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FORT SMITH, Ark. — Abraham Davis had his mouth open, but no words were coming out. We were sitting together on his mother’s couch near her Christmas tree earlier this month and I had just played him a short recording of the president of Fort Smith’s Al Salam mosque.
Abraham had vandalized the mosque with two friends more than a year before. It was an act of bigotry that he deeply regretted. His expression of remorse — written in a letter from jail — and the mosque’s forgiveness and subsequent advocacy for him, inspired my Aug. 26 article, “The Two Americans.”
But the story, as it turned out, wasn’t over yet.
Despite the mosque’s best efforts, Abraham ended up with a felony. He was also saddled with around $3,200 in fines and restitution. A reader of my article — a generous mother in Florida whose son had once made a similar mistake — sent a contribution. But most of the debt still remained to be paid. It was one of his life’s daily stresses: If he stopped making monthly payments, he could end up in prison for six years.
The last time I had seen Abraham was in the blistering heat of July, and he was dutifully showing up for his community service at a Goodwill store. But he didn’t have a paying job, and everything seemed tenuous.
Five months later, that worry was wiped away, when Hisham Yasin, the mosque’s lively social director, climbed the stairs of the courthouse with a cashier’s check. That was what had left Abraham speechless next to the Christmas tree.
“There’s no words,” he said, his hands covering his face. “English. Find it.”
Some weeks back, Hisham had called me to say that the mosque had received a generous donation from the Jay Pritzker Foundation. No one at Al Salam had ever heard of the foundation, and they thought at first that it was a rip-off scheme — one of those send-me-your-bank-account-number-and-we’ll-send-you-a-million-dollars ruses. A bit of Googling told them otherwise. Now they wanted to spread the good will: They had decided to pay off Abraham’s court fines.
Abraham’s life had come crashing into theirs. They were now linked. They could not leave him behind.
“He is part of our story,” said Hisham, who owns A&H Auto Sales, a used-car dealership in town.
I returned to Fort Smith to write the next chapter of their story. I also gave a talk at the University of Arkansas there. Abraham didn’t come. His lawyer, Ernie Woodard, didn’t think it was a good idea (his plea agreement forbade any contact with people from the mosque). But Abraham’s mother, Kristin Collins, and the mosque’s president, Dr. Louay Nassri, sat next to me onstage.
It was a happy occasion. The town was now decked out in Christmas finery. My article had run so there was no longer a question of what I was up to. Hisham admitted that, for a while, he thought I was an F.B.I. agent. The New York Times business card didn’t fool him.
“I can print you a thousand business cards that say, ‘I’m the pope,’ ” he said.
The article appeared shortly after Abraham’s family had received an eviction notice. Donations from readers helped them pay the security deposit and first month’s rent on a new place, and get some used furniture and a bed for their 5-year-old. Someone from Texas paid off their electric bill. Abraham was able to buy a bicycle. That meant he could get to work on his own.
Hisham said the article had put Fort Smith on the map. One of the photographs we ran featured a sign for his car lot. He got calls from Atlanta, Cincinnati and Riverside, Calif. At first he thought they were telemarketers, but then he realized they were well-wishers. Dr. Nassri got calls from London and Switzerland.
The article seemed to satisfy a deep craving for something healthy after months of gorging on outrage. At a time when each side of the political divide seemed sure the other side was crazy and maybe even evil, it was an antidote. It helped people see that Americans are much more moderate than Twitter and Facebook would have us believe, that we actually have a lot in common, and that our mutual capacity for tolerance and kindness is quite large.
“You wove the lives of 2 men and their community in a way that for the first time I don’t feel like everyday I have to fight or be militant & absolute about good & evil, right & wrong,” one woman wrote on Twitter. “Thank you for that peace.”
A reader in Oregon said the story “gives me something to hold onto, an amulet, a prayer bead.” A woman named Linda Brown said the story was “a reminder that most Americans aren’t the caricatures we are presented with over and over.”
Abraham was stunned. He expected to be mocked. Instead he was praised. This flew in the face of his assumption that he didn’t have the right to take up space on this earth. He had been written off — by school, by society, by the world of educated adults — but here were complete strangers telling him he mattered.
“It just kind of blew me away to have people messaging me from all over the world,” he recalled, “saying, ‘Hey, I read the piece about you. I want to tell you it inspired me.’”
Abraham now works six days a week at the Hydration Station, a gas station and convenience store a few miles from his house. He seems to enjoy it — there’s a certain satisfaction in stacking the boxes of beer in even rows and restocking the coolers. He banters with the customers: It’s cold out there tonight. Breath mints? Can never have too many.
On the couch, Abraham started to get his words back.
“It’s a great weight being lifted off of my shoulders,” he said, looking at the floor. “And I don’t deserve it, but this act of kindness, it’s just, wow.”
So many people want so much for Abraham. Someone from the university called telling him to get in touch when he was ready to enroll. I realized I was rooting for him, too. I wanted him to finish high school.
He had started taking classes toward his GED over the summer. But at some point he stopped. When I asked him about it, he offered a vague excuse. Maybe he didn’t see the use. He was happy in his job. And as he’d said to me before, he never saw himself as a college guy.
But the news from the mosque seemed to unlock something.
“It’s crazy because I was thinking of a lot of things,” he said, “and going back to school was one of them. It’s like a whole new window just opened up. It’s like somebody who has been locked in a padded room and has never felt the wind before. I’m just in awe of this moment right now.”
He sat back and looked at me intently.
“I want to say I regret what I did, but at the same time I don’t,” he explained. “It’s kind of like a flower just sitting there waiting for the right drop of water to tap its petals. To open up and reveal something beautiful on the inside.”
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