INDIANAPOLIS — Seated in the front row, Justin Weaver carefully folds and unfolds his hands over his King James Bible and his book of prayers. This Sunday, he is alone in the pew.
His girlfriend refuses to attend church now, and refuses to bring their 5-year-old daughter. She thinks it’s hypocritical to play the role of a saint Sunday mornings, only to sell drugs like a sinner at night.
This means he spends another week facing the congregation’s unspoken questions alone. He feels the weight of them without ever hearing a word.
How long will he be around this time?
Where is that girlfriend of his?
Is he dealing again?
The congregation of Greater Faith Community Church knows his struggle. They have
watched him grow into the man he is today, watched him fall in love, become a father, get locked up.
It’s October, and on this morning he is in character. He’s the deacon they have groomed him to be. He intertwines his fingers, a nervous habit, perfected by years of scrutiny from the congregation. He rests them over his Bible and reads a passage from his prayer book, lips moving silently.
“There is a veil of sinful blindness or darkness that is truth if we don’t know truth,” he reads. “We therefore cannot pursue the truth on our own, but only through God in Christ Jesus.
“However, on our own, with misguided minds, we think we are OK.”
Always glad to see their prodigal son return, the elders pat him on the back and shake his hand.
He has rolled more joints than he can count with these hands. He has cooked dope in the kitchen and counted the dirty money with them. He held his daughter, combed her hair, with these hands.
Today, he will pray with these hands and hope the changes he makes are enough.
He always keeps his hands in his lap when he speaks, weaving his fingers as though in prayer. His finger nails are always clipped and his skin is well maintained — they’re hands that don’t look like they belong to a man who speaks of his prison stints with such ease, who describes his addictions in terms of dollars and his arrest record without a hint of hesitation.
From his well-kept dreadlocks to his manicured fingernails, Justin seems like a put-together guy. His appearance is important, he says, as long as people are watching him.
Yet at 29, Weaver is facing one of the greatest challenges of his life — fatherhood. He is working to become the father he never had, the role model his daughter needs. His daughter, Justice, is only 5.
Every day he tries again to fit himself into those roles. But his record is dotted with misses.
As far as they can recall, Weaver was arrested for the first time when he was 13 for assaulting a police officer. He was arrested again at 15 and 18 for possession of an illicit substance. Since then, his adulthood has been peppered with arrests, near-arrests and stints in jail on charges drug related and otherwise.
The first time Weaver was arrested after Justice was born, she was 7 months old.
Some of her first conscious memories of him are from the other side of a computer screen, the method the county prison used to allow visitation. He missed most of her firsts, most of her birthdays.
He started college and dropped out. He went to church and become a deacon. He moved to Ohio and came back home.
It’s in Indianapolis, in his community, where the same things that sent him to prison are everywhere. The fast money, the friends pumping the streets with drugs. Getting his life on track is the most difficult challenge Justin has ever had to face.
“It’s tough trying to change from everything that you knew and trying to do something else,” he says. “That was my whole life.”
His family makes him want to be better, more reliable, less scarce.
The Weaver family is tight-knit. They gather at Grandma’s place after church for some
home-cooked chicken. Justin and his younger sister argue about the best shooter in the NBA and what next season will hold for LeBron James. The dog, Tuffie, yips at the
leg of anyone who will pay him some attention.
For the first time in as long as anyone can remember, things seem normal.
But it doesn’t matter.
“I always feel like everybody’s looking at me. You know what I mean?” he says. “I’m
just a perfectionist. I’ve got to walk perfect, I’ve got to talk perfect.”
His daughter plays with her cousin in the other room, always in his line of sight. He looks in her direction, leans forward on his elbows and thinks for a moment.
“But I always come back. No matter if I’m doing real good or I’m doing real bad, I always make it back.”
There was a time in his life when Justin says you could sum up his essence in the song “Trap or Die” by the rapper Young Jeezy. It’s a song from the album “Thug Motivation 101” that speaks of being the best in the streets, the most intimidating and the most imitated.
It rang like an anthem for young guys like Justin, trying to stake his claim in a game that he had to play to survive.
Most days now, with his daughter resting on his knee, playing ABC Mouse with her on their iPad, he seems much more Jim Henson than Jeezy.
Justin gives her pointers on how to gather coins in her game. You get them for beating challenges, she reminds everyone. She plays it every time she can get her hands it, beats another level, collects more prizes. She has decided she better earn at least 100 more coins today.
She is always reaching for more.
And she’s aggressive. She has the attitude and scathing retorts of someone twice her age. Some afternoons, she gets sent home with reports from her teacher of fights with other children.
Her father says she is too tough to play with dolls. He signed her up for the Municipal Garden’s Fall Basketball League.
“She’s too mean to play with other little girls her age, doing girly stuff,” he says. “She fights too much.”
Sometimes her mother, Stephanie, thinks about how well her toddler knew the pat-down process when entering a prison, how she would surrender her bottle and spread her arms and legs automatically to be searched by the guards. Or how she used to shout for her daddy across the sitting room when they’d wait for their chance to “visit” on the computer screens where his image would appear.
They were constantly making adjustments, slowly, still five years into her life. They were trying to get her out of the Indianapolis Public School system. They were separating her from the life of the streets. They were keeping her busy and out of trouble.
She had already seen so much.
To make money, Stephanie waits tables at Uno’s Chicago Grill on the south side of Indianapolis. As long as it helps keep her daughter fed and cared for, serving suits her.
