“Bodies of Broken Bones”
A Sermon delivered on March 6, 2016
At The First Universalist Society in Franklin
By The Reverend Carol Rosine
Peter Fleck, who was a minister at the UU Church in Brewster before his death described a television skit he’d once seen: In this skit, “A man sat behind a table and in front of him there was a long queue of people. The man behind the table addressed the person at the head of the line and said in a somewhat bored but otherwise businesslike voice: ‘Of course you know that you are dead. All you have to do now is to go through the entrance on your right behind me marked ‘heaven’ or through the left one marked ‘hell.’
The dead man looked incredulous. ‘You mean that I, uh, am to choose whether I want to go to heaven or to hell?’ ‘That’s right,’ said the man behind the table. ‘But,’ said the dead man, ‘is there no judgment? Does it not count how I have lived, the good things I have done and the bad things?’ The man behind the table showed the first signs of impatience. ‘Look, man,’ he said, ‘I cannot spend the whole day on you. People are dying, the queue is lengthening. Make up your mind.’ The dead man by now was in a panic. ‘But I have sinned, I have done horrible things, I want to come clean, I want to confess, I want to be judged, I want to be forgiven…’ The man behind the table no longer took the trouble to hide his impatience. ‘I am not interested in your sins and nobody else around here is. Make up your mind, that’s all I’m asking of you.’ The dead man looked horrified. He hid his face in his hands to think; then he stepped forward past the table and disappeared through the entrance on his left marked ‘hell.'”
Peter Fleck concludes that “In the end we want to be accountable; in the end we want to confess; in the end we want to be judged and ultimately to be forgiven, for all of us have done things we shouldn’t have done and all of us have omitted doing things we should have done.”
Reading # 2: Criminal Justice stats found in Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, p. 15
Singing Together “Once to Every Soul and Nation” # 119
Bryan Stevenson begins his book like this: “I wasn’t prepared to meet a condemned man. In 1983 I was a 23 year old student at Harvard Law School working in Georgia on an internship, eager and inexperienced and worried that I was in over my head. I had never seen the inside of a maximum security prison—and certainly never been to death row. When I learned that I would be visiting this prisoner alone, with no lawyer accompanying me, I tried not to let my panic show.” And so began what was to become his life’s work.
This book, Just Mercy, is a documentation of the three decades that he has spent appealing the cases of those who have been unjustly condemned to die, of those serving life sentences for non-homicidal crimes, of children receiving life sentences without parole, and representing those too poor to afford competent legal assistance. In 1988 he received a federal grant to fund a non-profit legal practice in Alabama called the Equal Justice Initiative, a practice that has expanded over the years to include dozens of attorneys who have been responding to cases across the country. This is Bryan Stevenson, a man who Bishop Desmond Tutu calls the American Nelson Mandela.
Early in my ministry I received a call from the chaplain at Norfolk prison, asking if I would come and spend time with a prisoner who wanted to talk to a UU minister. I had never been inside a prison before & was a little nervous, but of course I said I would come. We had several visits over the coming weeks and I think I helped him sort out some of the things that were keeping him up at night. But I know that he helped me because as I listened to his story, I came to know that he wasn’t so different from so many of us on the outside. He had done things that he shouldn’t have done, like so many of us, but he’d been caught, judged, and was being punished. He wasn’t faced with the decision about whether to walk through the door marked Heaven or the door marked Hell. It had been decided for him. And so I learned that those locked away are not so different from those of us who have never been behind bars.
In this book Bryan Stevenson humanizes those sitting in prison by telling their stories. The first person we meet is a man on death row, Walter MacMillian. Here is his story: Walter grew up in a poor black settlement in Monroe County, Alabama. When he was a child he went to school for a couple of years, but by the age of 8 he was needed in the cotton fields. By age 11 he could run a plow as well as his older siblings.
It was a time of transition for that part of the country. Small cotton farming was no longer as profitable as it had been, so the State of Alabama helped many white farmers switch to timber and pine trees for paper mills which were receiving some generous tax incentives. Walter was smart and ambitious, so when he reached manhood he started a pulpwood business by borrowing enough money to purchase a power saw, a tractor, and a pulpwood truck. He was a hard worker and soon his business was successful enough to support his wife and children. By having his own business instead of working in the mills or the factories he enjoyed an independence, a freedom that most black men back then did not have, a status for which he was respected within the black community. But among white folks? Well they greeted him with contempt and suspicion because he had achieved more than a black man with limited education should achieve—through legitimate means at least.
