Billy Davis slipped through the cracks.
Despite all our efforts to keep him down where we were certain he belonged he has, for the moment, slipped through the cracks.
Don't worry. He's only 42, so we'll have a few more shots at him. So far, those shots have allowed us to put him behind bars for 19 years.
Now, for those of you who are worried, don't be. There's almost no chance you'll ever meet him. Unless you're willing to go to the forbidding place he's from right here in Manatee County, your luck will probably hold.
His invisibility has kept things that way, including keeping you from having to exercise any responsibility for him whatsoever.
For the record, Davis was born in the worst part of town. High crime, mean streets, dilapidated homes, rough schools.
Where the few jobs available are legally sketchy at best.
Where well-intentioned teachers and civic-minded police never come close to being given the tools they need to do more than wrestle with Jell-O. Where few own a car, everybody rents, most work at least two minimum-wage jobs, and nobody can get credit let alone a mortgage.
Where they use money orders to pay their bills because they can't qualify for a bank account.
Where the Emergency Room is the doctor of choice.
Where a usuriously priced corner store stocked with high-fat food is the alternative to Publix.
Where most don't or can't vote because (pick one) they can't get registered, can't maintain a permanent address or, through a system of over-policing that will never touch you where you live, they have graduated up to disenfranchised felons.
And, yes, like Davis, they're black.
I know what you're thinking: you can name lots of people who came from nothing despite the odds.
No, not celebrities; people you know.
No, they can't be white. And don't blow smoke by pretending your zone of white privilege hasn't insulated you.
Yeah, I know you're still not convinced. You actually believe Davis had boots and bootstraps to pull up. And, because you live in a land where your version the Good Samaritan story ends with a "Yes, but," he's not your responsibility.
Just like it wasn't your fault Davis' playing field of opportunity didn't include learning to read and write. Because, until Davis got to prison for the third time, he couldn't.
He can now. Not because of some prison program and not because of some well-meaning jail-house teacher.
Billy taught himself.
Then he became a poet, who wrote: "Who am I? I speak but you can't hear me but, if you look inside you'll realize I'm worth keeping."
Deep stuff. Strong and straight from the streets.
It goes on: "Worth more than gold until you're old. I'm not your soul, just a vessel, used and sometimes abused so I get confused and don't know which to choose. I'm better than a friend. I give life to men."
Yup, he slipped through the cracks.
That said, until he personally gave himself the tools we pretended we had provided, he didn't have the perspective to use jail as more than a place to try to learn how try to beat the system the next time. Within a system that, by then, had him deep in the wheel.
That should scare you. Not because he didn't learn to read and write till after several rounds of jail.
It should scare you because, setting aside his personal story in his neighborhood where we only send surrogates, his earlier lack is still the norm.
Still, we tried. Yes, we Christian nation of pious people did our best to keep Billy in jail and out of sight. Not to worry, though.
The odds are still against him. There's a high probability that, despite his own hard work, he'll be back behind bars someday.
Did you know an inmate who completes one 3-credit college course is 21.9 percent less likely to return to prison within 5 years? Me neither.
Guess what: Billy has yet to take a course.
Think of what he could do with a college degree. Like I've been repeating in this piece,
Billy fooled us and slipped through the cracks.
I don't want to believe that. I want to believe while there are all kinds of Billys out there, this is a Billy we know. And we can help him. With a chance that's meaningful, where his criminal record doesn't stop a good employer from hiring him. So he can maximize the potential he is trying so desperately to put to use.
Particularly as a pastor, I want to believe we can create a community where what the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan called benign neglect has been buried so deep we will no longer be able to kid ourselves about the opportunities we are working so hard to deny.
Till then, the last line of Billy's poems "How Much is Life Worth?" is far too serious an indictment of our unwillingness to be honest with ourselves.
He writes: "Is life my friend because I'm living? Life itself imposes threats, so I watch it closely."
Billy Davis has given us the ultimate head fake and, till we can get another ignorant self-righteous shot at him, slipped through the cracks.
The Rev. Dr. Robert Sichta, Congregational United Church of Christ, 3700 26th St. W., Bradenton, can be reached by calling 941-756-1018 or e-mailing PBKAlpha1@gmail.com. Faith Matters is a regular feature of Saturday's Herald, written by local clergy members.