I wasn’t prepared for the emotions that would accompany the arrival of Joshua Smith to a small courtroom on the fifth floor of Detroit’s 36th District Court.
I’m a journalist, galvanized by years of covering the extraordinary, gaining access. Earlier in the week, I had driven hundreds of miles crisscrossing Kentucky in pursuit of people who lost loved ones in a tornado, and seeking to observe the brokenhearted as they began to cope with the idea of rebuilding destroyed homes or gutted businesses. One guy told me about finding his neighbors huddled in the kitchen after the storm, dead. Another woman told me about the death of her parents, and the plan to bury them in the backyard. Can’t let this stuff get to me.
A few mornings later, a couple hours before Joshua Smith shuffled into the courtroom, a pair of 15 year olds were standing before a judge on several counts of carjacking and attempted murder. They’d shot a 6-year-old with an AK-47. I barely blinked as they stood there hearing their charges. Like many of my subjects, these guys had made their own bed and I was just there to document the downward spiral.
But Joshua Smith broke my heart. He is a beautiful boy, with long eyelashes and soft dark skin, seemingly unscathed from the yoke of Detroit. But signs of a burden were emerging, making him look older than he was. Sleep had obviously been evading him, and his eyes seemed exhausted from having to negotiate the need to cry and the desire to remain angry. Fourteen years old, he confessed to taking a shotgun out of his stepdad’s office, walking down the steps early one morning, and pumping several bullets into his mother’s head. Tired of the name calling. Tired of the disrespect. Tired.
He sat in silence as his stepfather recounted that horrible night. After hearing gunshots at about 1 a.m. while laying in bed next to his five year old daughter and hearing his fiancé — Joseph’s mother — scream “no Joshua,” Chika Lewis ran into the living room and slipped in a pool of blood. Tamiko was lying there, eyeball hanging out of its socket, gasping for air. At this point in the testimony, Chika began to cry and the courtroom became a very uncomfortable place to be. Any hatred that the dozen or so people in the courtroom carried in with them was now firmly placed upon Joshua’s shoulders. He had pointed a shotgun at his sick mother and pulled the trigger, probably more than ten times. Then he ran from the house, hopped in Tamiko’s car and threw the gun out at an ice cream shop near his house.
Hours later, he confessed to police. He told them his mother had told him he’d never amount to anything. End up like his deadbeat father. Get fat. The media had earlier reported his mother also tried to block Joshua from entering the gang culture that is so prevalent in Detroit. The same gang culture that steals girl’s virginity sometimes before they are teenagers and incentives children like Joshua to distribute drugs. The same gangs that become families to kids with no other view than the view from the rubble and hopelessness that surrounds them.
Joshua will never leave prison, if the prosecutor’s plans stick. He’ll die there at some point, with his last moments of freedom being standing in his living room with shoes soaked in his mother’s blood. He deserves this fate, I am sure. He made his bed, I am documenting the downward spiral.
But the next day, driving home and listening to the radio, the sports talk geniuses decided to veer off course and discuss Joshua Smith. Men called in demanding his life. Should he be tried as an adult? Should he be locked up without parole? Should he have his head blown off with a shotgun at point blank range? Yes, yes and yes. For the first time in my life, I was tempted to call in to a radio program and spout my thoughts.
I didn’t want to tell the audience that I was in the courtroom. I didn’t want to correct the record or give more of the story. I wanted to tell these listeners about the stories I’d been hearing. The story of a boy who showed up to a class recently and his teacher asked him all day to sit down. The boy finally responded and told her he couldn’t because he had been prostituting himself out in order to put food on the table. A child, ninth grade, asked to father the fatherless. Tell them about the girl that this same teacher caught in the restroom trying to abort her baby with a tool similar to tweezers. Tell them about the kid who built a playground in his basement so that his little sister could avoid ever stepping foot outside the four walls of their safe house. Avoiding the streets of his own neighborhood.
These stories don’t justify Joshua Smith’s actions. But they affected me in a profound and indescribable way. Somehow, I looked through this kid’s tormented eyes and saw the currency of hate and the economy of injustice he was forced to abide by.
