Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
I happened to look up at that moment, in order to let my thought settle, and, like on other flights, I let my eyes skim the tray tables in front of me...to see what people might be viewing on their devices or via the seatback screens.
You know this already because you follow pop culture and media more than I do, but yes, I saw a preview for Just Mercy on someone’s screen. I was instantly hooked. Yes! It’s been adapted! Yes! I have a new reason to go to the theater!
I wasn’t able to finish the book in time to see the movie over Christmas vacation. It’s a dense, troubling read. It demands patience, just as the cases Mr. Stevenson faces demand infinite patience and fortitude. But over President’s Day weekend, my husband and I snuck away to a little town in Maine for a couple of nights, and we saw it in the theater then. Not exactly a romantic choice, but wow, I was impressed with how they focused the main storyline to stand out on screen.
“Some of that was exaggerated, right?” my husband asked me, having not yet read the book.
“No,” I shook my head. “They softened it. The book showed things are so much worse than the movie makes them out to be.”
And yet, the movie was still too much to swallow. When I told one white person what we went to see, she shrunk back from wanting to discuss it. My sister shared that when she saw it in Boston, she and her friend were the only two white people in a packed audience of African-Americans.
We both wondered whether the movie would reach a broader audience than the book, the way I had hoped. Or was this another case where people shrink back from hard things?
When I finished the book, I felt inadequate to respond in any meaningful way. I am not a lawyer. I don’t have a lot of money to donate to the cause (although the Equal Justice Initiative’s website has a donate button where you can very easily give). I mean, who am I to help change how children and others are falsely accused and wrongly sentenced?
Then my son got pulled off the bus.
“Okay, what happened?” The vice principal grilled two kindergarteners and my first-grader. While their school bus was still parked in front of the school at the end of the school day recently, their bus driver noticed that someone had removed some tape from a seatback, tape that had probably been holding the seat together. “Who pulled the tape off the seat?”
“I don’t know,” my son responded, “[Sam] got on the bus after me, and I didn’t do it. So it must have been [Mike].”
“Sam” and my son were dismissed to reboard the bus for the ride home. “Mike” was given a talking to.
Only, “Mike” said he didn’t do it either. His mother texted me, saying he was in tears over the incident.
Now, when the bus reached me that afternoon, all four of my children bounded down the steps with versions of what had happened, and the whole short scene took about an hour to piece together. I still have no idea who removed the tape from the seatback, but I also knew this: my son falsely accused someone else.
“Did you see [Mike] remove the tape?” I asked him.
“No,” he admitted.
So we had a little chat.
I know the truth is out there. Did someone rip the tape off and then run and hide in the back of the bus? Did the tape fall off on its own because of the humidity or because it was old and losing its grip?
I wanted to believe my son that he had nothing to do with it. I needed to know he would tell me the truth.
And I needed him to understand that searching for the truth doesn’t mean finding someone to blame.
It was a small step, but I felt in that moment like I’d learned something from Bryan Stevenson. My son apologized to “Mike”, and we went about our afternoon.
Some of you might remember I’m attempting (along with a friend) to read through the Bible this year. Well, when I got to Leviticus recently, I was struck by this verse:
“If anyone sins because they do not speak up when they hear a public charge to testify regarding something they have seen or learned about, they will be held responsible.” (Leviticus 5:1)
I wondered if there was a parallel between this verse and our current call to stand up to injustice, to prevent false accusations and “give people their truth back.” (Quote from movie adaptation of Just Mercy)
Most of us aren’t lawyers. But I know we all can be teachers. Only God knows how we will be used to give people their truth back. From where we sit, we can only keep our eyes open for the chance to do that.
Sustaining lessons from Ephesians
Then, like so many of you, we were told we couldn’t meet.
Isolation has at times felt forced, other times like a welcome retreat from the uncertainty in the world. But my small group has continued to meet virtually, and, like a regular prayer life, I find a sustaining power in our gatherings. We confess it’s hard to dive into the Word these days. It’s hard to focus on anything. Newsfeeds, emails, demands from our children and workplaces distract us from anything but reactionary functioning. During the two virtual meetings we’ve had so far, it takes us most of an hour to feel comfortable enough to pray.
During that time, we confess our anxieties -- about food shortages, about continued disruption of everyday life, about the people who won’t be able to receive help, about the people who are risking their lives to provide help. We feel like we shouldn’t be afraid, which just adds pressure to our inner turmoil. We remember Jesus says, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” (Mark 6:31)
How, Lord? We ask.
