka. JJ scowled at the heater. Why won’t you boil in silence? He decided not to stand around waiting for the water to turn steam. Turning away, he headed downstairs for a light breakfast. JJ walked the vast corridor that led from bedroom to staircase to kitchen. Family portraits suffocated both sides of the pale walls. The various sized picture frames were arranged as though by an exuberant child. It flooded JJ with memories as he walked past, returning a straight face to the many smiling faces. He got to the landing and paused, neck to neck with a portrait that rivaled the wall’s length. A portrait of him. An unsmiling Jide Jackson. The frame was trimmed with polished mahogany wood, speckled with silver dust. In it, he wore a graduation gown and held a certificate jacket. JJ hurried past it, down the stairs. Like many things in his life, the picture was a lie.
Big Pa saw him first. JJ straightened his back and walked taller. Big Pa had served in the military. Stories told suggested he was part of a special elite team trained by the US Marines. Everyone in the house walked straight, worked out and did any other thing Big Pa called ‘a necessity of life’. JJ bowed and offered a greeting. Big Pa acknowledged with a nod and set down his newspaper. He pointed at a seat and JJ sat. Sweet Ma breezed in with a hum and began laying a stool in front of both JJ and Big Pa. Minutes later, the stool occupied by a tray laden with a big bowl of amala, gbegiri and ewedu. A separate bowl contained condiments like edufe, shaki, kpomo and liver.
“Sweet Ma. Amala for breakfast ke.” JJ asked as he washed his hand with eagerness. He had missed this. The nursery rhyme filtered through his mind, East, West, Home is Best.
“Yes oh. There’s even more to come.” Sweet Ma replied.
Big Pa kept mute, focusing on rolling the amala bolus into sizeable balls before dunking in his mouth. JJ kept chatting with Sweet Ma while stealing glances at Big Pa.
“Ah, do you know that Gbemi is back?”
“You don’t say. Gbem Gbem. When? She’s still in the neighborhood?” JJ asked.
“Yes oh. You know what that means huh? Speaking of the neighborhood. JJ, there was a riot the other day. Some boys fought the police, almost to a standstill oh. They say some of the boys died. I just hope their lives with right with our Maker.”
JJ forced himself not to freeze up. Shock reverberated through his body. He had been out of the game so it should not concern him but still, it felt personal.
“Someone told us you died in the fray.”
Apart from the soothing words Big Pa had said when JJ felt into his arms the night before; he had not said anything else. JJ’s heart skipped a beat, not because Big Pa had spoken at all, but because the import of the words hit home – bull’s eye.
“You worried us, son.”
JJ hung his head.
“We told them, no body no death.” Big Pa continued.
“What…what if… I never returned.”
“Well son, we would have believed to our graves.”
As though on cue, the power went out, killing all sound. They all sat still, amala drying on their hands. The fan blades overhead slowed their spin, whirling slower and slower until no more. An unhealthy silence enveloped the trio. JJ fixed his eyes on the carvings on the stool, acutely aware his father’s gaze was on him.
“Why? Why do you love me so much when I’m not your son?” Sweet Ma gave an audible gasp. “Why do you care what I do? I’ve done terrible things. Big Pa.” JJ raised his head. His jaws clenched, his eyes glistening with threatening tears. His voice shook as he spoke words laden with emotions. “You are a freaking pastor. Senior Pastor at that. I am dirty. An arms dealer. A gang leader. A murderer. A terrorist. Why do you care? Am I your project? Am I? Your freaking project? Do you stand on your pulpit and use me as an example of how you can do what your Jesus did? Take people in?”
JJ fell silent, breathing hard. He rounded on Sweet Ma, his anger ebbing away. “Sweet Ma,” his voice was soft, “I’m not your son. You didn’t give birth to me. Don’t worry, I’ve always known. I never had amnesia. I was in shock when the doctor asked me questions. I responded like a human – some right, some wrong – he assumed it was amnesia. I just went with it. I built my life of lies since then. Now I’m a bag of lies. No real friends. The few I just made, few who don’t know or care about my past, I’ve ruined my relationship with them. I’m not your son Sweet Ma. I’m sorry. I’m a failure.”
JJ had been hit several times in the past. His last big gang fight had been against Mukulu the Mighty. He remembered the fight as though it happened yesterday. Mukluk had been tough, punching him in several vital spots. JJ had triumphed, simply because he was tougher. The beatings had always hurt. But were never severe. Never as painful as the slap Sweet Ma just gave him.
Sweet Ma was on her feet, towering over JJ. Her hand had obeyed her heart and palmed across his face. It came away, leaving some amala particles strewn haphazardly across his unshaven shrubs.
