When I was 19, I was asked to talk to two 14 year old boys waiting for their murder trial in a South African prison. I was new to South Africa and my Afrikaans was weak, so I didn’t realize what I had agreed to do until the policeman started leading me through electric fences, heavy metal doors, and long cement walled hallways. I had been a Mormon missionary in Welkom, South Africa for only a few weeks; new to the country, new to the language, and new to being away from home. Bruno Gerber, the missionary I was teamed with, was speaking Afrikaans to the officer and I only understood a tenth of what was said.
We reached a large cement door that looked more like it was made for a bank vault than a prison cell. Bruno turned to me and said, “Andrew is Afrikaans, so I’ll talk to him. You talk to Sorrow, he’s English.”
The door creaked, light appeared through the cracks of the door, and my heart raced. What would I say to this killer that murdered a policeman. I imagined a hardened criminal inside, wearing a leather vest with a tattoo of a skull on his shoulder. I was scared and confused as to why Bruno had agreed to such nonsense.
I walked in the room and was shocked. Two clean cut teenage boys were sitting on the floor surrounded by comic books. They looked at the guard and readily nodded when he told them they needed to talk to us. Then the guard left. I walked over and sat by Sorrow. His eyes were not full of anger and hostility as I’d imagined. They were the eyes of a scared boy, looking for help.
This happened twenty years ago, almost to the day. I was young and had no idea what to say or do. All I really did was listen to his story.
Both Andrew and Sorrow had spent their lives shuffled from relative to relative until finally they ended up in an orphanage. He said it was horrible; the kids were mean, the adults were mean, and the food was nasty. Both of them preferred living homeless on the streets and they had tried multiple times to run away. This last time they had planned it out carefully. They would travel across the country and start a new life in Cape Town.
As one of the most violent countries, South Africa has places scary even for armed adults. From time to time I’d see somebody walking around carrying a sub machine gun. Shocking to me but didn’t seem to be a big deal to everyone else. There were bunkers along the main roads with military personal and mounted gunnery. These boys were afraid of getting caught, so stayed away from the main roads, which meant they went through some rough townships. Two young white boys in an apartheid-era township is a formula for disaster, and they knew it. But they were determined. They somehow acquired a gun for safety and began hitchhiking to their new life.
After several day s of short rides they realized it wasn’t working. They decided the only option was to steal a car. A man picked them up and they got in the back seat. Sorrow pulled out the gun, pointed it at the man, and told him they needed his car. They said they would leave it in Capetown so he could get it back.
This is where you have to picture yourself as Sorrow. Fourteen years old, scared, desperate, and sitting in the back seat of a car holding a gun at a strangers head. You tell the man you don’t want to hurt him, you need his car, and to pull off to the side of the road. Instead, he leans forward, opens his glove box, grabs a gun, and starts to turn around to face you. In that split second, what do you do?
Sorrow pulled the trigger. I would imagine that in that same situation, the chances are high most of us would do the same thing. My heart ached for this boy. A sad life, difficult circumstances, dreams and desires for a happy life, and now he was sitting in prison on trial for the murder of a police officer. He had no clue this man was an off duty cop. For all he knew, a psychopathic killer was turning on him with a gun. His entire life changed in an instant because of a choice he was forced to make in the blink of an eye.
I don’t know what happened to Sorrow. Someday I hope to go back and try and find out. I’d like to know more details about the story, before and after. I’d like to know more about the orphanage. I’d like to write the book that tells his story. I think it would be amazing.
Sorrow’s mistake wasn’t pulling the trigger; his mistake was allowing himself to get in that situation in the first place. Many small choices led to a life changing decision. But I can understand everything he did up to that moment. He wasn’t out to commit a horrendous crime. He was afraid and running. Any big mistakes I might make in my life will happen the same way. It won’t be when I have time to think and consciously make a choice. They will happen because I’m running scared and making desperate choices. It will be the culmination of seemingly harmless actions that lead to sometime terrible. Passion will push me to compromise my standards. Then there will be a moment when I don’t have time to think. I want to make sure I’m never caught in the back seat of a car holding a gun.
For me that means keeping my finances in order so I’m never desperate for money. It means I have strict guidelines about how I interact with members of the opposite sex given that I am married and committed to my wife. It means I obey the laws and stick to my morals. I’m far from perfect, I sometimes make choices all I feel are unwise and wonder how I can be so thoughtless. But at least remembering Sorrow helps me. And I tell my kids this story. I hope they have a nice visual of Sorrow sitting in the back of that car to constantly remind them, it only takes a second to wreck your life if you are in the wrong place at the wrong time…all our little mildly harmless choices add up.