Yet at the end of the day, she’s used to the fast money, too. It feels good, cashing out when the night is over, slipping $200 in your pocket.
It feels even better because she knows it’s clean.
Sometimes she notices the way that her daughter fears the police, just like she does. Even though all of her plates and permits are valid, Stephanie fears that her little girl won’t be able to fight the rise that the red and blue lights and the whir of a siren still elicit in her.
“I got pulled over the other day, and it was just for speeding,” she says. “And Justice will be like, ‘There go the police, Mama!’ I’m like ‘It’s OK, it’s OK. Don’t make them think we have a reason to be cautious of them.’ Yeah, it’s real.”
Reality doesn’t appeal much to Justice, anyway. She would much rather spend her time roughhousing and telling fantastical stories
The tales Justice weaves aren’t of princesses or the grandeur of some far away land.
Instead, she describes dark forests and wolves barring their teeth, waiting to pounce.
Every story ends the same. She claps once, as loudly as her small hands can manage, and rubs them together with a definitive,
“And then they eat ‘em all up.”
“Are you smoking weed in my house, Justin?” his mom, Sharon Weaver, asks, turning from her tray of freshly baked chicken to face her son.
She had recently instated a no smoking rule in the apartment.
He shook his head slowly, indignantly.
“No mama.” He rolled the edges of the joint and put it to his lips. He lit it. “No mama, this is just hash.”
With a disapproving glare, she went back to her dinner.
When Sharon recalls her son’s upbringing, she tells of a boy who grew to be more like her than she would have liked.
They are unmistakably mother and child. Both of them have well-kept, shoulder-length dreadlocks and the same slow-growing smile. Neither backs down from a challenge.
Both complete their sentences with a good-natured “You know?” just to make sure that you haven’t missed anything.
Both subscribe to the same addictive personality traits — if they do anything, it’s done 100 percent.
At 52, Sharon just recently got clean. Her addiction to crack cocaine began when Justin was 4 years old.
“I was always trying, praying ‘deliver me.’ I didn’t like the way that I was living,” she says between tears. “It hurt. It hurt really bad that I couldn’t just, as bad as I wanted to,
I just couldn’t stop.”
It was at the constant urging of her own mother, the never-ending reminders of who suffered when she used, that eventually drew her away from her addiction.
Throughout Justin’s childhood, there were always drug dealers in and out of the house.
Most of the time, they were the only men that Justin could count on seeing.
Sometimes they were Sharon’s boyfriends. Other times they were just her dealers.
Sometimes they’d give him money, count it out with him. Other nights, paint cans would come flying through the living room windows and shoot-outs were an ever-present threat.
Justin and his sister lived between homes. His mother’s, when she was well enough to take care of them, and his grandmother’s.
Lately, it seems like the two of them are making up for lost time.
“You eat breakfast today, J?” Sharon leans her head into the dining room where Justin is seated at the table. He shakes his head no. “You got to start eating better, J. You want a BLT?”
He fights a smile, as he tosses back, “You don’t have to feed me, Mommy. I’m not a little baby.”
Sharon is a mother, though, and mothers can’t help but want the best for their kids.
She has watched Justin change in the past year. She says he has stopped hustling for the first time since he was a teenager, that he doesn’t have his hands in the streets. She’s even seen more “pep in his step.” He’s started to hold down a new job provided by a temp agency.
He doesn’t make much money at this job, though, which scares her. She knows just as well as he does that the lure of fast cash is his vice, his kryptonite. But she sees him moving forward. Just the act of finding and maintaining a job is progress.
It was a constant battle with her son. How many times could she tell him to get out of the streets before he figured it out? How many more times did he need to get locked up, torn away from his family, before he got the message? How many mistakes of hers did he have to witness before he got back on track?
His life was hanging in the balance and Sharon, probably more than anyone, understood that.
Her brother died as a result of abusing drugs. Her cousin died as a result of abusing drugs. Her son could be next.
“If I was still using, I don’t think Justin would be at this place in his life,” Sharon says. “Now, I think he sees how hard I try for myself and for him. By him seeing that you can, you can come up. You don’t have to stay. God wants you to be successful. He doesn’t want you to live your life that way.”
Rubbing her hands together in the way that the two of them share, she adds, “Nothing worth having is easy.”
Justice’s basketball season Justin had looked forward to and she had loathed came to a close, the little girl never getting the score her dad had hoped for.
After the game, as usual, the family headed to Sharon’s for a family dinner.
With Justice buckled into the back seat and Stephanie behind the wheel of the Mustang, the family pulled out of the parking lot and into a neighborhood. The fences surrounding most of the houses were plagued with rust. The streetlights flickered. They parked the car in front of an ill-lit one story and cut the lights.
Justice’s head was the only thing visible, shifting in the rear windshield.
The front passenger side window rolled down and a man emerged from the house. As he approached the car, Justice turned to face outside. She offered a smile, as infectious as ever, and raised her small hand in greeting.
In the front seat, Justin made an exchange. With as long as he had gone keeping his hands clean, staying out of the game, tonight he was making a deal. Just to “pay the bills.”
Every time, it is the same rationale — it’s never meant to become a regular occurrence. Not before, not now.
As the baggie exchanged hands, the flickering streetlight illuminated Justin much like the spotlight he imagined following him wherever he went.
His little girl waved both hello and goodbye from the backseat.
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