Last night I came home from teaching an unplanned retreat with my godson, Will Kabat-Zinn, filling in for my dear friend Sharon who got sick at the last minute and couldn’t go. One of the participants wheeled himself into the meditation hall in a wheelchair. His name is Leon Ford, a 25 year old African-American man with a big welcoming smile. Leon became paralyzed after being shot by a white police officer during a traffic stop. Though he showed his license, registration, and insurance card, the officer believed Leon was someone else, a man wanted for a crime, and shot five bullets into Leon’s chest, arm, leg. One bullet grazed his head, and one ripped through his spinal cord. Leon was 19 at the time, full of confidence and swagger.
After multiple surgeries, in terrible pain, Leon didn’t speak. He went through cycles of angry depression and profound despair at all he lost in not being able to walk again. He’d been a boxer, and, along with the loyalty and support of his loving family, his athletic training and strength helped him endure the years of convalescence from the mental, emotional and physical trauma of his injuries and fight the charges for crimes he didn’t commit. Leon didn’t speak about his loss. He stayed quiet, went inside and worked with his own mind in his own way.
In his inspiring book, UNTOLD: Testimony and Guide to Overcoming Adversity, Leon describes the long journey from lying in the street in a pool of blood to finding solace in a felt connection with God. He’s amazed and grateful to be alive to tell the story. Despite the pain he still experiences, Leon radiates peace and joy. When we meet at the end of the retreat, Leon expresses his gratitude for learning systematic and effective mindfulness practices to complement his own path. He recognizes that meditation training can enhance his life and work in every way.
These days, Leon uses his own experience transforming adversity into compassion to help train police officers with love and understanding so they learn not to react with fear first. Some officers are surprised by his kindness and caring for them. Yesterday, Thursday, February 28th, was the last day of Black History month, 2019, marking the 400th anniversary of enslaved Africans being brought to Jamestown. There has been a long, painful history of police brutality towards African-American people in the U.S. and Leon’s mission is to stop it. He’s running for city council in his hometown, Pittsburgh. May Leon have the opportunity to bring his immense courage, resilience, and wisdom to serve in Pittsburgh!