We offer each other encouragement. Say the Lord’s prayer when you get up in the morning. Write in a gratitude journal. Look up. Step out in faith when you wonder if you should act. Give.
We remember Paul’s words, from Ephesians and other letters, words like:
“I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” (Ephesians 4:1-2)
We reflected on how now more than ever, while our families are together in the house 24/7, we need to bear with one another. Each of us has felt overwhelmed, angry, and exhausted at different times. When I made my last shopping trip to the grocery store, I noticed less than friendly faces, eyeing me with suspicion -- don’t linger here, they told me silently. Never before have we had a greater opportunity to attempt to understand each other’s outbursts and frustrated remarks. Paul reminds us how to respond:
“Be very careful, then, how you live -- not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity.” (Ephesians 5:15)
After our group’s time of sharing, one of us opens in prayer. And then another offers prayer. And another. Prayers of both thanksgiving and petition. Until it’s all poured out of us and someone has closed our popcorn-style prayer and we are left smiling at each other over the computer screen, bonded by our sisterhood, our many variations of the struggles and hopes we have for each other and the world around us.
Let’s do this again next week, I say.
Yes, they agree.
Prior to the start of this new reality of isolation, our small group shared many life concerns, and I’m so grateful that this group was already in place when our whole world changed.
Do you have brothers and sisters you can pray with? Do you hesitate because you don’t know how to begin? If you don’t have time for a group, consider beginning by making a list -- of everyone on your heart during this season. Like Paul, lift them up to the Lord, speaking their names to him. Then, send those people a note telling them of your gratitude for their lives and how you’re praying for them during this time.
Paul, bound in chains, couldn’t be with the congregations. But he sent messages. We, in this time, can take our cue from him, first by remembering his prayer that still endures today:
“...I kneel before the Father, from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge -- that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.” (Ephesians 3:14-21)
As I raced to my writing class on March 9th, the first thing I noticed was the emptiness on the Red Line train that carried me from Cambridge to the Boston Common. One woman boarding the train at Charles M.G.H. grabbed the handrail, and then cursed under her breath as she drew back her hand like she had just touched a hot oven or received an electric shock. She doused herself in hand sanitizer, and I wondered what precautions I should be taking.
“How’re we feeling about coming into class?” my instructor asked, once we were assembled at the writing center.
“Fine. Fine,” we nervously agreed as we eyed each other and the bottles of hand sanitizer and Clorox wipes on the table. We then suppressed coughs and sniffles that suddenly took on a whole new meaning.
We were desperate to hold onto a semblance of normal. We didn’t want to believe what was going on.
One week later, we switched to a virtual classroom. It took me a heck of a lot more time to type my margin notes onto my classmates’ excerpts and email them copies of the documents. Overwhelmed with the sudden need to homeschool my kids and the inability to retreat to Starbucks to think clearly, I snuck in hours of writing work by burning the candle at both ends -- working late after my kids were (finally) asleep, and hiding away in my bedroom during the dark early hours before my husband “went to work” at the makeshift tray table desk we squirrelled away in our bedroom for his work from home situation.
My writing friends -- in my memoir class and in my writing group -- started to send notes, asking if it was okay to deviate from their main projects in order to share an excerpt about their response to COVID. Of course, we responded. Write what’s on your mind.
But I couldn’t do that. Overwhelmed by a new task of homeschooling four children, I felt like I was drinking from a firehose of teacher emails and expectations and my own need to preserve some kind of normalcy for my kids. I told my kids we could do this. We’d say the Pledge of Allegiance every morning. We would have work time to focus on math and language. We would have specials (art, music, library). I would still pack “school” lunches and give them recess and technology time and take them on nature hikes for field trips.
I didn’t feel like I had any creative energy left. The last time I wrote something new was that week of March 9th when we were still hanging onto normal, when I was still sitting in Starbucks, where I put an apple down on the table there and, as I picked it up to take a bite, the guy next to me interrupted,
“You’re not afraid of coronavirus?” he asked worriedly.
At the time, I wasn’t. I cranked out my pages.
But then my writing conference was cancelled. I had looked forward to that conference for an entire year. This meant the situation was getting worse. This made the situation very real to me. And this made me want to hang onto what I could. I suddenly needed a new goal to aim for.
A woman in my writing class encouraged me to apply to our writing center’s MFA-equivalent memoir program. I spent the next ten days cutting down my 358 page manuscript to a maximum allowed 300 page submission. Not exactly creative work. Just brutal slashing of words. For excerpts to send to my class and to my writing group, I also relied on material that I had already written. I revised in a cursory fashion before I emailed them off, but I didn’t trust my bleary-eyed judgement as I squeezed in the work around printing out copies of children’s math worksheets and researching online educational opportunities.
