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 that too, 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.
"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. Still, he's not here to talk football. They're not here to hear it. Tonight is about redemption. 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?' "
RAY WILL TELL YOU THAT OFF the field he's not a vicious man and would 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. 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!"
Now they're all in it together. Lewis starts bellowing, the crowd loses all control, clapping, stomping. He's going for a big finish: voice cracking, face wet, the words coming fast. Ray Lewis is feeling so justified that he's like a runaway train. And for all his spiritual growth these past few years, for all he will tell you about his new walk, it's clear now that Lewis retains every bit of swagger, menace, that palpable promise of violence that made him one of football's greatest defensive players. He's not about to let this testimony end in a haze of peace or love. No, this is payback, a bit of that Miami Hurricanes in-your-face, a holy f--- you to the world that tried to shut him away.