‘I have to have humility’: How Second Commandment helped man find freedom

Why We Wrote This

Desmon Rogers’ conversation with the Monitor about the Decalogue sheds light on how traditional religious codes matter in people’s lives. Part 3 in a series looking at the Ten Commandments through modern lives.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Desmon "Dez" Rogers, shown in the home he lives in as part of a residential recovery program on Oct. 20, 2019, in Philadelphia, talks about how he became grounded in his faith during his incarceration.

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After the death of his beloved foster mother when he was a teen, Desmon Rogers says money and acceptance by a street “family,” whose business of drugs and guns led to a revolving door of lockups, became his idols.

But each time he was incarcerated, he returned to the streets. “When I came home from lockup, it was ‘where you going to sleep tonight?’” he recalled. “Each time I came home I came home to nothing. You can’t get a job.”

Mr. Rogers spoke to the Monitor at a well-worn drug treatment house in North Philadelphia as part of our series examining the ways traditional religious codes like the Ten Commandments continue to matter in the lives of ordinary people. 

The Second Commandment, and its exhortation to worship God and not idols, helped rescue Mr. Rogers from the depths. It took what he experienced as the peace and quiet of a prison cell for him to recognize the help he’d sought. “God became big in a small room,” he recalls. There, he began to understand the role his own behavior was playing in his life. Buoyed by an emerging sense that God saw good in him, he concluded that, if that were the case, he should see himself as capable of a good life.

Desmon “Dez” Rogers is the first to tell you about his long run-in with the Second Commandment. About how the false idols he bowed down to as he toggled for 30 years between the life of the streets and the life behind bars ultimately brought him to his knees. About how his thirst for money and for the feelings of validation it brought him turned out to be what he calls “grenade love” – attachments with lethal consequences. And about how, ironically, it was while imprisoned that the now middle-aged screen processor came to discover the freedom he sought for decades.

Mr. Rogers spoke to the Monitor at a well-worn drug treatment house in North Philadelphia as part of our series examining the ways traditional religious codes like the Ten Commandments continue to matter in the lives of ordinary people.

With Mr. Rogers, we discussed the Second Commandment: Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them. ... (Exodus 20:4.)

Mr. Rogers, who was raised in foster care, received as loving and normal a life as possible thanks to his foster mother, a protective, elderly woman who cared for him from age 11 months until her death when he was 17. “When she died, everything that was meaningful halted,” he explains. The Christmases, Easters – even the food, shelter, and clothing he’d taken for granted – disappeared.  In the foster system’s transitional, “emancipation” mode, “I fell through the cracks,” he recalls – too old technically for foster care, and too young to be on his own. He was taken in by his foster sisters, who then lived in a housing project, an environment he’d never been prepared for. “I was like one of those kids growing up in a war-torn country who finds love as a ‘child soldier,’” he says.

Money and acceptance by a street “family,” whose business of drugs and guns led to a revolving door of lockups, became his idols. At first, it felt like a safe harbor from an unwelcoming outside world. Each time he was incarcerated, he returned to the streets. “When I came home from lockup, it was ‘where you going to sleep tonight?’” he recalls. “Each time I came home I came home to nothing. You can’t get a job.”

Mr. Rogers was raised full-on Baptist – church, camp, and Bible school – by his surviving foster family, with whom he remains close, emphasizing that there is nothing “foster” about the love and emotion he and his siblings continue to share.

Over time he became turned off by church, which he felt sometimes took advantage of the issues surrounding race and poverty.  Several churches seemed to him like “a pimp game,” assuaging vulnerable congregants in their complacency and comforting them in their suffering with promises of heaven. “You leave [more broken] than you come in.”

Mr. Rogers argues for action: “You can have a better life here. You don’t have to wait until you get to heaven. You can have a life of peace here.”

While eschewing church for a less institutional spirituality, he nevertheless continued to seek what he called “the wisdom of God,” and much of the religious references of his childhood factor into his life now. “Even on the streets it was always ‘God, I’m going wrong.’ I asked God to direct me,” but still, he continued to direct himself back to the streets.

