I've had a chance to know Michael Fesser for the past few years, and if you've been reading the papers in the past 3 months, you know his name. He was a victim of a phony police investigation and arrest at the hands of some egregious racism from a former boss and both the West Linn and Portland Police Departments. Read more of his story here. Despite all of the injustice, he's maintained a calm demeanor, calling for action, reform, but by doing it through reconciliation as a follower of Jesus.
He currently is founder and CEO of a non-profit ministry Going Home II, (www.goinghome2.org), that helps men transition from prison back into the community. He also owns a transition house for those men who are re-engaging back into society. I had a chance to visit with him recently and below are some of his thoughts:
Tell me about Going Home II and why you have a passion for men coming out of prison.
These racism issues make people uncomfortable, but it’s a good thing that we are talking about it. I started Going Home II, to help transition guys from prison (CRCI) back to the community, in the prison 2-3 times a week. I walk with them, and essentially they need 4 things:
God (or a higher power), cell phone, a job, place to live. Recently, I had to teach someone recently how to walk again, since he had been in for 22 years. He hasn’t seen a car, and literally couldn’t cross the street. I’d love people to partner, become educated, because the same people who are coming from prison are going to live in your neighborhoods, so try to have an understanding of where they are coming from.
What has caused your passion for equality, and specifically helping those who are incarcerated?
I was only 8 years old when my dad died. I was looking for a father figure, and wanted to provide for my family, and becoming accepted in a gang seemed to be the answer. I didn’t have the opportunities in front of me, so I got involved in drugs. I didn’t realize the damage I was doing to my own community, my own people. In 1998 I was convicted of a crime and served in a federal prison. Through that process I understood right then that I had to accept that I had done something wrong, I had to change the way of thinking for myself, and those who had the same thoughts I had. God spoke to me, and brought mentors into my life to change me first and then my community.
How do you see the current environment with what seems like a movement with George Floyd, BLM, and such a history of unequal treatment and injustices in our country?
My body is numb to it to a degree, I’m used to it. I’m hurting for the family. I’m waiting for the next George Floyd to happen, but I could’ve been George Floyd. I just want the world to change their heart, their way of thinking, get behind people in their own community to bring about healing and change.
It’s tough for my 15-year-old son to understand that I’ve forgiven the police officers that wronged me, but God said to forgive them, and it’s been a process to let go of my frustration. But I want reconciliation within the community and it has to be about forgiveness to bring healing.
How has healing taken place in West Linn and what does that look like?
When we start to see ownership take place, healing can begin to happen. I want them to know who I am, so we all sat in a room with the mayor, police chief and others in the community. Why are black people scared to go to Lake Oswego or West Linn? Because it’s a white community, you are saying it’s ok, your police force is saying that it’s ok to treat certain races differently. I wanted to be involved in the community, bridging the gap, so they could get to know me and I could get to know them. We could realize that we have some things in common and then get past the hate, the hurt and start building a relationship. As long as we don’t trust each other, nothing is going to change. Let’s start meeting with the kids in the community, help educate, build trust, and really get to know each other to help change us both. Then the kids can teach their parents and grandparents about equality and racism. I am willing to go back to the town that hurt me because I want to see real change.
There are white people who are trying to learn more. Do you have any suggestions for books or movies to become more educated?
Movies and books tell stories, which are great. 13th and When They See Us are both good. Learn everything you can. But you have an opportunity to walk with real people and get to know them. You can get to know me, or my friends, and you get to know what it’s like to live and wake up every day in my shoes. Learn who I am and what I am doing, who I am doing it with, who all come from different walks. That will allow you to understand a lot more about race. You have to understand this has been going on for so many years, the pain and hurt and history that has all gone on. Sometimes people can be in a box in suburbs, they might say, “I have a black friend.” But do you really know that person? Are you having tough or uncomfortable conversations? Are you learning from that person? Probably not. And that black friend can learn from you as well, and real relationships are built, which makes hating that person a lot harder.
If you have privilege, if you have finances, if you have education, if you have something that can help us, please help us and don’t let us walk this alone. You’re going to be my neighbor, teach your kids and grandkids that we are not all that different. That's how we can bring about change and reconciliation.
-Matt Tuttle (and Michael Fesser)