This blog post from Fr. William Barry, SJ, is a reflection on Just Mercy, 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 the Introduction and Chapter 1 of the book.
I have been asked to write a blog for each month of our reading of Just Mercy. The title itself is provocative. After reading the introduction and first chapter of this book I can sense that the reading will incite a rollercoaster of emotions in its readers. I felt anger and outrage, fear and hopelessness, admiration and joy, among other deep emotions, and we have read only 34 pages. The author, Bryan Stevenson, has won me over with his knowledge and honesty, his willingness to get down and dirty with people most of us run away from, and his hopefulness in spite of what he himself has experienced as a Black man and of the enormity of racial prejudice in this country. I know that my own conscious and unconscious racism will be confronted during this reading, and yet I look forward to reading the rest of the book.
Perhaps because of my own predilections I want to comment on how Stevenson’s own life was changed by his encounter with Henry. He admits to being at loose ends at the end of his first year of law school when he signed up for an intensive one month course on race and poverty litigation that took him out of the law school and into contact with Henry, prisoner on death row. His description of his own nervousness and self-centered concern as he entered the prison room where he would meet Henry rang a bell with so many of my own prior anxieties before meeting the unknown other. Both men are clearly anxious and self-centered in the first few minutes until Stevenson blurts out the news he was supposed to deliver, “You won’t be given an execution this year.” Henry’s reaction of intense relief and happiness bowls Stevenson over. Finally, they meet as human beings and talk for three hours. From then on Stevenson knew what his vocation was.
Our own anxieties and fears of the “other” will not be changed so much by new laws as by real encounters with that “other.” Isn’t this what often happens in our work as Ignatian volunteers? We enter a new setting with people who are different from us with trepidation and self-concern. Once we really meet these “others” as human beings we often find them to be us, and that changes everything between us. Love makes the world go ‘round.
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.