An interview with Keith Daniel and William Elmore
You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends… You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit… This is my command: Love each other. (John 14-15b; 16b-17)
In preparation for Locked in Solidarity, a week dedicated to highlighting the stories of those impacted by mass incarceration, two leaders in their community share their experiences of building bridges. Returning citizen William Elmore and Rev. Dr. M. Keith Daniel of Durham, NC share how their friendship served as a blessing to them both.
K: I’ve only known Will personally for 6 months, but I felt an immediate kinship with him. We met on an evening in May 2016 at a weekend retreat that focused on the challenges of formerly incarcerated women and men. However, I met Will “in the Spirit” several months earlier…
I was sharing a meal among friends – all of which are active in seeking and building beloved community. As we went around the dinner table updating one another on our lives, the story of Will’s mother, who I call Ms. Bessie, caught my attention. She shared her excitement that her son was soon to be released from prison. The glow in her eyes was so radiant – it reminded me of the joy of an expectant mother. Oddly, something leaped inside of me as she expressed her excitement to have her son home again. I couldn’t wait to meet the young man.
W: In my prison ministry work with Church Beyond Walls (CBW), I was paired up to work with Keith Daniel. In the process of going from co-workers to friends, I learned that Mr. Daniel knew me before I ever met him.
K: Little did either of us know that the opportunity for us to become friends would come by way of working together to advance an initiative called Church Beyond the Walls administered by the School for Conversion in Durham, NC. I was asked to accompany Will, who had served as a returning community member for CBW involved in justice work. Will was now elevated to position of interim director for the initiative and I was invited to serve as his mentor and project consultant.
When Ms. Bessie introduced me to Will, I understood the reason for the glow in her eyes. Will also glowed as he shook my hand and introduced himself with a smile – a smile I wish I had. His demeanor was youthful; he exhibited energy and vivaciousness. Again, something I wish I had. I thought to myself, “this is the kind of person I’d like to have as a friend.”
W: Along my way, I knew that I had this unique opportunity to create and shape my life. With my eyes and heart wide open I sometimes experience these “surprising friendships.” As open as I am to what it means to be present in the moment of my experiences of people, places, and things, I am equally fine with being invisible and anonymous…
K: We had a clear set of goals and a compelling mission, but we both knew spiritually that something much deeper needed to be attained. We needed to learn to look each other in the eyes as ‘free’ black men who trusted one another to be vulnerable, teachable, and honest about our sense of direction in life. In short, we needed to become genuine friends.
But, the making of genuine friendship takes time, trust, and patient temperaments. Fortunately, Will and I had one of the three! Turns out that Will and I relate on several levels including having the most loving, patient, kind and persevering mothers in the world.
We’ve inherited an unquenchable thirst for seeing the beauty and belovedness in humanity despite the injustices that often make us feel less than we are: human beings created in the image of a benevolent God.
What surprised me is that Will was incarcerated for 25 years and didn’t experience that daily nurturing of his mother and family as I had consistently experienced from the time of my birth throughout my 25-year career as a Duke student and staff member. Ms. Bessie moved from her home in New Jersey to be closer to Will during his imprisonment in North Carolina. Even though Will was behind bars, the loving, patient, kind, persevering fruits of Ms. Bessie’s spirit remained close at hand and heart. It is because of these fruits of the Spirit that Will and I became surprising friends outside the prison walls.
W: Oh what intense excitement I live with daily! Sure, some days are less spectacular than others but such is life. Living mindfully in a space of gratitude for my second chance at life overshadows the ebbs and flows of situations that don’t necessarily go my way. I use the words “life” and “live” often in conversation. I guess I do that because I was told that I would “live” the rest of my natural “life” in prison…
K: Jesus said to his followers that it was his father’s glory that we bear much fruit, showing ourselves to be his disciples. (John 15:8). Will has graciously and patiently helped me understand the obstacles our neighbors involved in the justice system experience upon returning to the community. Further, he has helped me appreciate what true freedom looks like in the lived experience of incarceration. He has helped me see Christ in the “stranger” who returns from prison a different person, for good or bad, and the possibility to be transformed by choosing to regard that person as a potential friend and not a foe.
Will has taught me to seek out friendships across the barrier of incarceration. I am truly enjoying this surprising experience of solidarity with Will and several others he’s introduced me to in the 6 short months we’ve worked together. May God grant us a lifetime of fruitful friendships that flourish both in and beyond the too often locked walls of the Church.
W: When you’re aware of what it really means to be “free” to allow every interaction to be fresh, new and vulnerable, that’s empowering. Most importantly, I want to always represent what I believe through how I live my life and the work that I do. After having spent 25 years of my young life in prison, it is invigorating to now have this new opportunity to live freely again. I’m buzzing with childlike excitement. Keith Daniel and I strive to exemplify freedom in all our movements. As I live this life and do this work I say Amen and thank God for second chances.
Rev. Dr.M. Keith Daniel is an ordained minister (American Baptist) and a CCD Practitioner/Education and Organization Consultant in Durham, NC. He serves in a variety of leadership, teaching and mentoring roles at Duke University and Research Triangle, NC.
William Elmore was released from Orange Correctional Center in Hillsborough, North Carolina on 12/21/15 at age 45. With a clean bill of health he was paroled and returned to his loved ones and to a new society as a rejuvenated entity. His homecoming echoes his favorite quote by Bruce Lee, “Be like water…” which he interpreted to mean ‘being vulnerable to your own evolution, taking the shape of any situation you’re in, moving rapidly yet appearing to be still, soft enough to bathe a newborn and solid enough to sink a titanic vessel’.
Next up on Mass Incarceration: Locked In Solidarity And Reservoir Church