Photo: Alena Kuzub
Hal Rawlings’ life today couldn’t be more different than the life he led when he was younger. One of the first things he says after sitting down for an interview with me and Spare Change News’ photographer, Alena, is, “Do you know what you’re seeing today, sir? A miracle.”
It’s only after he’s recounted the full details of his life that we realize how apt that word really is.
Before Hal found the Refuge Church of Christ in Roxbury 15 years ago—where three different women, one by the name of Mother Smith, witnessed to him about Jesus Christ—he was, in his own words, a professional pool player, a dice player, a con artist and a killer.
Back then, Hal spent a lot of time at the Olympia Billiard Rooms, also known as “The Mines,” in Boston’s so-called combat zone.
In those days, he says, you could “make a lot of money” playing pool and dice. When he wasn’t making money that way, he was conning people—promising, for instance, to hook a man up with a woman before taking off with the cash.
He was also involved in an organized crime gang in Jamaica Plain, a “black mafia,” as he calls it, and rubbed shoulders with the “godfather” figure. Asked if any of these people were scary to him, he says: “None of them were scary to me.”
During those dark days, before he found Jesus Christ and turned his life around, the worst prison Hal spent time in was Charles Street jail.
“It was nasty,” he says. “They had rats in there as big as cats. I’ve done 15 years in four or five different jails. I caught a murder case one year after I was here in Boston. I was in … prison for killing someone with a sawed-off shotgun.”
Hal attributes the change in his fortunes to the spiritual help of people at the Refuge Church of Christ in Roxbury. The church is housed today in the former Fellowes Athenaeum, Roxbury’s first library, in the Fort Hill neighborhood. It features a distinctive and imposing redbrick facade.
It was here that Hal heard the gospel from Bishop Theodore Hester, a man who’s been, according to Hal, one of the most influential people in his life. With the help of Apostle Hester, Mother Smith and a man called Pastor Barry Mitchell, Hal would drive down to New Bedford and they’d have a service there and preach the gospel.
Hal connected with Spare Change News through a man called Butch who worked for the paper and has since passed away. When Hal began selling papers, he took it upon himself to start helping homeless people around Boston.
“I was feeding the homeless out of my own money from Spare Change News,” he says.
Around this time, Hal met a millionaire called Charlie who’d been following his activities through articles Hal wrote for the newspaper. Wanting to help, Charlie started giving Hal $4,000 a month to further his outreach activities to the poor and homeless. “He’d been reading my articles all the time,” says Hal.
With such large amounts of money coming in, Hal was able to take 27 underprivileged children to Six Flags and create a program called Project Breaking Bread. And yet, even with all the money Charlie gave him, Hal still wouldn’t say the millionaire was as much of an important influence in his life as Apostle Hester. The latter gave Hal a gift that no amount of money could buy. “I put nothing before my spirituality,” he says.
These days, the kids in Hal’s neighborhood call him “OG,” which is short for “old gangster.” It’s a token of respect.
One of these kids even gave him a brand-new pair of Air Jordan 23 sneakers. One thing Hal was adamant about in the interview was that he wanted to take the opportunity to thank the kid for the gift. He also wanted to thank the readers of Spare Change News: “I appreciate the support they’ve given us through the years. You’ve gotta have gratitude.”