“Shut. Up.” She hissed.
JJ looked at her, his mouth open in shock. He looked at Big Pa who wore an expressionless face.
“I said. Shut up Jide Jackson.”
“Jide.” Big Pa seldom used his name. “I want to tell you a story. After which I’ll say one or two things. And then you’ll make your decision whether to remain under my roof. You will always be in our hearts, but we don’t need to share the same bowl. Now my story. There was a man who had two sons. One day one of them came to him and demanded his share of the inheritance. This was obnoxious. The boy was neither old enough to handle himself, nor was he in a position to eat the inheritance at that time. What do you suppose the father did? He obliged and gave the boy the inheritance, which the boy took and left immediately. Did the father do wrong? Maybe. Could he have taken a different approach? Made a different move? Maybe. But bottom-line, the father consented.
“Day by day. Night by night. The father’s heart bled. He kept wondering if indeed he made the right decision. He pondered deep into the night, thinking of what could have been. His hair thinned, his hairline receded because he kept speculating what his son might be up to. Money, like talent and skills, is a poor master. Left untamed, it can lead the unsuspecting away. Then one day, one of the many days the father stared into the distance to see if in his lifetime he would be granted the rare gift of seeing his son. One day, one of the many days the father hoped against hope that his son would heed a heart call and return home. One day JJ, the father saw the son in the distance. What do you suppose the father did?”
JJ kept quiet for a few minutes. “I don’t know.”
“He ran to him.”
“Yes JJ, ran. You don’t believe.”
“It’s your story. Just that the boy should be taught a lesson, not welcome with open arms.” JJ replied.
“But that what the grace of God is all about JJ. Receiving what you don’t deserve. Getting what you don’t merit. When you disobey orders willy-nilly, do what you like, mess up and hit ground zero, judgment will say ‘pounce on him’, but grace will say ‘welcome him, heal his broken spirit and tell him to offend no more’.”
“JJ we love you,” Sweet Ma cut in, “and it’s of no consequence whether or not you are our biological son. We have known of your activities for a long time. Our prayers have been with you since you were a boy. You have always been in a far-away place. When we couldn’t touch you, we asked God to. JJ, you came home. On your own. Broken. God has been speaking. Have you been listening?”
“Sometimes, it’s at the end of ourselves that we find His loving grace.”
JJ stared at them both, surprised. Had God been speaking? That was not possible. He had…
The realization hit JJ like a meteor. He gasped as memories of his camp experience flooded him. He had run to the camp to escape himself, to gain redemption. Instead, he had fallen flat on his back. All his plans had failed; all his charms and charisma had failed him. He hit rock bottom in a matter of weeks. JJ realized he had gotten to the end of himself.
“I…I…yes.” He managed. “He…God has been speaking. But…I don’t understand. When people say God spoke, isn’t it through an audible voice or something?”
“Son, God will do what He wants. He speaks predominantly through His word. But to you who will not read, he’ll show forth in your life through other means. Most times through the situations and circumstances.”
“He has been speaking? To me? Big Pa, why would God speak to me? Why will He speak to me at all? Big Pa no. No. No. I don’t want Him to speak. I have wronged Him Big Pa. I have killed. With my hands and through my actions. I am a murderer Big Pa. I am unclean. I…”
“Then come and be redeemed in Him, JJ.”
That word again. JJ placed his head between his hands, sobbing.
“Big Pa. Sweet Ma. I am unclean. I don’t deserve…”
“No, you don’t honey.” Sweet Ma said. “No one does. We are not deserving. But JJ, that’s what makes Him so unique, so awesome, so sweet, so special. JJ, it’s because He knows you’ll never be deserving that He decided to do something big for you. He knows everything. He knows that the works of your hands, your atrocities and your attempts at redemption would be feeble attempts to connect you with His love. So JJ, He sent His son, the only son He had, to take up your atrocities, your shame and best of all JJ, your deserved judgment. Now because Jesus died for you, it doesn’t matter who you killed. Because Jesus shed his blood for you, you are clean through him and can go see the Father.”
Sweet Ma’s voice had trickled to a whisper. Her hand patted JJ’s shoulder as it quavered. His large sniffs and occasional whimper filled the room. After several minutes, JJ said, “I can be clean through him and receive redemption. How?”
“JJ. You have to confess with your mouth what you believe in your heart. I’ll lead you to pray a simple prayer of salvation, of total surrender to Him. My words don’t save you JJ, it’s your faith that works to tap into the grace of salvation He has provided. Are you ready?”
