“There’s this beach, and it’s just littered with starfish that had just washed up and there are starfish all across. And this guy is walking down and he sees that there’s this little girl whose taking the starfish and just throwing them back in the water. And he goes up to her and he says, ‘what are you…what are you doing?’ She says, ‘I’m throwing them back in the water.’ ‘But there’s so many. I don’t think…You can’t… You’re not going to be able to make a difference.’ the man says. And then the girl picks up a starfish and throws it in and says, ‘to that one I did’.”
I met and interviewed Michael Coleman in March earlier this year. Currently, Mr. Coleman works for Maryam Uloho at Sister Hearts Thrift Store in Arabi, Louisiana. Mr. Coleman was generous enough to share his story with me.
Michael Coleman is a starfish who found himself washed up on the shore of a beach. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do about it. You get wrapped up in the current of the ocean and are dragged out until you are stranded out in the sun with no means of returning home. You can try to help yourself, but the tide is low, and the path back to the ocean is long. The beach wants to keep the starfish stranded and helpless. The starfish would love nothing more than to be back in the ocean where it can once again be part of an ecosystem that it can contribute to. But the beach is relentless.
The journey back to the ocean is made all the more difficult when people see you lying there on the beach and look at you with disgust. When talking about his life after being released from prison for a non-violent drug charge, Mr. Coleman told me, “Some people would look at me like..…like i’m sh*t.” I’ve felt that feeling before. I’ve walked into a room and felt the oppressive gaze of judgement by people who didn’t know the first thing about me. I’m sure everyone has. Our society is sick. We look at starfish and blame them for being on our beaches and then resent them for taking up space that was meant for us.
According to pewtrusts.org there are 30,000 incarcerated peoples in Louisiana. In 2014, there were almost 3,500 people in prison in Louisiana for non-violent offenses. I’m not saying that these people don’t deserve some type of punishment for their wrongdoings. This story isn’t about the people who are in prison. This story is about how we treat those who have made mistakes. Mr. Coleman made a mistake, and then went and served time because of it. That should be the end but it isn’t.
“Whatever I had did back then I had went and paid I had my debt to society. Now, I’m trying to come out here and do the right thing, but I keep getting these doors slammed in my face…”
How can we justify treating people like this? Are we all so immaculate and righteous that we have gone our lives without making mistakes? Without deeply hurting others? “He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone,” (John 8). Or is it that we’re all so ashamed of who we are that instead of acting with generosity and compassion we instead degrade others in order to feel better about ourselves?
There’s one more aspect of Mr. Coleman’s life that I feel compelled to share:
Michael Coleman’s father walked out on him at the age of 7 or 8. When he spoke about his father, Mr. Coleman said, “He was a pretty good provider, but the thing about him…he kinda drank all the time and mom didn’t like that. I didn’t care too much for it neither because when he drank he would kinda get a little violent you know. And any little thing would just like tick him off. And once he’d get ticked off you know I would be uh…I would be his punching bag basically.”
Mr. Coleman told me that years later he had heard from his uncle that his dad had lost his job and was going to need to move into a shelter to avoid living on the street. Before I continue, I would like to say that I’ve never had someone treat me the way Mr. Coleman’s father treated him. To be beaten by and left by someone who was meant to provide and take care of you….I can’t even imagine how I would handle my relationship with that person. However, I can say with certainty that I would not be as generous and forgiving as Mr. Coleman:
“Well, dad well look. I have an extra room in here. Now you’re more than welcome to come and stay with me until you get on your feet…. You just make your way by me, you feel me? And you can lay there, you can stay in that other room there until you get on your feet.”
He housed his dad for two years. All the while Mr. Coleman was trying to make his way back into the ocean so to speak. Luckily, there exist people like Maryam Uloho who are willing to look at a starfish like Mr. Coleman and help him get back into the ocean. Mr. Coleman currently works for Miss. Mary at Sister Hearts Thrift Store.
We all make mistakes. We all in one way or another have broken some rule or wronged some person. In fact every person has likely broken an exceptional amount of rules and hurt a large number of people. We’re not perfect creatures. When I think of someone looking at Mr. Coleman “like he’s sh*t,” I get mad. Because how many of those people would take their father in for two years? My guess is not many considering their apparent lack of empathy and compassion.
There’s something wrong with our society. There are thousands upon thousands of people like Mr. Coleman who just want to be given their God given right to be respected as a fellow person. And we leave them out in the sun to burn.