It took what Mr. Rogers experienced as the peace and quiet of a prison cell for him to recognize the help he’d sought. “God became big in a small room,” he recalls. There, he began to understand the role his own behavior was playing in his life. Buoyed by an emerging sense that God saw good in him, he concluded that, if that were the case, he should see himself as capable of a good life. “If I was always good in Your mind I realize there must be a purpose for me,” he prayed. He began to live, he says, “as if there’s a God.”

Ann Hermes/Staff
Desmon ‘Dez’ Rogers, shown on Oct. 20, 2019, in Philadelphia, says he hopes he can help younger men learn earlier in life what he learned the hard way.

A thoroughly introspective man, Mr. Rogers wrestles aloud with the mysteries, inconsistencies, and unfairness and incongruities of life, ever engaged in discovering his purpose. He has no qualms about talking about his walk. He explains, for instance, that feelings of abandonment likely underpin the tendencies to anger, frustration, and resentment that have propelled him for much of his life. But he knows it is on him to tame them. 

From his experiences has emerged a wellspring of observances, such as this one on hope: “No matter how low the foundation is, you have something to build on.”

When he wakes up in the morning and when encountering a challenge, he fortifies himself with Scripture. Recently, a verse from Isaiah, “No weapon formed against me shall prosper. Everything that rises against me shall fall,” helped when the company he works for, pushing production goals – unreasonably, he thought – provoked him. “Usually I’d say to myself, I don’t need this s---” and lose his cool. With time to get his feelings in check, he said, the anger subsided. “It wasn’t that bad. I’ve learned I have to have humility.”   

That virtue gets reinforced when he listens to Gospel Highway radio. One sermon in particular, concerning the “spirit of pride,” helped him identify what might well be his Achilles’ heel, he says, and understand the role of humility in coping with perceived disrespect.

Sister Sylvia Strahler, program officer of New Jerusalem Now, a residential recovery program where Mr. Rogers has lived since 2017, called him a “promoter of peace,” with a spiritual perspective that’s helpful to newer residents. At community meetings, she says, “He has good messages for the people. He gets them to see that there’s a better way. People that are discouraged about how things are going for them, people who are angry, who have been disrespected – he talks to them and says we have to step back and see what part we’ve played in an argument.”  

Some who know Mr. Rogers call him ”Preacher.” But he offers only caveats – his experience, not his advice – he said. He hopes that the younger men can learn earlier what he learned the hard way. Some do. One in particular sticks with him – a distraught man who was struggling with addiction who was in the program nearly a year. He was estranged from his family and ready to give up. Mr. Rogers encouraged him to stay, and he did, eventually finishing his program and reconciling with his family.

The fact that he himself has now traded his street family for the real deal brings Mr. Rogers a weekly infusion of joy. Admittedly sad sometimes about what might have been, he’s no longer consumed by bitterness and anger. “I just have a spirit of gratitude,” he says. In coming to terms with his own shortcomings, he’s more accepting of those of others. “It was just me growing up and understanding that I’ve only got one chance at life. I have to decide, ‘what is my legacy?’”

On weekdays, he gets up at 4 a.m. to take a long bus ride to work, where he works 10-hour days, returning at night to his third-floor room at New Jerusalem. Weekends, he takes the train to Wilmington, Delaware, and his own extended family, a fussing, coddling, affirming bunch that includes his 19-year-old daughter, his siblings, and many nieces and nephews.

As for his graven images, “They’re really not important to me anymore.” He’s looking down instead at what he calls the “rough side of the mountain,” and says he has climbed it with God’s grace.

Part 1: The Commandments as a moral source code in modern life

Part 2: How does the First Commandment fit in today?

Part 3: ‘I have to have humility’: How Second Commandment helped man find freedom

Part 4: One woman embraces Third Commandment in feeding 1,600 at Thanksgiving

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