Learning from Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy
Last fall, on an overnight retreat with sophomore student participants in SOPHIA (Sophomore Initiative at Assumption), a year-long program on vocational exploration that I direct at my university, one of our first group activities was a conversation on community-building themes. With everyone sitting around a circle, I asked students to share their ideas on the meaning of belonging. Almost all the students shared their thoughts with the larger group. Some agreed that belonging is finding comfort within a group of people who share similar interests and values. Others emphasized the importance of feeling safe and welcomed in a particular place.
After some time, Hieu, the quietest student in the group, politely raised her hand and asked to speak. She said: “Belonging does not just mean to be welcomed into a group, it means to be listened to by others inside a group” (my emphasis). Hieu is a first-generation college student who grew up in Vietnam and immigrated to the United States seven years ago. Her wise interpretation of belonging has stuck with me, especially after the death of George Floyd in May.
Today, as we continue to face enormous challenges brought by ongoing health, racial, social, political, and economic crises, I find myself still thinking of Hieu’s wise words on belonging. George Floyd died because a police officer pressing down on Mr. Floyd’s neck did not listen to him. The other officers witnessing this act of inhumane violence did not listen to him either. So many times we remain unable to listen to individuals and groups who continue to be marginalized based on deafening discourses on race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, neurodiversity, religion, culture, and nationality across this broken and beautiful land of ours. Angry and yet peaceful protesters in our cities are being forcefully attacked by armed forces who refuse to listen to their chants of non-violence. Let us not forget about the thousands of undocumented young Americans who know no other country but this and, as Jose Antonio Vargas writes in his memoir Dear America. Notes of an Undocumented Citizen (2018), contribute to this country through participatory citizenship and demand that they be listened to in their dream to build a path to reach political citizenship.
We know the what behind this ongoing crisis of belonging, but how can we begin to listen to those who still remain invisible and unhearable in our communities and campuses? How many of our students and colleagues are not being listened to? Is there a way in which these questions on belonging can lead to a higher purpose? How can we listen and learn in order to better respond to our callings in our current moment?
This summer, my university adopted Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (2014) as the common book for this year’s entering first-year class, and I was one of the faculty invited to facilitate model classroom sessions over Zoom at summer orientation. Reading Just Mercy at this particular time helped me to find hope and direction on how to begin answering some of my questions about listening and responding to our callings. Among the many courageous moments that Stevenson describes in his book is the story of how he found a higher purpose through proximity with the silenced and marginalized.
Stevenson mentions how after graduating from a small college in Pennsylvania, he goes on to study law and public policy at Harvard University. However, his first year of law school does not go as planned; he grows disillusioned from not being able to make meaningful connections between himself and his studies. In his second year he takes a community engagement course on race and poverty litigation that requires students to do a month-long internship. Stevenson chooses to do his internship in Georgia working as a paralegal for the Southerner Prisoners Defense Committee. His first task is to visit a condemned man on death row named Henry Davis. At twenty-three years of age and with only a few law courses under his belt, Stevenson feels absolutely unprepared and way over his head before meeting Davis. He thinks his one job is only to tell Davis that he won’t be executed for at least one full year. What Stevenson doesn’t anticipate prior to this encounter is just how anxious Davis is about his sentencing and how grateful he becomes as soon as he hears the news. Davis is in desperate need to talk and to be listened to by someone, even if that someone is an apologetic, inexperienced young intern. For Stevenson, this encounter is a decisive moment in his vocation as a defender of the poor and the wrongly convicted.
This close encounter with Davis in which both men sense their shared emotional anxiety brings them closer at a human level. Stevenson chooses to listen to Davis rather than be influenced by the social constructs and symbols inside the prison meant to separate the two men. He listens to Davis and finds him absolutely relatable: “He was a young, neatly groomed African American man with short hair—clean-shaven, medium frame and build—wearing bright, clean prison whites. He looked immediately familiar to me, like everyone I’d grown up with” (9). By the end of his conversation, which goes way past the one-hour limit, Stevenson realizes that what Davis needs at that time is not a seasoned lawyer, but a merciful companion who can be next to him ready to listen to his humanity and not to his condemnation.
This is an example of belonging by being listened to. This is how Stevenson finds a higher purpose through proximity. Stevenson writes,
Proximity to the condemned and incarcerated made the question of each person’s humanity more urgent and meaningful, including my own. I went back to law school with an intense desire to understand the laws and doctrines that sanctioned the death penalty and extreme punishments…. it all became relevant and important. Even my studies at the Kennedy School took on a new significance. Developing the skills to quantify and deconstruct the discrimination and inequality I saw became urgent and meaningful. …Proximity to the condemned, to people unfairly judged; that was what guided me back to something that felt like home.Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy (Spiegel & Grau, 2014) 12-14.
Proximity—from the Latin proximus meaning the “nearest” or “close to the actual,” and similar to the Spanish noun prójimo, neighbor— brings down the barriers, burdens, and biases that separate us from others. Stevenson’s example of proximity invites us to reflect on the things that really matter to each of us and to our students in these urgent and uncertain times. Proximity with others can bring us closer to the margins of society so that, as Fr. Gregory Boyle teaches us, the margins can be erased.
To see and to listen to strangers with neighborly eyes and ears is to enter into community with them. In the next few weeks, as we continue to prepare to “return” to our classrooms and work spaces, either in-person or virtually, let’s keep in mind the urgent need for building close and personal aural relationships with our students. Let’s channel our mutual anxiety in this return to classes as an opportunity to share from our common humanity with one another.
Esteban Loustaunau is professor of Spanish at Assumption University in Worcester, MA and director of the Center for Purpose and Vocation and the SOPHIA Program, which encourages students, particularly sophomores, to reflect on their lives in terms of vocation. He co-edited the collection Telling Migrant Stories: Latin American Diaspora in Documentary Film with Lauren Shaw (University of Florida Press, 2018). Esteban was a member of the NetVUE Faculty Seminar in 2017 and a panelist in a recent webinar hosted by NetVUE entitled “Courageous Text, Courageous Teaching.”