Humans of New York is the brainchild of Brandon Stanton, a photographer who moved to New York City and began taking pictures of people, interviewing them, and posting it all on social media. Humans of New York is a revealing slice of the human condition. In the daily posts you can see the good, the bad, the beautiful, and the ugly. It’s a way to understand people, sympathize with them, and even question them. As a pastor, I can tell you that Humans of New York is not only fodder for sermons, it also helps me in the important work of understanding our culture and the way people live and think.
Recently the focus has moved from the streets of New York to prisons and prisoners. As the prisoners are interviewed it becomes clear that people don’t often set out to be criminals. They are often imprisoned before they even get to jail. Many find themselves captive to weakness, fear, and various kinds of need. Just listen to their words:
“I tried to make some money the honest way as a kid. I tried shoveling snow. I tried a newspaper route. I stuck with it for awhile, but one day I was collecting money on my route and these older kids robbed me. There were three of them. They were 16 or 17. I fought hard. I told them: ‘I worked hard for this money.’ But they held me down and took it anyway. It was $27. And that made me feel so powerless. And I remembered that I knew someone with a knife. And I thought: ‘I’m going to steal that knife and deal with this firmly.’ I found those boys at an arcade. Nobody got killed. But I hurt them. I wouldn’t say that I felt proud after stabbing them, but I felt like they got what they deserved. I felt vindicated. Even today, I have trouble sympathizing with them. It’s funny how that works. When someone wrongs us, we want the maximum amount of punishment. But when we do wrong, we want the maximum amount of understanding and forgiveness.”
“I was working at a nightclub in Honduras, making $4 a night, and some guy tells me that I can make $6,000 in twelve days just by working on a boat. There weren’t any jobs in Honduras. We didn’t have government benefits like you have here. It’s really tough to say ‘no’ when there are no other options for money. So I agreed. They put me on a small fishing boat. We transported cocaine from Colombia to Honduras. My job was to maintain the vessel and help load the cargo. I’ve never done drugs in my life. On our fourth trip, we were stopped in international waters by the US coastguard. We had 986 kilograms of cocaine. That was ten years ago.”
“My mom was a single mom and there were nine of us. All of the kids worked in the fields. I started when I was twelve. We picked cucumbers, apples, corn, strawberries, all of it. None of us went to school. Nobody cared– if you move around a lot, the system loses track of you. Whenever the harvest was done, we’d go somewhere else. We always signed a contract. The farmers would give us a place to live and a little bit of money, and we worked in their fields. But there was never any money left when we finished. One day when I was eighteen, a friend of mine asked me to hide some marijuana in our trailer. He gave me a little money. I gave it to my mom. And that’s how it all began.”
There’s no question about it: these people features on Humans of New York have committed crimes and deserve the punishment that comes as a result. They show us where weakness, fear, and great need can lead. It’s a warning for all of us just how easy it can be to slip into the wrong places, become part of the wrong crowd, and fall to our own evil desires. But the other side of the story is that in some sense, they are victims of weakness, fear, and need.
The old saying is, “There but by the grace of God go I.” And it truly is God’s grace that keeps many of us from failing and falling, from making mistakes that could destroy us, from leading us down a path that puts us in either a literal or figurative prison.
More than that, these Humans of New York stories give me the desire to do things that will prevent these tragedies from happening in more lives. Here are some ideas I have:
- Encourage kids to remain connected to church. Youth pastors are willing and able to pour their hearts and lives into young people.
- Volunteer at a homeless shelter, and show that you care.
- Donate (new!) items to those who really need them.
- If you’re a business owner, give under-qualified people training that will help them qualify for well-paying jobs.
- Show love to someone who really needs it.
I’m not saying any of these things would have prevented the above Humans of New Yor stories. But maybe, just maybe, they would prevent one person from living behind bars, making poor choices, or leading an unloved life.
What suggestions do you have?