Column: Thief asks victim for forgiveness
By Mitch Albom
DETROIT — For 33 years, he had carried the regret, an apology never delivered, an anchor on his heart. Ray Anderson would see his victim sometimes, in the news, occasionally on television. Once or twice, they were even in the same room.
But he never confessed.
Now it was time.
A meeting had been arranged. Anderson, once a wiry point guard for Mumford High’s basketball team, wore a vest and a sports jacket over his now stocky frame, an anxious look on his 53-year-old face. He walked gingerly through the austere chambers of Judge Damon Keith this past week
Anderson glanced at the walls, hundreds of photos of the judge side by side with everyone from Nelson Mandela to John F. Kennedy. Law books. Proclamations. A commemorative gavel. It was a place of justice, which was fitting, because a small act of justice was about to take place.
Anderson was introduced to the 91-year-old Keith, now white-haired and slightly stooped, wearing a sweater. The two men sat down across a large table. Keith had no idea why Anderson was there.
Anderson cleared his throat.
“I know you don’t remember me,” he began, “but I grew up with your daughter, Gilda.”
Keith’s eyes widened.
“We went to the same elementary school. I came to your house many times for birthday parties. The house on Outer Drive?”
Keith nodded slowly.
“My father was into drugs. My stepfather was a numbers runner. My mother was a heavy partier when I was young, and I came from that culture. ...
“I was an athlete in high school. I was even offered a scholarship to play basketball for a small college. But I started using cocaine. I was really involved in that drug culture — selling, using, freebasing cocaine, mostly.”
Keith silently kept his gaze.
“So ... there was an incident, in 1980 ... um ... that me and one of my friends ... broke into your house.”
Keith, who uses a hearing aide, leaned forward. “You broke into my ...?”
“We broke into your house.”
Imagine a guilt that has burrowed inside you. Imagine a life that you have tried to leave behind, but one hook will not let you snap free.
Ray Anderson was born into a drug world. He said his mother came home when he was 3 years old to see him holding a playing card up to his nose, mimicking his father snorting heroin. He said she grabbed him and left the house that day, never to return.
But she led a party life, too, Anderson recalled. So she couldn’t save him. And school couldn’t save him. And basketball couldn’t save him. As a 19-year-old addict, needing money to support his habit, Anderson scouted the house of his childhood friend, the judge’s daughter, because, as he would confess to Keith, “we thought you would have a lot of stuff that we could sell.”
One weekday morning, they broke in through the basement. No one was home. Among the items Anderson stole that day and would pawn for drugs — TV sets, jewelry — was a watch, commemorating Keith’s graduation from Howard Law School.
“It had an inscription,” Anderson said now, his voice unsteady. “I always felt terribly bad about that.”
It was the watch, for some reason, that rattled his soul. He would see the face of it and almost hear the ticking of his conscience. Months passed. He said he was run out of Detroit by people who wanted to kill him. He said he fled to California, continued his drug dealing and usage, and hit rock bottom with a suicide attempt about five years after the break-in and robbery, a crime for which he was never charged.
“I remember that day now,” Keith told Anderson. “The police called me and said someone had broken into our home. I remember feeling mostly concerned for my wife and children.”
“I’m sorry,” Anderson said. “I asked the Lord to please give me the opportunity to seek your forgiveness.”
Keith leaned back. He smiled gently.
“You were forgiven,” he said, “before you ever came in.”
On the night he tried to kill himself, Anderson said, he swallowed a bottle of prescription pills, drank a fifth of liquor and waited to die. But before that could happen, he said, he heard a voice call him, “Son.” Then it added, “You’re not ready to die.”
Anderson was scared. Startled. But he said that when he heard it again, he dragged himself off the floor, out the door and walked nearly a mile to a hospital in Long Beach to have his stomach pumped.
Today, 27 years after he “gave my life to the Lord,” Anderson and his wife, Toni, live simply in Waterford and serve as full-time pastors at the House of Help, a small church and community center in northwest Detroit. He has endured the murder of his younger brother by that brother’s best friend and learned to forgive the killer. He has endured a rival who went to prison after shooting at him and who emerged 30 years later seeking forgiveness. He has endured a failed marriage and learned to love and marry again.
But the timepiece he stole from Damon Keith, his friend’s father whom he respected as a child, would not leave his brain, ticking until redemption could be found. For years, he read about Keith, saw him honored as one of the nation’s most prominent justices, even attended a recent charity tribute that saluted the senior justice for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.
It was there Anderson vowed to meet the man, and finally say what had been churning for decades.
“Judge, if you remember the inscription on that watch, I would like to get it replaced for you.”
Keith smiled again and exhaled softly. “I don’t remember.”
Anderson seemed disappointed, as if his penance had fallen short. But Keith added this: “It doesn’t matter. It’s amazing that you would come to tell me this after all this time.
“This is Christmas season. There is no way I would ever hold anything against you. ... I feel as if something has been lifted off of me as well, because all these years, that was the only time we have ever been robbed, and I always wondered why.”
He stood up. “So you’ve done something for me, Ray. And you’ve made my life better. You made my day.”
The two men shook hands, a federal judge and a reformed drug dealer turned pastor. They embraced lightly. And finally it was Anderson’s turn to smile. You could see his body straighten as a 33-year-old shadow disappeared in the light. Winter is here and the year grows late, but it is never too late to ask forgiveness, and never too late to discover you already had it.
Mitch Albom is a Detroit Free Press columnist.