05/05/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Can We Still Be Good?

The question, "If I make a big mistake, can I still be a good man?" floated into my mind last Sunday as I sat in our little neighborhood church listening to Joel Ives, our Episcopal priest, explain Lent and the different forms of temptation in the modern world. I mentally took the 2,000-year leap from Christ to the 7th grader, an African-American boy, who had asked me that question in front of his 400 male classmates a few weeks ago.

The boys were crammed into the chapel at Belmont Hill School. Andre Tippett, a NFL Hall of Famer, had told them about how the martial arts concept of "beginner's mind" had saved him as he grew up the man of a fatherless home in Newark. James Houghton, my business partner, recounted the excruciating decision to be the first Houghton male in six generations not to take the reins at Corning, the famed company that made kitchen items everywhere and more recently became the worldwide leader in fiber optics. I explained how I had been financially successful beyond any reasonable expectations while in my twenties but, not unlike Tiger Woods, had been equally unsuccessful in my personal life.

Perhaps it was Joel's Lenten theme of confession that set my mind to my own nervous voice at the pulpit, reading from my essay entitled "Crash & Learn." My voice broke as I described the terror of waking up in a car I flipped on the Massachusetts turnpike as an apt metaphor for what my life had become due to booze and arrogance. The personal crash that eventually followed had set me on a fourteen-year pilgrimage in search of men's stories that brought me in contact with men of all walks of life, doing and being good in their own unique ways.

But in that chapel on a pristine prep school campus, that one black-skinned hand from all the way in the back of the balcony summed it all up--the innocence in his question and the courage to ask it in front of his entire school. Men often become defensive when I ask them their stories or what being good means to them. Perhaps they think I am on some kind of mission to drag them into the woods to beat drums while naked. But boys--including my very own 13-year-old son--are desperate for answers about war, divorce, drugs, sex, death, and money. Their innate goodness hasn't been beaten out of them yet, but they are confused by what they see. They want to know what to do.

I paused for a moment to look down and collect myself when the boy asked the question. I stood before the student body, and I thought about the one in eight African American men in our country who are in prison. I thought about the majority of 8th grade boys who can't read at their grade level. I thought about the 15 million boys growing up without fathers. Then I looked up to the balcony and spoke about my friend Julio Medina, a man who has become a symbol to me of what is right and what is wrong with our country.

"I want to tell you about Julio," I started. "He grew up fatherless and took care of his family by selling drugs, eventually running the biggest drug ring in the South Bronx. His gang was put away for life by the federal task force against drugs." I had closed my eyes to picture Julio's sweet face--so sweet I still couldn't quite believe had ever committed those crimes. "In Sing Sing, Julio enrolled in a seminary program. He pretended to be interested just to have some chance to get parole. But some of it began to sink in." My eyes were now open. Every face looked up at me.

"Six years into his sentence, Julio was walking back from the chapel when he encountered a man bleeding to death after being stabbed. Inmates ran to avoid getting blood on their uniforms--and in that moment everything changed in Julio's life. 'I cannot walk over my brother's blood,' he thought. He picked the man up."

"Julio got out of Sing Sing after serving twelve years. He started an organization called Exodus that has now helped 5,000 men coming out of prison stay out of prison." I paused to let the idea of redemption sink in completely. "Julio was a felon. He made awful mistakes," I said, craning my neck so I could make out the boy's face and look into his eyes. "But to me, he is a real American hero."

I thought of the look on that boy's face when I got to the end of the story--his look of awe at the ability of a man to be both so bad and yet have found a way to be so good--as Joel continued on at the lecture last Sunday. He was explaining that temptation is not only born out of sins of weakness, but that in fact the misuse of our strengths and the story of Lent and Easter Sunday is one of forgiveness and rebirth.

As I thought about Joel's words I kept coming back to the boy's question and to all the boys I have met. It occurred to me that we like to classify certain boys as "at risk"--but in fact all our boys are at risk: mine and yours and the millions with no fathers. I had answered the question to point to one miracle, but that boy's real question wasn't about his soul but rather about all of ours.

Are we, particularly the men, good enough to do something about the teenage boys across this country who truly are at risk?

Thomas Matlack is the former Chief Financial Officer of The Providence Journal, is the founding Managing Partner of Megunticook Management, and is the co-founder of The Good Men Project.