By Shane Sims
He would keep me locked in his cell, sometimes for hours at a time. I would sit on the hard cement floor for so long that my legs would go numb. From time to time, I would change positions to shift my weight a bit, but I didn't dare move from where I sat.
Bilaal’s choice of words, his logic and wisdom, and even the tone of his voice could penetrate the depths of your soul and hold you captive. At least, that's what they did to me just about every time we talked. His explanation of God, life and humanity were both simple and profound. He had a way of making even the most incomprehensible event make the most perfect of sense. And Telfair State Prison was full of people, situations and events that didn’t make sense to the average person. Bilaal definitely was not the average person.
Although Bilaal and I both were Muslim, I noticed that he would always pray alone when the rest of us would get together to pray the five congregational prayers throughout the day. At first, I thought that the others had kind of shunned him because of a disability that he had that made him seem different, if not crazy, to anyone who didn’t know better. But I would eventually learn that the exact opposite was the truth; it was he who shunned the company of many of the other Muslims, and people in general, because of the craziness that he saw.
The first time we talked, I was a bit apprehensive. He had a nerve disorder that caused his neck to sometimes turn involuntarily. It reminded me of the little girl in The Exorcist, except his head would only turn halfway around. In addition, I had heard that he had been incarcerated for a long time. I wondered if I would even be able to communicate with him. However, I could hear my dad’s voice in my head encouraging me on. When we were still adolescents, my dad would constantly tell my younger brother and I to always respect and protect people with disabilities. So, one evening after prayer, I made my way down to Bilaal's cell. I tapped on the cell door not knowing what type of reaction to expect. When the door opened, the warmest and most sincere smile spread across his face as he greeted me and gestured for me to come in. it was as if he was expecting me. All my apprehensions disappeared in an instant, and what followed was one of the deepest and most meaningful lessons about life that I had ever received. It wasn’t only the things that he said about life, it was just as much his attitude towards it.
He had, in fact, been in prison for a long time. I believe it was around 32 years at the time, with no end in sight. All his family were either dead or had long ago disappeared from his life. Yet, he explained all of this with the most peaceful and content disposition that I had ever witnessed. I remember standing just inside of his cell door with my back leaning against the wall. As he spoke about his complete reliance upon Allah, which gave him contentment, I could feel myself sliding down the wall. Before long, I was sitting cross-legged on the hard cement floor, looking up at him as he sat on his bunk as he explained that life is not what you see with your eyes, but what you experience within your heart. Although I didn’t fully grasp what he had said during the first visit, it would become more and more clear as time and the conversations passed. I didn’t realize it then, but I truly believe that a major part of Bilaal’s role in my life was to prepare me for the road ahead.
I spent about four years learning from Bilaal before he was transferred to another prison. During that time, he shaped and molded me. He taught me how to see the beauty in things and situations that didn’t appear so to the casual observer or experience. And, when and where there is truly ugliness, he taught me, I must separate myself if I can't change it, while remaining at peace with its existence. I had no idea how well the wisdom that he shared with me would serve me in the years to come. In our final few conversations before he was unexpectedly hauled off to another land, he would constantly say that I have a beautiful spirit, and that by the time I turn 30 years old, people would just want to be around me, and touch, hug and love on me. He never explained why 30 was so special, but I assumed that it was because of the level of maturity that I will have reached by the age. The odd - almost prophetic - thing about it is that I wouldn’t see Bilaal again for years; but when I did, it was at a prison in Savannah, Georgia - and I was 30 years old.
By that time, I had a reputation that had spread throughout the prison system for being a go-to person for both other inmates as well as staff. One officer at Telfair, who would go on to become a popular warden years later, even nicknamed me Counselor Sims. As soon as Bilaal saw me, that same smile spread across his face as he hugged me and said, “I told you!”. Although we were in different dorms, the lessons resumed. We would meet outside on the recreation yard and walk and talk. I mostly listened. One evening, he told me to just wait until I turn 40. I had no way of knowing it then, but by that age, I would be home with my family. Although Bilaal never made it out physically, I carry him in my heart, my brain, my soul, and my character. And I pass him on to anyone who cares to listen to me explain how beautiful life truly is, even when it looks to the contrary. Bilaal, I love and miss you. RIP.
Shane Sims was born and lives in Athens. In 1996 he was sentenced to life in prison for an armed robbery in which an accomplice fatally shot a store clerk. Before being paroled 20 years later he served time in Telfair, Coastal, and Jackson state prisons. Among other things, Sims currently is executive director of People Living in Recovery, serves on the board of The Athens Reentry Collaborative, is chairman of the nonprofit agency Feed My Sheep, and is chaplain for the Athens-Clarke County Police Department