carter-and-vanalstine-300x332Last week I finally watched the 1999 movie “The Hurricane,” starring Denzel Washington, as the boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. I’m not a crier, but this movie made me cry. A film about a boxer, a triple-murder and long days and nights in a prison cell — that’s what made me cry? Let me explain.

I was born in Paterson General Hospital. Rubin Carter was born just six months after me, and he spent all his childhood years in Paterson. As far as I can tell, we lived about three miles apart. But between us flowed the Passaic River. On my side of the bridge, the Hawthorne side, no Black families lived. Just across the bridge was Paterson’s major concentration of Black residents, and this is where Rubin Carter grew up. I doubt if any community in the South was more segregated than that.

During his elementary school days, Rubin Carter couldn’t stay out of trouble, and at the age of 12, he was sent to a reform school because of a serious assault. When he was 17, he escaped and joined the Army. It was while he was stationed in Germany that he learned to box, and it quickly became clear that he was a natural. When he left the Army and returned to his old home town, he started to box professionally. Unfortunately, he also hung with the wrong crowd at night, had several scrapes with the law and spent some time in jail. But his boxing bailed him out. He won fight after fight, many by knockout. His overall record was 27 wins, 12 losses and 1 draw. He had some notable wins and even fought (unsuccessfully) for the middleweight championship in 1964.

The movie begins with the events of the night of June 17, 1966. Three people were killed in a Bar and Grill on the corner of Lafayette Street and East 18th Street in Paterson (a couple of blocks from where my uncle operated a hardware store). Later that night, Rubin Carter and his friend were picked up and charged with the murders. Based on the testimonies of two “eye witnesses,” who a decade later admitted they were lying and may have been involved in the shooting themselves, Carter was found guilty and sentenced to two life terms. He always maintained his innocence, and after twenty long years, a lot of correspondence with supporters on the outside, a popular song written about him by Bob Dylan, and a handful of people who wouldn’t give up fighting for him, he was finally exonerated and freed. Carter lived out his days in Ottawa, Canada, writing about his experiences, speaking before youth groups and civic associations and fighting for the release of others who had been wrongly convicted and imprisoned. He died just a year ago.

As I entered into the film’s portrayal of Rubin Carter’s early years, I thought about what I was experiencing during the same time. My calm, secure, middle class, church-dominated family life was so different from his journey. And to think, we were just separated by three miles, and the Passaic River, and the color of our skin. That thought made me cry.

But there was something else. Our church was strong on outreach and evangelism. We sent missionaries to the center of Africa — and to the center of Paterson. My Sunday School teacher, Johnny Roe, took his class of high-school-age young men on evangelistic outings; everything from hanging gospel tracts on the front doors of houses to singing, witnessing and preaching in rescue missions.*

One Saturday night, when I was about 15, he took a group of us to the heart of one of Paterson’s most disadvantaged Black neighborhoods — I’m imagining it might have been where Rubin Carter lived. We were scared little white boys in a foreign country. We huddled together on a street corner and sang a couple of hymns. A group of people gathered around. Johnny told them that we were there to tell them about Jesus. (How were we to know most of them had probably been in church the previous Sunday, were able to quote Bible verses and could sing circles around us? We saw them as pagans.) Then Johnny asked me to “give my testimony.” I’m sure my knees were shaking as I said some things about how Jesus helped me in high school.

Suddenly, a man interrupted me. He was about 45, short and well-built. I don’t remember what he said, but have a clear picture of how twisted his face was with anger. I didn’t understand it; we were just trying to tell them that Jesus loves them. Now I know more about that look, the expression of generations of pent up rage over the constant reminders of racial inequities people of color have to endure in America. I was a young kid from Hawthorne ignorantly bringing a message of spiritual superiority to the streets of Paterson.

Before the angry man had a chance to get out more than a sentence or two, a rather large woman walked over to him, said sternly “Bill!” grabbed his shoulder and marched him away from our gathering.

So, this is the greater reason the movie made me cry. I lived so close to these people on the other side of the river, but my mind was so far from understanding what life was like for them, and my heart was so far from loving them. That’s what racism is.

I hope to meet Bill someday so that I can apologize to him. I hope that he came to know Jesus as his personal Savior, in spite of my witnessing.

— Pastor George Van Alstine

*As I remember it, I preached my first sermon at the age of 17 at God’s Lighthouse Mission in lower Manhattan, NYC. My text was John 14. God bless Johnny Roe for helping us take our faith seriously.