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The Gospel According to Ray
November 13, 2006
Ray Lewis has a story to tell, of persecution and redemption, of fathers and sons, of pain caused and pain endured. The trials he's suffered--and Lord knows there have been many--are all part of a master plan
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November 13, 2006

The Gospel According To Ray

Ray Lewis has a story to tell, of persecution and redemption, of fathers and sons, of pain caused and pain endured. The trials he's suffered--and Lord knows there have been many--are all part of a master plan

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The sinner is breaking a sweat now. He's been telling his story for just over a minute, just enough time to start feeling it all again, and the reliving always brings rage. Called him liar, monster, abuser of women? Yes, the world did that. Called him killer? Yes, the world did, and does it still: He saw the poster in Cleveland in September, back of the end zone, with the drawing of a knife and the words asking how Ray Lewis can still be free. But here? Tonight? No. Or as he sometimes lets slip, "Hell, naw!" He's got his people, a bobbing, loving, understanding sea of 2,000 black faces before him. He's got his pastor, Jamal-Harrison Bryant, standing behind him, saying, "Talk, Ray, talk." Tonight, indeed, Lewis has the Holy Spirit settling on him like never before. He grips the microphone in both hands, crouches ever so slightly, as if girding himself for the collision to come.

"God has done something in my life--and not just for me to see it," Lewis says softly. Then his eyes flash, and he starts shouting, pointing. "God has done something in my life for ev-ery hat-er, ev-ery enemy.... "

A noise--"whooooaaa!"--rises out of the rows at the Empowerment Temple in northwest Baltimore, like the roar of an ocean wave gathering itself to crest.

"... every person who said I wouldn't walk or ever play again!"

Applause, shouting, the wave full-faced and beginning to crash. Oh, he's got 'em now. Not that they didn't come here on this Tuesday night in late September--some dressed in Sunday-best suits and dresses, some in Sunday-best r. lewis Ravens jerseys--primed to adore him anyway. After all, Lewis was the molten core of the defense that anchored Baltimore's Super Bowl XXXV championship in January 2001, and this season, with him recovered from hamstring surgery and recharged by the addition of quarterback Steve McNair, the 6--2 Ravens are again a threat to win the AFC. Still, he's not here to talk football. They're not here to hear it. Tonight is about redemption. Tonight is about loving the sinner and hating the sin. Tonight is about Ray Lewis, once accused of double homicide, the father of six kids by four women, living the word and spreading it through TV cameras dollying around the stage.

"See, I had to face, face-to-face, my four-year-old child, who couldn't understand why his father was in shackles," Lewis is saying. "I had to face that I couldn't touch my mother for the first time in my life. And God asked me a question. I was in jail 15 days, and He asked me, How long are you gonna cry?"

He goes on to say how men have to treat their women like "queens," sweet music to the ladies whooping at his words. But the 31-year-old Lewis, stalking about in an ash-gray three-piece and a thick-knot tie the color of clear sky, is going after bigger game tonight. For when you ask him, and often when you don't, Lewis will tell you these days that he's "anointed," that he enjoys "favor," that he is a "king" charged with fostering a national ministry on the order of Martin Luther King Jr. and that, once football is done, his mix of piety and street cred and that spectacularly nasty, Court TV--chronicled fall will drag even the most hardened hearts to the light. Indeed, Lewis's revamped faith, like the man himself, is a raw, loud, electric thing, a muscular mix of the sacred and the profane. Every game day, just before another 60 minutes' worth of NFL hype and violence, Lewis will dip his fingers in consecrated oil, seek out a half dozen of his fellow defenders and trace a cross on each of their foreheads.

And he doesn't limit his touch to teammates. "You are blessed," Lewis told San Diego Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman on the phone the night before the two teams met in October. "Limit yourself with how many women you see. And strap up!" It's a constant refrain to any young player who crosses his path. "You know how foolish I was?" Lewis says. "One thing Ray's going to tell you: Don't you sleep with no woman without a condom."

A few other things Ray will tell you are that off the field he's not a vicious man and never hurt anyone, much less the two men who were stabbed to death outside Atlanta's Cobalt Lounge on Jan. 31, 2000; that he regrets the mistakes he made that night; that the resulting trial was a blessing because it made him change. It's a compelling narrative, and Lewis tries hard to make it stick. "Life is so great," he will often begin a thought. When Lewis saw that poster at Cleveland Browns Stadium he strode along the sideline reciting the Lord's Prayer. Lewis says he's all about love, but when he talks about the Fulton County prosecutor, the former Atlanta mayor, the people who tried to send him to jail? Then he goes all Old Testament, his love full of loud and righteous fury.

"The battle is: Am I O.K.?" Lewis is telling the crowd. "Even though I was persecuted, crucified.... Am I O.K.? Let me give you a quick read-back on me, Church. When I walk into another stadium, 52 other players walk in there with me, plus coaches--and all [the fans] do to them is boo." He pauses, then grins. "Now, when Ray Lewis walks out there..." he says, but the whole room cuts in laughing, ready for the roundhouse to come. "Church? I'm going to tell you something about God, now.... When Mr. Lewis walks out, child, I hear everything from 'Murderer,' I hear everything from 'N-----,' I hear everything from 'You shouldn't be playing football!' And when I break it all down, I know they're talking about yesterday!"

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