“The thing that defines you the most is your next decision.”
That’s what Darren Ferguson said to me Sunday between services at the Mt. Carmel Baptist Church in Far Rockaway, Queens, NY, where Ferguson serves as pastor. It’s a long way from where we met, when I was teaching at Sing Sing prison, and Darren was an inmate.
While serving an 8 ½- 20 year bid for second degree attempted murder, Ferguson made some “next decisions.” He prayed for the first time, he became a Christian, he went back to school, earning his college degree and numerous certificates. He became a preacher. Today, he is a pastor, and also Project Coordinator of the Center for Diversity and Inclusion at LaGuardia Community College. He is working on his doctorate. So soon, you can call him Doctor, Bishop, Professor, Reverend, Pastor…but he chooses to be defined by his next decision.
How did he make the change?
“I went into prison as liability who thought he was an asset,” he says. “I was too addicted to know I was a liability. My daughter changed that.” He says. Knowing that he had a toddler at home who needed her daddy, he decided to make a change. While at Sing Sing he made a promise to his daughter to change.
“But people make promises to change all the time,” I responded. “How did you keep yours?”
“Fear,” Ferguson responded, rolling back in his chair. “First, I feared God. The Bible says that after you are delivered from your demons, that if you don’t replace you past actions with new decisions, the demons come back seven times worse. I ain’t want that.”
“Second, my daughter needed me, and I wanted my family to be proud of me.” Ferguson spoke of how his family’s support was a major part of his successful return to society. But then I asked about people who don’t have family support.
“Find something to motivate you, something you would fight for…after all you fought on the streets, so find something positive to fight for.” He went on to say that life is a fight in itself, and the fight of the streets is harder today than when he was out there 30 years ago. “There is still fast money out there, but no easy money,” he said. “It ain’t free flowing like it was back in the day. I remember going to dudes’ cribs and they’d pull out money in garbage bags, sorted into tens, twenties, fifties, hundreds…There’s still folk making money out there, but not on the streets like it used to be.”
It was almost time to go back in the sanctuary for the second service. The church was packed for the afternoon celebration, a recognition of Ferguson’s 52nd birthday…a long way from Sing Sing, yet close enough that several men who did bids with him are members of the church now. How does it feel- given his past, his imprisonment, the realization that his life caused pain and suffering- to be on this side of his life? “You are not your past,” he offers rehearsing a general mantra for all of us trying to start over. Then he makes it personal, “”I am greater than the sum of my parts.” That’s what helps us all make “the next decision.”