The theme of my life for the past nine months has been PIVOT. And here we are being called to pivot again. Writing class, writing group, writing time in general will look different from now until...we reach a new steady state.
I’m still going to write when I can though. And if you’re a writer, I hope you can find time to write through this too. But if all we can do write now is move some commas around, well then, I think we can be forgiven.
My kids’ school values continuing education at home during any extended break. When my kids stepped off the school bus to start summer vacation last June, I knew to expect a dense packet of *suggestions* -- math exercises, reading response questions, fine motor control activities for the youngest children, and of course, an extensive reading list (printed on purple paper so we would be able to identify it easily). Trying to follow the teacher’s lead, I asked my literate children to circle the book titles that appealed to them. Then I requested a stack from our public library.
The kids and I had talked about World War II at times in the past (thanks to kids’ series like I Survived and Magic Treehouse, at one point I had a three-year-old asking me if Big Ben was bombed during the Blitz), but Japanese American families rounded up and forced into internment camps? What would my kids take away from this story? Would they develop prejudice against Japanese? Would they feel the sadness of this history? What kind of commentary should I add?
I read the story solemnly, including the afterword that provides more of a historical perspective. And I’m ashamed that I almost apologized for making them confront such a sad part of our country’s past. The urge to sweep it under the rug was something I had to fight in myself. Because we as Americans are different now, right? We have many Japanese friends. My kids can tell you that the fast train in Japan is called the Shinkansen. Why hold onto the hurt?
People say kids surprise you. It’s true.
They requested that book many, many times that summer. We renewed our borrowing time as long as we could. And they asked me questions. How many people were at the camp? What were the other camps like? What else did they do at camp besides play baseball?
Having kids will make you keenly aware of how many times (a day) you have to say “I don’t know.”
I told them I would request more books so we could learn together, but then life got in the way, as it so often does.
This winter, one of my son’s asked again for “that book where they play baseball at camp.” It took me a minute to wipe the cobwebs from my memory, but I dug up the purple summer reading packet, located the title, and requested the library book once more.
As it tends to do, history repeated itself, with my kids enjoying the story and asking questions, and that’s when I realized that I shouldn’t put it off any longer.
There are times I really appreciate the marketing search functions that allow merchants to suggest materials -- if you liked this, you might also like…
I found So Far from the Sea by Eve Bunting, Baseball Saved Us by Ken Mochizuki, and The Bracelet by Yoshiko Uchida. I braced myself with each reading, trying to read clearly through the tears that were easily coaxed from my eyes as I imaged the pain and suffering of these families, of the children.
My kids didn’t cry. They heard stories of friendship and honoring family members, of remembering, of baseball and of school. They learned that it took the U.S. Government 46 years to apologize for their actions. They learned the U.S. Government apologized. They heard one Japanese father’s perspective:
“Why did they put you and Grandmother...here?” [I ask]
“Because Japan attacked the United States… It was a terrible thing. Suddenly we were at war. And we were Japanese, living in California. The government thought we might do something to help Japan. So they kept us in these camps.”
“It wasn’t fair,” I say. “It was the meanest thing in the whole world. You were Americans. Like I am….”
“It wasn’t fair that Japan attacked this country either. That was mean, too. There was a lot of anger then. A lot of fear. But it was more than thirty years ago, Laurie. We have to put it behind us and move on.” (So Far from the Sea by Eve Bunting)
And yet, the father doesn’t move on from everything. He keeps alive the memory of his father who died in the camp. He teaches this history to his children as he teaches them to honor those who suffered.
You, of course, are aware that these weren’t the only camps in World War II. Amazon also recommended titles about the Holocaust. Should I go there? Yes, I decided, I should.
When we read The Whispering Town by Jennifer Elvgren about a Danish town that hid Jews and ferried them to Sweden, and when we read The Harmonica by Tony Johnston about a Jewish boy who survived camp by playing Schubert on the harmonica his father gave him before they were separated, my kids absorbed the details. They were as baffled as we are today by the hatred. And they were as grateful as we are today for those who helped. We have been listening to Schubert...appreciating the music...and remembering the way that boy gave his fellow prisoners hope during their time in camp.
Apparently kids can handle it. I’m still left feeling uncomfortable that I don’t have all the answers. But I’m also left feeling grateful for the writers who share their personal stories with us, so we can cry and cheer and humble ourselves and hope with them.
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.