Today I freely wept as I finished the book “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson. The kind of tears I cry at someone’s funeral or when I have to say goodbye to a chapter of my life I didn’t want to let go. This memoir was a beautiful tragedy that I will never forget.
In the last six weeks we have watched the world turn upside down in response to racial injustice and the deaths of many. It’s been hard for me to process and understand what role I can play to be a voice for those who are being treated unjustly or have lost their lives because of poor choices made by others. As I’ve tried to work through my feelings I started to actively search for ways that I could educate myself as a single, white, female who has always lived a relatively sheltered, safe life in my hometown on the prairie. I worried and wondered what difference I could make both in my education and in my actions. As many of you know and who have been following my blogs over the past few years, I am a big fan of the paralympian Amy Purdy. When I had my last blog “Let it Be and Celebrate” I wrote a book review about her memoir “On My Own Two Feet” and how much it inspired me. In her book she details her struggles as her world completely changed after she contracted meningitis and had to amputate both her legs. Amy later became an Olympic medalist in the Paralympics for snowboarding and I discovered her greatness when she became the first amputee to perform on ABC’s Dancing With the Stars. Since then I have followed Amy on social media and continued to be in awe of her faith, hope, advocacy and courage. Recently she made the decision to start a virtual book club to study the book “Just Mercy” by Brian Stevenson as part of her efforts to understand and advocate for justice against systemic racism while including others and bringing us together through her vast social media platform presence.
I quickly jumped at the opportunity to join her virtual book club during the struggles of a pandemic, working from home and not having a lot of other things to do but read and educate myself as I watched the horrific news coverage about numerous brutal deaths of black Americans. I had already read an amazing book by Austin Channing Brown called “I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness” and I knew I needed to keep going until I felt like I was more educated and could use my voice and my trains of thought in my philosophies on life in a more productive way. As soon as Amy announced the virtual book club I quickly ordered the book on Amazon and had it sent as soon as possible. When I announced on social media that I intended to read this book many of my friends chimed in and commented how pivotal the book and the film were for them in their discovery and education on how to change their points of view on systemic racism. While I thought I had an idea of what I was about to read I really did not understand the magnitude of injustice that I would learn about in this memoir.
My thoughts have been ever flowing and have moved me and forced me to think about things in a different light than I ever imagined possible. This book has strengthened my motivation to exercise my right to vote and to exercise my right to speak up. I hope that what I have to share today will help someone in the world to better understand some of their own struggles and perhaps help them move forward in figuring out how to channel a world where there’s still so much injustice that we need to address.
As I started to read the book I quickly realized that if I didn’t read it with sticky notes and a pen I was going to miss or forget important themes that started to present themselves very early on in the book. In my day job I work very closely with those who struggle deeply with a lot of different things including mental health struggles, criminal involvement with the law, chemical dependency and abuse and neglect. Additionally I work very closely with children who have experienced a lot of adverse childhood experiences that have caused deeply seated effects and subsequent behaviors of the trauma they’ve experienced. One of the things the author brings up quite early in the book is the effects of childhood trauma on those who find themselves in the prison system in the United States of America. He is particularly drawn to those who have found themselves on death row. As he started to talk about the people he worked with who were getting close to their execution date it became very evident that these human beings had experienced a lot of what I am aware of because of my day job. Their childhood trauma, the neglect, the lack of bonding, love and education and the overall craving to be noticed. This was an element that made this book very real and applicable to what I work with every day and struck some raw chords. While I don’t work with children who are in the prison system on death row (yes, there were kids on death row once upon a time) like the author talked about; I have worked with children whose behaviors definitely lead me to believe that if their trauma is not appropriately addressed they could very well become a statistic much like the men and women the author worked with during his time as a civil rights attorney. Where I live we don’t see the kinds of statistics centered around black Americans like Mr. Stevenson talked about, but I do see it in other minorities that are quite similar. I was shocked how corrupt and unjust the legal system really could be for those who were from a minority group. Furthermore I had very little comprehension of how corrupt a community could really be with its leaders making decisions that were completely outside of ethical humane practices. This was a significant reminder to me that I should appreciate the opportunity to work in a place where the letter of the law is upheld as much as possible.
While the stories in this book made my skin crawl at times, I was also deeply moved by the passion and courage the author and his team showed as they defended people who found themselves on death row for unjust reasons. Prior to reading this book I really didn’t know what to think about capital punishment and as I finished the book today with an epilogue that was SO moving and sad, I wept for a system where the law had given power to a select group of humans to make decisions that includes killing. While the majority of the book is centered around one particular individual that the author was able to have released from prison and death row he also talks about so many who weren’t successful. Those are the stories that made my heart hurt. My heart hurt for the families and the communities, the mothers, the fathers and the children who had to suffer when they lost a loved one to wrongful execution. My stomach turned as he described the sights, the sounds and the smell when an execution was conducted.
But, here is the part that really brought me to tears today. The aftermath. The aftermath Walter McMillan experienced after the joyous day of his release occurred. Because he had been wrongly convicted and set for execution he experienced such an intense level of trauma that it ruined his life as a free man. While he lived a few happy years advocating and speaking to a lot of people sharing his story of hope and courage, eventually his brain trauma caught up with him and he was once again confined to the death row of his mind. The struggle Walter McMillan overcame to focus on livin’ while he was set to be dyin’ ultimately cut his life short anyway. How does that resonate with you? What trauma do you have in your story that has caused so much focus on livin’ so you didn’t want to die?
The author shared the analogy about the pain caused by the person who stops the stones being cast at another person. There is a really powerful story toward the end of the book about a woman the author meets who made it her mission to come to the courthouse and watch for those to comfort when a criminal trial, many times including a capital punishment, was coming to a close. She was a nameless angel and her story reminded me of so many days when I’ve been the stone catcher. I’ve been the person to exercise compassion to someone who in the eyes of the law and the eyes of many in society doesn’t deserve a damn chance at making any of it right. But, from my perspective they do. I’m in their life because they’re a parent. I’m in their life because they have babies who need them and I want to give them every imaginable opportunity to dodge the stones being cast so they can be reunited with their babies. Does everyone see it that way? Nope. But we keep doing it because it matters. The very best solution for those broken among us is mercy. Mercy and the benefit of the doubt that somewhere in there is a human being who deserves compassion and a chance. Doesn’t mean the mercy will erase their mistakes or cause them to change, but it does mean our part will not be in vain while we extend love as God would expect from us.
As we move forward in these turbulent times, I hope we can find more of our common ground. What unites us is what defines us. I’m so grateful for the opportunity I’ve had to be uncomfortable and angry as I educated myself about the bold, unacceptable, unjust ways toward minorities. No matter what, we HAVE to use our voice for justice because the voiceless need us. Please do your part. Please educate yourself. Please vote. Please have mercy.
The Moral of the Story: mercy is kindness and kindness always matters.
Until next time, my lovelies.
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