Several years ago, when I worked as a campus chaplain at Norfolk State University in Virginia, I received a 2 a.m. call from Willie, a bright African American who was one of the student leaders in my campus fellowship group. Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I listened to his clearly distressed voice.On his way home from an outreach concert, he had stopped at a giant open-air supermarket to purchase a bag of potato chips and a soda. As he stood in line, waiting his turn at the checkout counter, he opened the bag of chips and started eating them. Immediately a cop came over and arrested him.He called me from the jail. I said, "Now Willie, what else were you doing?" He said, "Reverend Ellis, I told you, I was standing there. I had my money in my hand, and the guy just came up and told me that I was under arrest."I could not believe him. I got out of bed and rushed to the jail. Sure enough, that was what happened. There was a law called concealment that prohibits you from consuming something until you have paid for it—even if you're standing in line with your money in hand.I spoke to the officers at the jail, pleading for understanding and common sense to prevail. I admitted that I might have done the same thing. Who knew that there was such a law? But they were indifferent to my appeals. I posted Willie's bail and took him home. I was infuriated inside. Willie had such a promising future. Now he had a record that would interfere with how he was perceived when applying for a job.A few days later, I was in a prayer meeting with a group of white pastors in Virginia Beach. I shared Willie's story with them, and they couldn't believe it either.The next Sunday, I was invited to preach at the church of one of the pastors. Again I shared ...

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Common Ground in the Supermarket Line
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October 2, 2000

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