I recently read the book “Just Mercy- A Story of Justice and Redemption” by Bryan Stevenson. It is a book that opened my eyes. It is too easy to sit in my own comfort zone. This zone often includes my home, my family, my friends, my city, my church, my community, and the list could go on. So, how have I exposed myself to other’s perspectives, lives, pain, joy and moved out of the places I am used to and feel comfortable in? I have had the privilege of traveling places experiencing third world poverty, different cultures and ways of living as well as different languages from mine. In my own city, I have had the privilege of helping house homeless women and children, entered homes (ask my son how uncomfortable this was) and helped refugees that are new to our city. I still naturally gravitate toward my comfort zone and less toward taking risks. I guess reading is another way to expose myself to feeling uncomfortable and this book is added to my pile for doing just that.
The compassion the author demonstrates in his work was so inspiring. It is about our “broken justice system,” and he tells stories of people…forgotten people. People sitting on death row for years who are there unjustly, children tried as adults as young as 13 sentenced to life without parole in adult prison where they are brutally raped over and over. It is gut wrenching. In some of the stories, people are guilty, but the sentence doesn’t fit the crime. They have not been represented well or at all because they are poor. Some, they are completely innocent and have been set up and unable to defend themselves because of poverty and race and a whole lot of corruption. The author tells how he and others who started the organization the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) are helping these people. He drives to countless prisons, jails, towns and people’s homes in remote areas in the “deep south” and all over the US helping discarded people to get them off death row, or out of prison even after being there for 50 years. He demonstrates a kind of compassion and mercy that is so moving and convicted me deep in my heart. In reading the book, I was carried along as he weaves the different stories of individual cases throughout the book wanting to hear how it ends along with history and information about our judicial system. I felt my understanding of the history of racial injustice was deepened as well. Since reading the book, I haven’t started doing prison ministry. Some it may inspire to do that. But, I am convicted about how I view people. It is easy to forget or discount people especially if they are not contributing or productive in society. I feel moved in the area of compassion. I also feel encouraged to keep going in life and in my own work. The author hits a point of exhaustion after his last conversation with a man he had been fighting to get off death row who was still executed. He thought himself a fool for trying “to fix a situation that was fatally broken”. He thought, “It’s time to stop. I can’t do this anymore.” At that point, I felt the exhaustion and wondered how or why he would keep doing this work. But, he goes on to describe what helped him to keep going in understanding his own choice in doing this and his own brokenness. Here’s what he says,
“My years of struggling against inequality, abusive power, poverty, oppression, and injustice had finally revealed something to me about myself. Being close to suffering, death, executions, and cruel punishments didn’t just illuminate the brokenness of others; in a moment of anguish and heartbreak, it also exposed my own brokenness. You can’t effectively fight abusive power, poverty, inequality, illness, oppression, or injustice and not be broken by it. We are all broken by something.”
Then he goes on to say, “Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion.” I needed that. This perspective helps me to continue in my own work as a counselor listening to people’s stories of pain and not always being sure I am helping them keep going. Feeling inadequate in my own pain and brokenness realizing again that this is the place I can work from. It helps to fight the discouragement that says I am not good enough to help people because of my daily mistakes, failures and imperfection. I think we all may need a dose of that.