An Evening with Bryan Stevenson: Get Closer

The crowd leapt to their feet as Mr. Stevenson took the stage.  He hadn’t even opened his mouth, and had already received a standing ovation.

Why?

Because this man’s story opens blind eyes. 

In his book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, Bryan Stevenson shares about his experience working with men, women and children on death row. I have met more than one person who, after reading the book, looked down at their feet and, with tears in their eyes, whispered, “I didn’t know that African Americans are still treated this way. Until I read this, I didn’t realize.  But now what do I do?”

I had a similar response after reading Just Mercy this spring.  In fact, I was so moved by Mr. Stevenson’s story that I hauled my 12-day-old newborn across town to hear him speak a few weeks ago, frantically taking notes with one hand while nursing with the other.

The audience was made up of mainly white people over 50, though college students and a few people of color were present as well.  Across the aisle sat a man in his late 20’s with long hair, loose-fitting clothing and bare feet.  Beneath his chair was a cardboard box that was forced closed, leaving me wondering what was inside, though I forgot my curiosity as Mr. Stevenson began speaking.

He was as powerful a speaker as he is an author and he seamlessly wove stories, statistics and inspiration into a flag of justice that we almost felt strong enough to help wave as we exited the building at the end of the night.


He shared four things we could do to improve our capacity to change the world right where we are:

1. Get closer. 

“Get proximate to the problems instead of trying to solve them from a distance.” He expressed that we are too comfortable and do not see injustice because we are not close enough to see it.

2. Change the narratives that sustain inequality and injustice. 

“Fear and anger are the essential ingredients of oppression.”  He gave the example of calling drug addicts “criminals” and alcoholics people with a “disease.”  He said that these narratives are what imprison the downtrodden and empower the privileged.

3. Stay hopeful.

“Hopelessness is the enemy of justice.”  In spite of all the dire examples of vast injustice in the world, Mr. Stevenson also shared many inspiring stories of hope as he has worked toward change.
 
4. Be willing to do uncomfortable things.

“We have to judge ourselves by how we care for the poor.”  He said that this action point requires intentionality because our default is that we choose to be comfortable, but perhaps we need to move more into discomfort.  

He also spoke about how he has come to the realization that as we acknowledge that we ourselves are broken people, we will find that we have much more in common with the poor than we once thought. 

***


After his talk, Mr. Stevenson took questions from the crowd.  I was surprised when the man across the aisle from me padded up to the front with his cardboard box, setting it down by his bare feet as he waited patiently for his turn at the microphone.  When Mr. Stevenson turned to him, the man announced that he had gotten out of jail a week prior and that he wanted Mr. Stevenson’s help in going to the Supreme Court to fight for laws that would allow him to sleep outdoors.  He talked for a long time and I could tell that the crowd was getting fidgety.  He was taking up precious time for other more relevant questions.  I half expected an usher to quietly stand next to him and give him the signal that he was talking too long.

But instead of ridiculing him or rushing through his answer, Mr. Stevenson responded with humility, grace and respect.  He listened to this man’s story and said that he was absolutely willing to represent him.  While the rest of us were inwardly scoffing, Mr. Stevenson practiced what he had just preached and offered the man something the rest of us weren’t willing to give: dignity.

I was humbled and convicted.

In myself, I saw the Pharisees of Bible times, urging Jesus to move on and not stop for the lepers calling out His name, the woman kneeling to touch his cloak or the children hugging his knees. I saw myself looking for the high profile poor instead of noticing the needy right in front of me.

It is easy to say that we want justice for the poor as long as it is convenient and comfortable for us.  But when we become aware of our own powerlessness, judgment and prejudice, we want to hide away in our safe suburbs and write a check from a distance.

How far do you live from the poor, homeless, sick or oppressed?  What would it take for you to move out of your comfort zone into proximity of those you say you would like to help?

As a person who feels very insignificant in this season of life as far as world-changing goes, I walked out of that auditorium with a greater desire to not just notice injustice, but make practical moves towards the oppressed.  When we make decisions over the next few years about where we will buy a house and which schools we will choose to send our children to, I hope that we will not continue to hide away under the umbrella of “safety” or “good schools.”  Instead, I hope for the courage to live in such proximity to my suffering neighbor that I cannot ignore their cry any longer, because they will be right in my backyard.

***

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