103 Chris Schuhmacher
“I came into software development relatively late in life. You know, I’m in my mid 40s and my training actually started in 2014 inside the walls of San Quentin.”
Chris is the founder and developer of Fitness Monkey, an app that encourages the physical fitness of addicts in recovery.
Nadia Bolz-Weber (NBW): In the world of Harry Potter there are three curses deemed to be unforgiveable–curses that cause mind control, torture, and death. These can send someone to Azkaban, which is the wizard prison, for life and, you know, this makes some sense to me.
But growing up as a conservative Christian, I was taught that all sins could be forgiven except one. But that sin wasn’t murder, mind control, or torture of another human, it was blasphemy against the holy spirit. As a matter of fact, a couple years ago, there was a trend on Youtube where people would film themselves “blaspheming against the Holy Spirit” and then they’d keep the video rolling just to prove that they were not struck down by God. They indeed remained un-smited.
It’s important to me that this not be a particularly religious podcast so forgive me for the following. But, when jesus and his followers went about forgiving sins and casting out demons they always did so by “the power of the holy spirit,” so I realized the unforgivable sin isn’t saying the Holy Spirit doesn’t exist, the unforgivable sin is believing that there is no power to the holy–meaning, it’s believing that you are not redeemable, or that someone else is not redeemable.
But if people cant change, if we are so cynical as to think human transformation is not possible, then what the fuck are we up to?
I believe in redemption but not because I am naïve, I believe in redemption because I am desperate for it myself.
NBW: I’m Nadia Bolz-Weber, and you’ve stepped into The Confessional. It’s like a car wash for our shame and secrets. And just a warning, there is a minute in this episode where my guest describes a brutal act of violence. So, sensitive listeners take note.
NBW: Alright, here we go. I am here with Chris Schumacher, who is a tech guy, actually in San Francisco. You do some kind of software-y thing I don’t totally understand because I never do. But you’re in the tech sector, is that right, Chris?
Chris Schuhmacher (CS): Yes, that’s true. I work for a company named Fandom. They’re the Wikipedia for everything Marvel Superheroes, Game of Thrones, anything people are binge-watching on Netflix.
NBW: That sounds like a nerds’ dream.
CS: It really is. [laughs]
NBW: But you sort of had a little bit of a different career path than probably most of your colleagues did, didn’t you?
CS: This is true. I actually came into software development relatively late in life. You know, I’m in my mid-40s and my training actually started in 2014 inside the walls of San Quentin.
NBW: Hmm, so give me some background. Tell me how it is you ended up there?
CS: Back in 2000, I was living in Hollywood, I had these big aspirations of being a musician while at the same time I was drinking a lot and I was using drugs and I was an addict, you know. And that lifestyle just wasn’t sustainable for me, I couldn’t hold down a day job and I took to drug dealing.
And there came a day when two friends of mine, two people that I trusted, came over to my apartment with a twelve-pack of beer and acted like they were being friends and I actually stepped out of the apartment with one of them to smoke a cigarette and the other one stole a six-pound suitcase full of weed from me.
One of them got away with the marijuana and Morgan stayed and said that he would try to help me find Jeff and get the weed back. And a week went by, trying to find this suitcase. And I remember telling Morgan, “Hey, you know, you got to, you’ve got to split. I’m gonna I’m going to figure this out. I’m going to get the money somehow.” And that’s when I mean, he shocked the hell out of me when he said that, “you know, Chris, when this all went down, I was originally in on it with Jeff, but I didn’t realize how much trouble that you were gonna be in if it actually happened, and that’s why I stayed.”
And, you know, I had my suspicions the whole time that he was in on it, but when he actually confirmed it to me, it was like something snapped inside of me and an anger and a rage poured out of me that that I honestly never knew existed. You know, I began verbally assaulting Morgan and I remember physically, you know, hitting him with my fists, with objects, with just about anything I could find.
NBW: Where were you guys at the time?
CS: We were in my apartment in Hollywood, you know, drunk, high. You know, really just… I don’t even know how to describe how this anger and this rage poured out of me. And I remember going into my kitchen, uh, Morgan was beaten up and passed out in the bathroom, and I remember going into my kitchen and getting a kitchen knife and walking in and stabbing him in the chest. I murdered my friend over a six-pound suitcase of pot. And, I mean, by far it was something that I wished every day that it never, ever happened.
NBW: Of course. Yeah.
CS: You know, because none of it… one, it didn’t it didn’t bring anything back. And it just put this destructive force in the world that, you know, [sigh] I just wish that, uh, that I just wish that I wasn’t that person that this, that caused this.
NBW: You said it was like this rage you never experienced before, but did you ever have moments before this moment that signaled to you that you could snap like that?
CS: There was a lot of warning signs for me along the way. But none of them were so serious to the point that I would ever take another man’s life. You know, I never in my wildest dreams thought that I had that in me and it scared the hell out of me. You know, to wake up to that, to look back and try to figure out a way to reconcile, you know, to the fact that that I was responsible.
NBW: So what happened immediately after that?
CS: I was arrested. I was arrested relatively quickly. You know, that kind of commotion brought the police. They discovered Morgan’s body, and I was arrested, you know, from day one. Amid that, went to L.A. County jail, had to explain to my family, you know, it was all over the news. And no one could believe it, right? I grew up in a suburban community, you know, raised by a single working mom.
NBW: Do you remember what your mom said when you told her? I mean, obviously, it was over the phone, right?
CS: Yeah, it was over the phone. And, uh. I don’t know if I can remember the words, but I remember the tears. You know, I broke her heart. You know? And the most amazing thing was that, I mean, through it all, through her broken heart, through, you know, like the shame and the embarrassment that I caused to the family and to the community and just about everyone involved, she still took my phone calls. She still came to visit. She still, you know, wrote cards and letters and expressed her love and support. And I can honestly say that her love is about the closest thing, I think, to God’s love that I’ll ever know.
NBW: So, Chris from everything I know about you and everything you said, you’re a different man than you were in the year 2000. Would you agree?
CS: I would humbly, but absolutely agree.
NBW: So, when did the process of change happen?
CS: I realized very early on that drugs and alcohol had led me to making one of the worst decisions of my entire life. And from the moment that happened, from the moment that I took a knife and murdered my friend over a suitcase full of drugs, was the last moment that I ever drank and used again, and the fact that it took something so drastic still kills me.
NBW: I think a lot of people don’t understand how readily available drugs and alcohol are in prison. And boy, if there is a place you want to check out, you know, numb out a bit, it’s gonna be inside, right?
CS: Well, anybody that does believe that, you know, like oh you had to get clean, is absolutely wrong. I mean, prison is its own vice city, if you will. Everything that you can, you can get out on the streets you can find in prison.
NBW: Yeah, for sure. So you decided, look, I’m going to get clean and sober. So that was one one point on the map of you becoming who you are today.
CS: Yeah. And then the other one was shortly after that. I remember being in the county jail and them doing a church call and only a handful of guys actually went. And I remember that this little old lady came down and started teaching us out of a book that was really a book for children, you know, and she started reading this story about Zacchaeus and how how this man, this very small man climbed this very large tree, so he could see Jesus coming through the town. And really what he was willing to sacrifice to find God and to find spirituality in his life. And just hearing that story, you know, made for children was where I was at spiritually. And it was at that point that I just realized that all of my best thinking had led me to here and that I was really longing and searching for a new path and new direction. I gave my life to God and began reading the Bible and started learning about, you know, like, right thinking, right living, forgiveness, redemption, you know, all of these things that somewhere deep inside of me that I was longing for.
NBW: So I want to dig into the redemption thing real quick. Just because, I just don’t know that people even believe in it right now, you know? But I feel like redemption is something that’s not only part of your story, but it’s part of a lot of stories that you’re adjacent to.
CS: It was definitely not something I felt like I deserved. I feel like it was something that happened along the way.
NBW: Yeah, it’s grace, right?
CS: And none of it happened overnight. You know, I wasn’t perfect. I wasn’t… You know, I think certain things built up in me over time. You know, but I look back, and you know, as my years of incarceration went on and I was locked up 17 years total as they went on, you know, more and more opportunities were made available to me in terms of education. There was people coming in teaching classes on anger management, spiritual health and wellness, nonviolent communication. I mean, so I got involved with the college program. You know, I wanted to try to upgrade myself educationally.
NBW: And you did. You leveled up, man. Right?
CS: Yeah [laughs]. Something that a lot of people don’t know is there’s a veterans group. There’s a Vietnam veterans group inside San Quentin. And I was able to work on some projects with them where they were doing fundraisers to try to help children of veterans go to college. I mean, and I think these are the things that I was most grateful for, like even though I was locked up and even though I had taken so much away, there was still a way for me to try to find a way to give back.
NBW: So, do you feel like there was a sort of spiritual mathematics to it? In the sense that you took something away and now you have to put something back. I mean, in the sense that you ended someone’s life and that obviously there was pain associated with that, with anyone who was connected to that life, and so therefore you have a sort of mandate to be of service?
CS: Yeah, I mean, uh it makes me sad, like, to think about it because there’s no mathematics to taking someone’s life because you can never give it back. You know, if I’d stolen something, you know, I might be able to pay it back. Or, you know, if I broke something, maybe I could fix it, but murder that’s…
NBW: You can’t fix that.
CS: That’s forever, and that’s something that I’m going to have to to live with forever. But it does move me to want to try to like take my experience and have conversations and maybe help other people struggling with addiction. You know, there were some groups inside that helped mentor at-risk youth. You know, I think that’s the only thing that really moves me is to try to take something from my experience and pay it forward. I do feel like that’s something I owe. You know, just the whole thought of, I knew I was a drug user and I justified that in my own life for, for dealing with whatever it is I felt like I needed to deal with at the time. But looking back on it now, I could see that by dealing drugs to other people, you know, I was contributing to the breakup of other families and to the demise of other people getting lost inside their own addictions. So… I’ve had to reconcile that with myself in a lot of ways, you know?
