This blog post from Fr. William Barry, SJ, is a reflection on Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, written by Bryan Stevenson. Ignatian Volunteers across the country are reading and reflecting in community on this book this year. This piece is written on Chapter Six “Surely Doomed,” Chapter Seven “Justice Denied.”
From the beginning we knew we were in for an emotional rollercoaster, and these two chapters prove our forebodings true. The story of Charlie in chapter six was heartbreaking. I was deeply touched when Bryan Stevenson let Charlie’s grandmother finish her prayer and then agreed to go see the boy in jail. His deep humanity was also evident as he worked so hard to get Charlie to talk in jail. Then Charlie’s sobbing story was like a blow to the stomach and brought tears to my eyes. Stevenson, thank God, does not focus on those fellow prisoners who sexually and physically abused Charlie, but on Charlie and on how to get him help. I was relieved to read that his intervention got Charlie out of immediate danger and then into juvenile jail and court and even more relieved when Stevenson decided to take on the case. Charlie’s grandmother’s prayer was answered.
Not all prayers for God’s help have such immediate results, but this story does illustrate the power of prayer. No prayer of ours goes unheard by our merciful and compassionate God. But God cannot force us to be human beings, images of God. Chapter seven with its continuation of the judicial injustice in the case of Walter McMillian shows the truth of the last sentence. At the same time it also shows us a man determined to do whatever he can to persuade people in power to do the right thing.
Back to chapter six and the story of the Jennings couple who wanted to help Charlie in spite of, or perhaps because of, their grief at their own son’s suicide. It was medicine for my own vengeful anger at the men who had abused Charlie. After reading that part of the story I took a break from reading. As I walked to lunch, I was thinking of Charlie’s agony and suddenly imagined an angry group of men taking vengeance on those men with fists and clubs. Perhaps because of Charlie’s grandmother’s prayer I did not indulge this fantasy. When I returned to reading, the Jennings brought me back to God’s way. Mrs. Jennings says it all: “We’ve all been through a lot, Bryan, all of us. I know that some have been through more than others. But if we don’t expect more from each other, hope better for one another, and recover from the hurt we experience, we are surely doomed.” Their warmth and love for Charlie warmed my heart, just as, I’m sure, IVC volunteers have warmed the hearts of those they serve and, in the process, find their own hearts grow warmer.
Fr. Bill Barry, SJ is a Spiritual Reflector for IVC New England. He entered the Society of Jesus in 1950 and was ordained in 1962. He earned a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Michigan in 1968. He has taught at the University of Michigan, Weston Jesuit School of Theology, and Boston College. Bill is the author or co-author of 20 books, including The Practice of Spiritual Direction, God and You, Finding God in All Things, Spiritual Direction and the Encounter with God, Who Do You Say I Am?, Contemplatives in Action, and A Friendship like No Other. For more on his writing please visit Loyola Press.