The thing about Walter that led to him sitting on death row was that he was charming, a real Lady’s Man, wife or no wife. A 25 year old married white woman started flirting with Walter at the Waffle House where she worked. He was well aware that interracial sex was illegal in Alabama back then, but he finally succumbed to her advances figuring that no one would ever find out. Well, her husband did find out, and sued for divorce as well as for custody of their children which meant that Walter’s “friendship” with this white woman became public knowledge. Within the white community he was no longer a black man who was good with a saw, but someone to worry about.
It was a few months later that a teenage girl was murdered in a dry cleaning shop where she worked. The local police were under a lot of pressure to find out who had done this, when a man who had been arrested for a second murder confessed that he had also taken part in the murder of this girl. And that Walter was the one who had killed her. There was no concrete evidence against Walter except this confession by a known scoundrel. But Walter was an African American man who had been involved in an interracial affair which meant that he was reckless and possibly dangerous. So the sheriff decided to arrest him on the charge of sodomy until they could gather enough evidence to convict him of murder. When a dozen officers surrounded Walter on a country road, guns drawn, he wanted to know why he was being arrested. The sheriff told him that he was being charged with sodomy and said, “We’re going to keep all you niggers from running around with these white girls. I ought to take you off and hang you like we done the nigger in Mobile.” With the threat of lynching, Walter was terrified. And so he was arrested and sent to death row where he sat for a whole year before a trial even took place.
The thing is that Walter had an air-tight alibi. His extended family was hosting a fish fry on their property as a fund raiser for their church when the murder took place. Dozens of people came forward to say that Walter had been with them that whole day, but he was convicted anyway and sent back to death row to await his execution. This is where Bryan Stevenson found him. It took six years to unravel the corruption within the criminal justice system that had led to Walter’s arrest and conviction. It took six years of appeals to the courts before the truth of his innocence was acknowledged and Walter was released.
The thing for us to realize that Walter’s story is just one story in a litany of tragic stories. We hear the story of Herbert Richardson, a Vietnam Vet, who was executed in spite of a last minute appeal to the Supreme Court to stay the execution.
We hear the story of 14 year old Charlie who killed his mother’s boyfriend, George, when George came home drunk once too often and beat his mother senseless. Charlie was “way too short, way too thin, and way too scared to be fourteen” but it turned out that George, a local police officer, was known as a great guy, so the prosecutor insisted that Charlie be tried as an adult. When Bryan first visited him in the adult prison, Charlie couldn’t talk for a long time. But finally he started sobbing and said “there were three men who hurt me on the first night. They touched me and made me do things. They came back the next night and hurt me a lot. There were so many last night. I don’t know how many there were, but they hurt me…. He was crying too hard to finish the sentence.” Bryan finally managed to get Charlie’s case moved to a juvenile court and he was sent to a juvenile detention center until he was 18. An elderly white couple whose grandson had been murdered took Charlie under their wings and funded a college education for Charlie with money they had set aside for their grandson. Charlie’s story had a happy ending.
But then we hear the story of 14 year old Trina who accidentally started a house fire when she lit a match after she and a friend broke into a house. They had they wanted to talk to the boys who lived there but instead the boys died in the fire and 14 year old Trina was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
We hear about Marsha Colby, a wife and mother of six, whose house was destroyed by Hurricane Ivan. While living in a FEMA trailer, Marsha discovers that she is pregnant again. She has no money for prenatal care so Marsha, who has done this six times before, decides she can do without. However the placenta separates and she delivers a still-born baby boy. When a nosy neighbor sees that Marsha is no longer pregnant, she reports her concerns to the authorities who come and find the grave where Marsha and her husband, deep in grief, had buried their son. Marsha is charged with capital murder, found guilty, and sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
We read story after story of people on death row, children sentenced to life imprisonment without parole, the innocent who are unjustly convicted. One night Bryan Stevenson was in his office talking by telephone with a client, Jimmy Dill, who was scheduled to be executed that night. Jimmy had a bad stutter which became worse when he was stressed, but he had something that he needed to say, so Bryan waited patiently for him to stutter the words out.