NBW: Yeah. I hear you. Have you had the chance to speak with the family of the man you killed, Morgan’s Family? Were they at your parole hearing?
CS: They were not… I learned later on that Morgan had been a father of a seven year old girl at the time that the crime happened.
NBW: Oh wow.
CS: And that he had an aunt, a 63 year old aunt at the time. And, you know, I knew that I had to make amends to them too.
NBW: So, I’m curious, in terms of forgiveness, do you feel like you’ve forgiven yourself? And what does that even mean to you?
CS: Yeah, that’s, uh, that’s something I deal with. And I can go through that Bible and read some about some pretty horrible things that people did in there and that God was willing to love and forgive them. And that if I was, you know, had a faith that he could do that for me, then who was I not to forgive myself and move forward? And that became very important to me. Right, it’s like not to not to get lost.
NBW: I guess I am thinking about you as the man you were in that apartment of yours in Hollywood in 2000 and the shame, I imagine, of failing as a drug dealer. And the fact that you just got played and that this person was pretending to be your friend. And all of these things were basically owning you. And I guess I think about, I think being, being people committed to a spiritual life as saying, I can’t allow other things to own me anymore.
CS: Yeah, you know, if I had the strength in that moment to forgive, you know, how different things could have been.
NBW: Jeez. It really can be life or death, you know.
CS: And then I think, you know, like forgiveness is all so multifaceted that some people ask me, “what if Morgan’s family never forgives you?” If the harm that I caused makes them feel that way, then I have to to allow them to have that, you know. But I can’t let it stop me either, from moving forward and trying to do the next right thing. It’s been two and a half years now of working, of rebuilding a life, of making amends, of staying clean and staying connected to God. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share my story with other people, too, because, you know, part of my goal is to really change the face of incarceration. You know, people that have been locked up are the ones that have really had some time to to work on themselves. You know, not everyone but the ones that have, I truly believe deserve a second chance. And there was a lot of these guys, you know, creative, talented, smart, educated guys coming out of San Quentin, and I really want to give them a voice and highlight some of the things that they’re doing because I’m just so impressed by it. I don’t believe that people should be thrown away, you know?
NBW: Chris, I’m so glad to know you and I’m so glad to know your story, and I’m really grateful that you were willing to come on The Confessional. I’m so grateful. Thank you.
CS: Well, you know, you’re one of my favorite people. So, uh, this was one invite I couldn’t say no to.
NBW: Oh, I’m so glad. Thank you.
NBW: A Blessing for Chris
When, a few weeks ago, I sent you a children’s bible story about Zacchaeus, you texted me back and said it made you cry and I was not sorry, Chris.
I was not sorry because I want you to know how much like Zacchaeus you actually are.
We are told he made money in a dishonorable way.
He was not considered a good man.
There were some things about him that kept him from seeing that which was good and holy and he lived in a way which kept him from seeing what which was good and holy about even himself.
But then one day he climbed a tree so he could see God.
He put himself in the path of that which was most good and holy. And when he did, Jesus said, “Zacchaeus, climb down, I’m going to your house for dinner.”
He put himself in the path of God and God attached to him, pulling him out of his shit. And then Zacchaeus did the spiritual math and decided to give back everything he could and to be of service, and Jesus said, “redemption has come to you.”
And you know what, Chris? People weren’t happy about this. People said, “Hold on. this Jesus guy hangs out with sinners!” And they grumbled.
But that is the work of God, it is the duty of the holy to restore broken ass people, and it’s always been like that. So, Chris, if people grumble about your redemption, and think you unforgivable, know that they’ve always done that.
So as you move through your life know that theirs is not the voice of God. You were right, you know? The voice of God is so much more like the voice of your mother whose heart you broke and who loved you all the same. May you listen for that voice, the one of a loving mother as you live as a free man in more ways than just being formerly incarcerated.
NBW: Next time on The Confessional I speak with someone who survived growing up during the crack epidemic and whose life is still marked by it in some humbling ways.
Theresa Thames: I became the same thing that I hated, that I saw my mom being able to flatfoot stand in front of me and lie without skipping a beat.
NBW: In the meantime, enjoy this confession from a listener in a segment I like to call Shit I’m Not Proud Of:
Shannon: Hey Nadia, this is Shannon from Mississippi. And, when I was in high school, I was questioned by a police officer about putting sugar in the gas tank of my ex-boyfriend’s car. I blinked innocently, denied doing it, offered to take a lie detector test. I shrugged when I was told I’d have to go to the police station with my parents. I wasn’t worried because I knew I had not put sugar in my ex-boyfriend’s gas tank… It was Sweet’N Low. Thanks, have a good day! Bye.
NBW: Do you have Some Shit You’re Not Proud Of? Call 618-CONFESS and leave me a message and I might play it on the show. The Confessional is produced by House of Pod and Shameless Media with support and spiritual guidance from The Moth and PRX. Our original music is composed by Antwan Banks Williams.