“Repeat after me. Lord Jesus. Thank you. Thank you for reaching out to me. Not just now, but those many thousand years ago when you died for my atrocities. I confess my sins. I believe you are the son of God. I accept you, Jesus. I accept you in my heart. I accept you in my life. In Jesus name, I pray. Amen.”
ONE WEEK LATER
“Sweet Ma that’s enough.” JJ protested. “It’s not like I’m going to stop and snack while riding. Besides the rule book says no food or even bikes on the premises.”
“Rubbish. One more. The Pringles is at the back of your Bible. Be safe JJ.”
“I will Sweet Ma. Bye, Big Pa.”
The man let out a grunt. JJ revved his bike, paused to wave, and darted into the sunny day. He felt light on Bessy. The wind fell like paper bullets against his leather-clad body. He took a bend and was out of his parents’ sight. His parents. He could call them that without any holdbacks. A huge weight had been lifted from his shoulders. Awon Boys were not too happy to hear about the call off. They had indeed threatened him when he told them he had chosen to give his life to Christ. Jesus Dog was his new street name. Though said in the derogative parlance, it gave JJ a weird sense of identity and belonging.
Earlier in the day, he went with Big Pa and Sweet Ma to their church. The smiles on their faces, the joy exuding from their persons, was proof enough to him that this was the right move. If he had known they could be this happy he would have given his life to Christ a long time ago. Or was this the perfect time for him? The time where he would most appreciate this gift? He sped on.
Leah Abba beckoned on him.
He could not wait to share the good news with her. She would be beside herself with joy. Even Emeka. Well, after he went on his knees and begged for forgiveness. Strangely, the thought did not fill him with dread. His one hope was that Emeka would not goad him too much. Jesus saved his heart, but JJ was not sure of his hands.
This time, on getting to the camp, he rode straight to the park where he met the old man.
“I never appreciated you for what you did for me,” JJ said.
“Oh, never you mind my boy.”
“What can I do for you old man?”
The old man chuckled. “When you are my age boy, all you wish is for someone to think of you.”
With that, the old man pushed the bike into the shed and locked the door. JJ stood still, staring after him, making a decision in his heart.
The camp was the same way JJ had left it – a mix between drab and light. He glanced at his watch and knew it was time Faith Time. Feeling giddy, JJ raced to the hall and all but ran inside. The campers all looked surprised to see him. A few heads bent together to whisper and gossip. JJ scanned the room in a matter of seconds. Everyone looked familiar. Everyone looked back at him. Everyone, except the one he longed to see.
“What are you doing here?” a voice accosted him.
JJ turned towards Ter and smirked. He really didn’t like Ter, Jesus or no. “Where’s Leah?” he asked.
“What business do you have with her? After what you did you still have the impetus to show your face here?”
“What I did?”
“Don’t play dumb. You got what you wanted, didn’t you? Everyone connected with you got hurt one way or the other and what did you do? You went away. As easy as the leaf falls to the ground. No conscience whatsoever. You are despicable.”
Ter had come toe to toe with JJ.
“Listen Ter, I don’t have time for…” JJ began.
“They took her JJ. Are you happy now? They took her.”
“They took her? What do you…no…you don’t mean? They?”
Ter only nodded. For a brief moment, staring into each other’s eyes, they found solidarity. They who had shared similar struggles, fought similar battles.
“I’m sorry Ter. For a lot of things but this…I…I love Leah man. You know it. You see it. I know you do because you love her too. We might resent each other but help me this once. Get me into the clinic.”
“No one is going anywhere, Jide Jackson.”
JJ wheeled and saw Dr. Sulo standing with two faculty members on each side. He immediately sensed trouble.
JJ had seen Dr. Sulo as a professional, a vulnerable woman, and a sexy cougar, but this was his first glimpse of her as an angry mother.
“Listen Dr, I want to see Leah and apologize to her. You know how…”
“No JJ. You will not hurt Leah Abba again.”
“Why does everyone keep saying that? I don’t plan to hurt her. I just want to see her.”
Dr. Sulo considered JJ for a while, then a little softer she said, “She is currently recuperating – at The Clinic.”
“Ter just mentioned,” JJ said.
“Good then. Gentlemen,” Dr. Sulo nodded looked to her sides, “please escort Mr. Jackson off the premises. Our wards come here to get healing. Some, unfortunately, go over the edge and worsen. If one of us makes that happen, then that one deserves no part of us. Jide Jackson, you are hereby expelled from the Abubakar Circle Centre. By the way JJ, she doesn’t want to see you – you are the reason she is in there, she says.”
Jide Jackson didn’t even struggle as the men led him away.