In the compelling book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, Bryan Stevenson, the young lawyer who founded the Equal Justice Initiative, gives us an unforgettable look inside this legal practice dedicated to defending those most desperate and in need: the poor, the wrongly condemned, and women and children trapped in the farthest reaches of our criminal justice system. It is a moving narrative of the lives of those he has defended and an inspiring argument for compassion in the pursuit of true justice.
At the end of the book, Stevenson tells of how he successfully defended a man who had spent 45 years in prison for a non-homicide crime when he was 16, and also a man who had been given the death penalty for a rape in the 1960s, spending nearly 50 years in prison. Both men had been model prisoners and were resentenced and released.
After the trials, Stevenson found an older black woman sitting on the marble steps in the courthouse hallway. He described her as “tired and wore what my sister and I used to call a ‘church meeting hat.’” He recognized her as someone who had been in the courtroom for the resentencing. In fact, he thought he’d seen her each time he’d come to the New Orleans courthouse to defend his clients. He assumed she was related or connected to the family of one of the defendants but didn’t remember them mentioning her.
She seemed friendly, and when he engaged her in conversation, he found out her real story:
“I’ve seen you here several times, are you related to Mr. Caston or Mr. Carter…” I asked her.
“No, no, no, I’m not related to nobody here… I just come here to help people. This place is full of pain, so people need plenty of help around here.”
“Well, that’s really kind of you.”
“No, it’s what I’m supposed to do, so I do it.” She looked away before locking eyes with me again. “My 16-year-old-grandson was murdered 15 years ago,” she said, “and I loved that boy more than life itself.”
I wasn’t expecting that response and was instantly sobered. The woman grabbed my hand.
“I grieved and grieved and grieved. I asked the Lord why he let someone take my child like that. He was killed by some other boys. I came to this courtroom for the first time for their trials and sat in there. Those boys were found guilty and…sent away to prison forever. I thought it would make me feel better but it actually made me feel worse.”
She continued, “I sat in the courtroom after they were sentenced and just cried and cried. A lady came over to me and gave me a hug and let me lean on her…I think she was with me for almost two hours. For well over an hour, we didn’t neither of us say a word. It felt good to finally have someone to lean on…and I’ve never forgotten that woman. I don’t know who she was, but she made a difference.”
The woman went on to tell Bryan, “You never really recover, but you carry on, you carry on. I didn’t know what to do with myself after those trials, so about a year later I started coming down here. I don’t really know why. I guess I just felt like maybe I could be someone, you know, that somebody hurting could lean on.”
“When I first came, I’d look for people who had lost someone to murder or some violent crime. Then it got to the point where some of the ones grieving the most were the ones whose children or parents were on trial, so I just started letting anybody lean on me who needed it. All these young children being sent to prison forever, all this grief and violence…people shooting each other, hurting each other like they don’t care. I don’t know, it’s a lot of pain. I decided I was supposed to be here to catch some of the stones people cast at each other.”
When Stevenson heard the woman’s reference to the parable in the Bible about the woman accused of adultery, he recalled a speech he once gave, in which he reminded his audience that in the story Jesus told the accusers, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” and that Jesus, full of mercy, forgave the woman and urged her to sin no more. He then had said, “But today, our self-righteousness, our fear, and our anger have caused even the Christians to hurl stones at the people who fall down, even when we know we should forgive or show compassion. We have to be stonecatchers.”
The woman then said to him, “I heard you in that courtroom today. I’ve seen you here before. I know you’s a stonecatcher, too.”
He laughed and said, “Well, I guess I try to be.”
She answered, “Well, it hurts to catch all the stones people throw.”
How amazing! The woman goes on to comfort Stevenson. “I’m just gonna let you lean on me a bit, because I know a few things about stonecatching.”
When I read this part of the book, I was moved to tears. I wondered how I would be if my child had been violently and senselessly killed, if I would be forever consumed with grief, hate, and the desire for revenge, or would I find enough forgiveness to be able to channel my grief in a way that helped others—if I would become a stonecatcher. I also wonder that even if I never experience that kind of grief, if in my everyday life, when wronged or contemplating some evil I see, and confronted with the choice to either condemn or forgive, I would not stand with the accusers, stone in hand, fist in the air, but instead be filled with the astonishing compassion Jesus, despite being the sinless Son of God, showed the adulterous woman, and mercifully offer it to people in the world in need of someone willing to catch the stones. Would I try to understand rather than be quick to judge, to be there with a hug, sometimes without words, a shoulder to cry on, knowing that sometimes it will be hard to offer love when I don’t approve of their actions, that it will be uncomfortable, it may even hurt. It will require letting go of my own self-righteousness, and the acknowledgement of my own sinfulness. It may mean stepping outside my privileged world and getting messy. But there is a great need. How transformational in a life this kind of compassion could be, because it is the kind of unconditional love that God offers even the worst of sinners, and that has the potential for the kind of change that causes the sinner to turn from their sin.
We live in a culture that seems to be all too ready to find fault, to blame and shame, to point fingers, to express outrage, to jump to a verdict from a sound bite without full discovery of the truth. In this harsh environment, it is my prayer that we as Christians, like the woman at that New Orleans courthouse, can ask God to make us stonecatchers. It may be to catch small pebbles or big rocks. But we’ve been empowered to do it by the Spirit of God. And what a difference we could make.
If not us, the undeserving who have been blessed with the great love and grace of Christ, then who?
Is God calling you to be a stonecatcher?
Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash