Just Mercy.

 Forrest and Bubba

Forrest and Bubba

The beloved movie Forrest Gump is special to me for a variety of reasons; the foremost being Forrest’s acceptance and love of the quirky, and often disturbed, people in his life. Out of these, Forrest’s relationship with Bubba ranks as my favorite. Their brotherhood is what I imagine in an ideal world among people who are different from each other. Forrest may have never had an interest in shrimp nor the same family history; and Bubba may have never liked running;  but their connection dove deeper than superficial commonalities. They found homes in one another. They found kindness and acceptance in one another, and in the end, Forrest risks his life to save Bubba’s.

Forrest and Bubba’s friendship came to mind randomly while I was reading a book called Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. In a nutshell, the book follows an inexperienced Harvard Law graduate (Stevenson) as he takes on a death row case in the heart of Alabama around 30 years ago. As the reader follows the trial’s investigation, conviction, and ultimate death sentence against an innocent black man, Stevenson also describes various other unjust, and often fatal, cases against people of color.  While there are an unending amount of heartbreaking, quote-worthy moments in the book, the story of Herbert struck me the most:

Herbert’s life was sad as you might expect of an inmate on death row. Even prior to his traumatizing time as an enlisted during Vietnam, Herbert’s mother had died by the time he was three years old and he had struggled with drugs and alcohol before entering military service. By the time he was honorably discharged, Herbert had severe mental health issues which had been ignored for months by his line of command.

 Herbert and prison guard

Herbert and prison guard

Herbert was eventually convicted for murder - a crime he did commit, albeit tragic and accidental. Although Stevenson fought hard to see his sentence reduced, Herbert’s execution was set. As is tradition on death row, inmates and officers alike will try to provide some comfort in the convict’s final hours. In his book, Stevenson recounts Herbert's reflections on his last day:

“All day long people have been asking me, ‘What can I do to help you?’ When I woke up this morning, they kept coming to me, ‘Can we get you some breakfast?’ At midday they came to me, ‘Can we get you some lunch?’ All day long, ‘What can we do to help you?’ This evening, ‘What do you want for your meal, how can we help you?’ ‘Do you need stamps for your letters?’ ‘Do you want water?’ ‘Do you want coffee?’ ‘Can we get you a phone?’

Herbert sighed and looked away.

‘It’s been so strange, Bryan. More people have asked me what they can do to help me in the last fourteen hours of my life than ever asked me in the years when I was coming up.’ He looked at me, and his face twisted in confusion.”

And as I this passage, I was struck with the tragic reality of how many people have lived their lives without experiencing kindness, generosity, and a second chance. In some places (the U.S. included), life is just a matter of survival until you die. The concept is so far removed from my personal experience that sometimes it’s hard to imagine it being real life for anyone; but I’ve also realized that with my privilege, there is opportunity to help others in a meaningful way. I’m not necessarily talking about donating money or volunteering somewhere either. Help could mean showing a kindness to someone who annoys you; or going out of your way to be polite while driving your car; or tipping extra to a rude waiter or waitress. Whatever it may be, each of us truly has the power to change the course of someone else’s experience by opening our eyes and entering into discomfort with people who may be hurting.

It's strange that Just Mercy came into my hands while I live in another country; not only that, it was recommended to me by a French lawyer! Maybe it takes being far away to see things clearly. But to clarify, I didn’t write this to challenge anyone to behave a certain way, vote a certain way, or to feel guilty; but simply to serve as a reminder that, next time one of us walks down the street, we might be passing a Herbert.

A Memory, A Lesson.

No matter where I am in the world, my mind continually wanders to the years I spent in New York - from my brief year as a freshman at a private Christian college to life as a postgraduate, administrative professional. There are lessons to draw from the woes and joys of riding the subway everyday; navigating lower Manhattan, which still doesn’t make any sense; gleaning poetic inspiration from sunsets and homeless people alike; understanding that nearly every social introduction is akin to an interview (and that having a solid elevator pitch can be really useful); and ultimately recognizing that New York is a crash course in human nature.

I was thinking today of the time that my friend and I attended a concert at Cafe Wha? in the West Village. I say concert, but the venue is like a dingy basement with tightly-lined booths and tables and a stage. That said, it’s quite famous in its own right, having housed legends like Jimmy Hendrix and Bob Dylan. Anyway, that night we were going to see a Brazilian guitarist. We were late, but still got a booth immediately in front of the stage. Across from us were a couple of older ladies. Smooth, relaxing sounds drew my attention to the earthy skin and strong hands of the guitar player. Accompanying him on stage was a drummer and a rather eccentric looking vocalist named Julie.

Julie - a woman somewhere in her 60s - was rocking glittery eyeshadow, fake lashes, and rainbow tights. She seemed like an odd addition, but once her silky smooth voice started sliding over each note, I understood that this was a match made in musical heaven.

A few songs into the set, there was a moment of silence. The guitar was being tuned; Julie was sipping water, when I heard a voice say: “Can you let him play? I’m sorry, but I came here to hear him play Brazilian guitar.” My heart rate shot up. One of the ladies sharing our booth had literally stopped the show to express her disappointment to Julie. She went on to say that this is not what she paid for. After her speech ended, audience members chimed in…

“Wow”

“Nasty”

“Oh my God…”

I had no words.

Julie walked off of the stage with a mumble, “I don’t take it personally.”

The guitarist offered the frustrated audience member a smile as though she were a child. He assured her that there would be acoustic pieces as well.

Julie came back onstage a few songs later. Everyone clapped.

As for me, the concert ended all too quickly. People exited the venue while I sat in the booth, still gooey from the music. Suddenly, a voice close to me hissed, “You are the nastiest bitch I have ever seen.” It was another audience member. She decided to impart some final words to the lady who had interrupted the show earlier. The romantic haze that had developed from the music quickly dissipated and I got up from my seat without a smile.

***

When I reflect on this memory, my first inclination is to judge the people who expressed their disappointment so poorly. First, the lady who interrupted the show; and second, the woman who, when everything was over, decided to speak hurtful, indignant words. Of course I would never do something like that.

But then, it would be hypocritical of me to assume anything of the sort. In truth, I see much of me in both of their reactions. How many times have I come before God with my hands on my hips and my feet stomping around like a child? How many times have I imperiously put myself in the seat of Judge without thinking through the fact that I often respond wrongly as well? Any disappointment I experience in my circumstances, in God, or in other people only shows a lack of self-awareness that I am capable of the same responses. 

As I adjust to life in a new country, I am acutely aware of the need to surrender all of my expectations to God. It’s easy to want to hijack His plan and try to fit in my own instead, but that never works. My meditation since being here has been on Psalm 37:3, which says, "Trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness." This verse strikes me for the dual responsibility placed on God and the believer. Trust in Him and follow His precepts; be faithful and dwell (make a home) in the place where you are. It doesn't promise ease or that everyone will be perfect according to my idea of perfect; only that He is perfect and my responsibility is to follow Him.

The Psalm goes on to promise that "He will bring forth [my] righteousness as the light, and [my] justice as the noonday." 

If our hope is in Him, I would challenge the very concept of disappointment at all. 

The Beginning.

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It has been almost a year since I accepted an administrative internship with the International Justice Mission in South Asia. Since my acceptance, I have been blessed with financial and emotional support from family, friends, and strangers alike. However, as the holidays have come to a close and I’ve said my goodbyes, I recognize that this journey is one that I take with God alone. It is He who put this desire in my heart and He who calls me to love and learn in a country very different from my own. 

As I sit at the airport and write this, I am reminded of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s comment that"courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear.”  I take some comfort in that as I find myself feeling anxious in the face of the unknown.

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At the same time, I reflect on God's  astounding faithfulness over the past few months . I got my visa without any delays or issues. I’ve made connections to people in South Asia who have helped educate me on what to expect. I got to spend an amazing month with my parents who blessed my socks off with everything from delightful home-cooked and deep conversation to watching Duke dominate in basketball (hehe, I had to) and lunching at Pepper's. I spent quality time with my siblings and close friends during Christmas. I rang in the New Year with my younger brother Forrest and his wife, Sam, along with my grandparents, aunt and uncle. I’ve had precious time to read books, have quiet times, drink coffee at coffee shops, and just slow down. At orientation week in D.C., I had a home with family friends, who made me feel safe and loved during an intense and inspirational week of information. 

So what I’m trying to say is: I am so #blessed. My heart is full. I’m happy to be sad to leave because I know the treasures that I’m leaving behind; I know God’s goodness. I look forward with anticipation to what's ahead - He is full of surprises :)

What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the heart of man imagined,
what God has prepared for those who love him
— 1 Corinthians 2:9
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