He writes: “I tried to not let Mr. Dill hear me crying. I tried not to show him that he was breaking my heart. He finally got his words out. ‘Mr. Bryan, I just want to thank you for fighting for me. I thank you for caring about me. I love y’all for trying to save me.’ When I hung up the phone that night I had a wet face and a broken heart. The lack of compassion I witnessed every day had finally exhausted me. I looked around my crowded office, at the stacks of records and papers, each pile filled with tragic stories, and I suddenly didn’t want to be surrounded by all this anguish and misery….
For the first time I realized that my life was just full of brokenness. I worked in a broken system of justice. My clients were broken by mental illness, poverty, and racism. They were torn apart by disease, drugs and alcohol, pride, fear, and anger. I thought of… Trina, Antonio, Ian, and dozens of other broken children we worked with, struggling to survive in prison. I thought of people broken by war, like Herbert Richardson; people broken by poverty, like Marsha Colbey…. In their broken state, they were judged and condemned by people whose commitment to fairness had been broken by cynicism, hopelessness, and prejudice….
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….
We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and have been hurt. We all share the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent. I desperately wanted mercy for Jimmy Dill and would have done anything to create justice for him, but I couldn’t pretend that his struggle was disconnected from my own. The ways in which I have been hurt—and have hurt others—are different from the way Jimmy Dill suffered and cause suffering. But our shared brokenness connected us….
Thomas Merton said: We are bodies of broken bones. I guess I’d always known but never fully considered that being broken is what makes us human. We all have our reasons. Sometimes we’re fractured by the choices we make; sometimes we’re shattered by things we would never have chosen. But our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing. Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion.”
We’ve had a weekly reminder of this each week as we light a candle for Jerry. A momentary distraction, a head-on crash, a beloved wife and innocent child are dead, and lives are turned upside down. The choices we make, the ways we hurt others or others hurt us, may not put us behind bars, but these things are reminders that being broken, in small ways or huge, are part of the human condition.
“We have a choice. We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing. Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our own humanity…. So many of us have become afraid and angry. We’ve become so fearful and vengeful that we’ve thrown away children, discarded the disabled, and sanctioned the imprisonment of the sick and the weak—not because they are a threat to public safety or beyond rehabilitation but because we think it makes us seem tough, less broken….
I frequently had difficult conversations with clients who were struggling and despairing over their situations…. Whenever things got really bad, and they were questioning the value of their lives, I would remind them that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. I told them that if someone tells lie, that person in not just a liar. If you take something that doesn’t belong to you, you are not just a thief. Even if you kill someone, you’re not just a killer.”
And so it is with each of us. We, too, would not want to be labeled with the worst thing we have ever done: a liar, a cheat, an adulterer, a bully, a spreader of rumors. As we approach those two doors, are those the labels we want to have hanging from our necks? Or do we want something that says “yes, I have done things that I regret, I have omitted doing things that I should have done, and so there are parts of my life that are broken.”
Bryan Stevenson goes on: “I told myself that evening what I had been telling my clients for years. I am more than broken. In fact, there is a strength, a power, even, in understanding brokenness, because embracing our brokenness creates a need and desire for mercy, and perhaps a corresponding need to show mercy. When you experience mercy, you learn things that are hard to learn otherwise. You see things you can’t otherwise see; you hear things you can’t otherwise hear. You begin to recognize the humanity that resides in each of us.
All of a sudden, I felt stronger. I began thinking about what would happen if we all just acknowledged our brokenness, if we owned up to our weaknesses, our deficits, our biases, our fears. Maybe if we did, we wouldn’t want to kill the broken among us who have killed others. Maybe would look harder for solutions to caring for the disabled, the abused, the neglected, and the traumatized. I had a notion that if we acknowledged our brokenness, we could no longer take pride in mass incarceration, in executing people, in our deliberate indifference to the most vulnerable.”
When Bryan was in college he attended a church in which the minister each Sunday would stand, spread his arms wide, and say “Make me to hear joy and gladness, that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice,” Bryan says that he never fully appreciated what that preacher “was saying until the night Jimmy Dill was executed.”
Sing “We’ll Build a Land” # 121