On Sunday, a few days after my encounter with Smith in that courtroom, a good friend of mine — James Grace — gave a meditation at Holy Redeemer about Jesus clearing the temple of moneychangers. Sunday school had taught me that Jesus was just upset that his father’s house had been changed to a flea market where pigs, horses, puppies and frogs could be purchased. Sort of an ancient QVC for livestock junkies. Of course, Jesus was offended…only problem: it turns out Sunday school got it kind of wrong.
Jesus was targeting the inequity of bankers who sought to exploit the poor. Hundreds of thousands of Jews would descend on Jerusalem to observe the Passover feast. In order to do this, they would need to make some transactions. Roman coinage needed to be exchanged for temple currency so the temple tax could be paid. Unclean animals needed to be exchanged for clean ones. Poor people were required to pay just as much as the rich. A day’s wages for the typical blue-collar worker. The moneychangers drove up the cost of all of this by charging obscene fees. If a person couldn’t pay, something would be taken as collateral — a coat, for instance.
This is what really struck me about James Grace’s message:
“They would come to offer their sacrifices whether it was a bull of a goat or a lamb or a dove. Now the problem was that the system was also continually unfair to the poor because the poorest of sacrifices that could be made in the temple was the sacrifice of a dove. And a dove — remember all these people are traveling from all over Israel in these ancient times and it was nearly impossible to bring a dove with you from wherever you came from. So you’re almost forced to buy doves once you got into Jerusalem. The way they’d set it up was the only place you could buy doves during passover was in the temple. One source I looked at said the price of doves during passovers was increased 20 times what it was outside the feast of Passover…you’re the poorest of poor in all of Israel and the price of doves are jacked up 20 times.”
So, what does the price of a dove have to do with Joshua Smith?
It has to do with this. When we hear this story about the doves, we are outraged. Poor people should get a decent bargain on a bird so they can worship without the weight of bankruptcy in their back pocket. This smacks of injustice and we root Jesus on as he beats the hell out of these corrupt and greedy merchants. But this loathing for injustice has no business in our souls if we are not approaching the least of us with the same degree of concern. My friend Matt always asks me how all this theological mumbo jumbo that I spew on a regular basis actually applies to daily life. Associating the battle fought by the poorest in Jerusalem with the lad in the Motor City is my answer to him.
I didn’t come up with this on my own. It was Joshua’s uncle, Leshaun Roberts, who taught me this lesson.
The climax of our time in the courtroom last week was the point where Judge David Robinson Jr. (whose only words to Joshua that day were “sit down young man”) decided whether he would let the case proceed with Joshua Smith being tried as an adult for first degree murder. When Robinson said the case should proceed up the chain, Roberts clapped. Outside the court, about 15 minutes later, Roberts was standing there with a white stocking cap on and white-rimmed sunglasses. I asked him, “why did you clap?”
“My nephew needs help,” he said. “Maybe this is the only way he can get it.” Roberts said that he was angry at the boy who killed his sister, but also loved him. He. Loved. Him.
Reporters are not supposed to feel similar emotions regarding those we cover. After all, we aren’t the uncle, brother or stepdad. My heart should be indifferent and, in fact, no one would judge me if my heart turned cold for a boy like Joshua Smith. But somewhere between Leshaun’s little sermon outside the courtroom and the dial-a-comments on sports radio, my heart was invaded by an uncommon brand of love for a violent boy who — regardless of his sin/crime/offense — represents in truest form, the least of us.
As we round the corner into the final weeks of Lent, I do wonder if we live in a place not all that dissimilar than the temple gates where the moneychangers ripped off the poor and the few who actually longed for true justice were outraged to the point of demonstration — where our demand for retribution and punishment blind us from the plight of those with so much less than what we have. Have we so grossly jacked up the price of a dove that forgiveness is unattainable, love is unattainable, empathy is unattainable? And in the process, blocked the path to Christ that blankets all our transgressions with grace.
John Stoll lives in Birminghan and is 34 year old writer and editor with Reuters, covering manufacturing and other midwest issues — such as the decline of Detroit and its struggle to rebuild. He also teaches journalism at Oakland University in Rochester.