More Than the Worst Thing We've Ever Done
The anxiety is almost palpable. Joyful conversations inevitably pivot in a darker direction. Demands for relief are louder than I can ever remember.
I’m talking about crime, of course.
While crime rates were dramatically declining across the nation, homicides in the City of Memphis hit a new record in 2023, breaking the previous record set in 2021. The new year so far doesn’t seem to be relenting, and rightly, we all want something done about it. We desire that criminals be punished in proportion to the severity of their crimes. We expect there to be justice.
But when people are gripped with fear, our “priorities pendulum” swings hard and fast to the side of self-preservation. We tend to forget, to quote Bryan Stevenson author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption that,
Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.
At The House, we’re outraged and afraid too. Last year, a woman was gunned down on the sidewalk next door by her partner, and our security cameras captured the whole horrid incident. The daughter of one of the ladies was murdered in a drive-by shooting. And still another employee’s daughter was shot on purpose by a “friend.” Thankfully, she survived.
We plan to channel our anger into efforts to help reduce crime in our little corner of Orange Mound by getting to know the police better, engaging our neighbors, participating in the annual Night Out, and possibly organizing Neighborhood Watch.
But what we can’t forget is that of the more than 80 women who have crossed the threshold of our tea company, well more than a majority have crossed the law at some point. From illicit drugs to theft to prostitution to gang activity, many of the women we’ve served have spent time in rehab and/or jail. But central to our model is the belief that all of these women are far more than the worst thing they’ve ever done.
Stevenson explains that one who lies, steals, or kills is not just a liar, a thief, or a killer, but a complex and broken human being with gifts and faults and not just the capacity for evil deeds, but the ability to do good too.
For the Christian, this is validated by a higher authority. In Matthew 9:13, Jesus responds to the Pharisees who question why he would dine with tax collectors and sinners. Quoting Hosea 6:6, He says,
Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.
If we fail to demonstrate mercy, which the late pastor and theologian, Dr. Timothy Keller said, “…must be free and unmerited to the wrongdoer,” then the experiment happening at 3028 Carnes fails. We instead replace acceptance with judgement, opportunity with rejection, and reconciliation with bitterness.
The My Cup of Tea ladies are benefactors of mercy too. Forty to fifty women, from completely disparate backgrounds and experiences volunteer at My Cup of Tea every year. Few have any real experience with poverty, violent crime, and surviving in the world as a racial or ethnic minority. In their zeal to serve and help, honest, but nevertheless hurtful, mistakes have been made. But so far, the ladies have heaped mercy upon us.
When we consider crime in our community, few, if any, are saying criminals should be absolved and not punished. But for the violent criminal, who may not have shown any mercy to his victim, you can bet he lived a merciless existence prior to the day he committed his worst offense. Children who are abused or witness frequent abuse are more likely to become abusers themselves. A merciless community where guns are the arbiters of disputes breeds less compassion in those surrounded by violence, not more. And a society that permanently labels its members according to the worst thing they’ve ever done produces anger, fear, and an unrelenting cycle of brutality.
Susan Monk Kidd in The Secret Life of Bees says this about mercy,
The world will give you that once in a while, a brief timeout; the boxing bell rings and you go to your corner, where somebody dabs mercy on your beat-up life.
The continuation of that poignant idea is that the bell inevitably rings again, the boxers rise and bounce to the center of the ring and proceed to beat the heck out of each other for a much longer period than the brief respite in the corner.
Maybe it’s naïve, but what if we could begin to extend the time spent in the corner where mercy is dabbed on our beat-up lives? A little more dabbing, a little extra salve for those we meet in our everyday lives might start to make a small difference in the violence that surrounds us.Afterall, God showed us mercy in that, while we were sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)