forgiveness • peacemaking • reconciliation
equality • poverty • missions


Encounters: Just Mercy

November 8, 2018 by

“I do what I do because I’m broken, too.”

The sentence jumps off the page. Here is someone who gets it, putting words to something I know to be true in my own ministry but have never been able to adequately articulate. This says it all. Thank you, Bryan Stevenson.

As an attorney working exclusively with death row inmates and juvenile offenders, Bryan Stevenson knows all about brokenness. He puts it this way in his book, Just Mercy: “We are all broken by something.… Sometimes we’re fractured by the choices we make; sometimes we’re shattered by things we would never have chosen.”

That’s exactly how I felt, standing outside a federal correctional facility on a cold November morning. The prison was built of red brick with two high fences around the perimeter. Loops of razor wire crowned the inner fence, while the outside fence was festooned with three stacks of razor wire loops from the ground up as well as one along the top. It was a formidable, forbidding place. And my son, who had chosen his own path after leaving home some years earlier, was someplace inside.

There was frost on the ground and not a shred of comfort in the chill air that cut through my light jacket. I was among a small but growing crowd of outcasts, waiting. We were a motley collection of inmates’ fathers and mothers, daughters and wives, children and grandchildren. It was as if I had walked right into a Dostoyevsky novel and we were in the narrative together.

“Embracing our brokenness creates a need and desire for mercy, and perhaps a corresponding need to show mercy.”
—Bryan Stevenson

When a woman with three children joined the shivering queue I asked her permission to offer my jacket to the older children, ages seven and five. The boy put one arm in one sleeve and the girl put hers in the other, wearing the jacket together for maximum warmth while their mother did her best to shield the six-month-old baby from the cold as he lay in a car seat.

Soon an older couple joined us and it was marvelous to see how these two joshed around with the children who, by that time, were having difficulty keeping still inside the same jacket. It was almost two hours later when we were finally let in.

We were processed with welcome courtesy and led through a courtyard to a visiting unit not unlike the many I had entered over a couple decades of prison ministry. But this time it was different; I was there not to visit someone else’s son, but to see my own in prison uniform.

I never loved him more than in that setting of unmitigated brokenness. We embraced and found our seats, while all round us the Dostoyevsky novel continued. In rare cases the one in khaki and the one in street clothes sat side by side, each silently staring straight ahead, but for the most part, a great deal of raw emotion accompanied each encounter. Near to us the baby was no longer lying alone in the car seat; the little one was enveloped in the strong arms of his father.

The entry into brokenness is nothing less than an encounter with raw, naked truth. But it is more than that. Jesus is this Truth and he said the truth will set us free: “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed!”

This encounter, then, is also the gateway to grace, mercy, and compassion. Bryan Stevenson gets it right when he writes (emphasis added) that “[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.”

He goes on:

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.

Stevenson concludes:

I am more than broken. In fact, there is strength, a power even, in understating 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 we 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.

The apostle Paul notes that we hold the treasure of Christ in fragile jars of clay. Light cannot shine through ceramic material; it is made visible only to the extent that the vessels are cracked and broken. The more transparent we are with one another, the more the light of Jesus can shine though, unimpeded. Simply put, being vulnerable and admitting our brokenness gives space for the Spirit to work.

windowsill with a broken plant pot

For my part, the years of “having it all together” were over. This image was smashed, its jagged shards scattered at my feet. I was at once shattered and liberated. No longer imprisoned within the walls of falsehood, I felt empowered to tell my story through the lens of Stevenson’s book. I tried this first in a prison chapel service and the men “inside” really got it. So I decided to risk all and do the same at a monthly ministers’ gathering.

Over the following months something of God was set in motion that changed all of us around the table and completely altered the nature of our monthly fellowship. As we opened our hearts to one another the Spirit opened up new possibilities of being together.

Burdens were shared and their weight was diminished. We prayed for one another. We cried together. We worshipped together. The proverbial pebble had been dropped into a pond; to this day the ripples are still going outward.

The month of November ushers in the season of Advent – a time of hope, a time of expectation, a time when the impossible is known to be possible. As I stood in front of prison walls and razor wire that chill November morning, my heart plowed with pain and heartache, I felt the touch of the Advent promise. It was just as real as the sun’s light warming the cold, frozen ground under my feet. And, odd as it may sound, I was at peace.


About the author

photograph of Bill and Grace Wiser

Bill Wiser

Bill Wiser lives at Danthonia, a Bruderhof in New South Wales. His daily activities include teaching and pastoral work...

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