Slow Transformations, Small Windows of Light
By Wendy McDowell
Recently I worked my way through the Netflix series The Innocence Files, which details the exonerations of eight men after their cases were accepted by the Innocence Project.1 All of their stories are memorable, but one episode stayed with me for days after I watched it.
At 18, Thomas Haynesworth was charged with multiple counts of sexual assault in Richmond, Virginia, and he ended up spending 27 years in prison until DNA evidence finally confirmed his innocence. From the moment he came on the screen, his calm, kindhearted manner was obvious. When he was initially misidentified as a suspect, he was walking to the store to buy sweet potatoes and bread for his mother! He was described as “just a kid” and as a “deer in headlights” at his trial.
It finally dawned on me that Haynesworth’s story was nagging at my conscience not only because it drove home yet again that gross injustices can happen to any young Black man, but because I could easily have been on the wrong side of his case. In my early 20s, I volunteered as a rape crisis center counselor in the Washington, D.C., area.2 I soon discovered that the justice system rarely “works” for rape survivors, and observed how race, power, and privilege determined whether or not perpetrators were charged and whether or not victims were believed.
Because of this experience, but especially because of my whiteness, I probably would not have recognized the ubiquitous racist practices of disproportionately prosecuting, rushing to convict, and flouting due process in so-called cross-racial crimes, and I would have been all too susceptible to dubious police tactics and unreliable witness testimony. Being a progressive white woman carries its own set of misperceptions and history of harm.3 As it turns out, whiteness makes us unreliable witnesses—not only in courtrooms, but in life.4
One of the things I appreciate about the essays in this Bulletin is their emphasis on examining our own perceptions, worldviews, orientations, and consciousness itself as part of any spiritual or intellectual quest. In C. E. Morgan’s appreciation of the novel Housekeeping, she writes, “What reappears in many traditions is a sense of this world as mired in illusion, and the need for a transfigured self, or nonself, to penetrate the illusion.” Vineet Chander suggests: “if I am to be an agent of care, I must constantly confront my own suffering and commit to my own practices.”
The authors here challenge us to think more carefully about what responsible and responsive care looks like, and one clear through line in this issue is that “right mind” and “right relationship” go hand in hand; you cannot have one without the other.
The authors here challenge us to think more carefully about what responsible and responsive care looks like, and one clear through line in this issue is that “right mind” and “right relationship” go hand in hand; you cannot have one without the other. Melissa Bartholomew remembers “the prayer I heard from many of my elders growing up in the Black church who would preface their petitions with gratitude to God for waking them up clothed in their right mind.” She holds up practices of “radical hospitality and love,” engaging with “living sacred texts” and being “in community with our ancestors and each other” to cultivate that “capacity to live right.”
Sarah Nahar urges us that reducing our reliance on the police and military must start with having “revolutionary conversations” with “our housemates, our families, and our organizations” about safety and security and then “changing our own protocols.” Matthew Weiner stresses the centrality of friendships with refugees and refugee organization workers, and how those relationships led the way to transformed thinking and moral action. Similarly, Liz Aeschlimann and Celene Ibrahim describe instances where building relationships led to communal healing and “campus diplomacy.”
A related theme is the need to understand other people and traditions “on their own terms.” This may sound easy enough, but these chaplains and scholars know that “a radical practice of empathy” (Chander) requires careful attention and discipline. We must train our minds and hearts to be capacious and decenter the self to keep engaging in “the struggle of a lifetime” in which “we are always still studying, we are always still practicing,” as Cheryl Giles puts it. Another way to practice seeing others on their own terms is to read memoirs—why not start with Nyasha Junior’s syllabus from “Black Women, Black Church, and Self-Narratives”?
Jacob K. Olupona argues that “African religions should be . . . examined through their own frames rather than set in a JudeoChristian framework” and asks, “Why should our work in critical theory not begin from indigenous hermeneutics?” Georgette Mulunda Ledgister’s research models such an examination, viewing the Mai-Mai people as “first and foremost persons who live in intimate connection with the divine, as a result of their ritualized and sustained contact with their ancestors.”
As Stephanie Paulsell says, we do best to cultivate “a reverence for what we can’t know about each other,” and the starting point in so many of these essays is “contemplative surrender to the unknown.” Diane Mehta quotes from a Jain mystic’s prayer that includes the phrase: “I am full of mistakes.”
Finally, there is repeated counsel here that “we have not slowed down enough” (Mehta). Chander writes, “the spiritual journey is not a race to the finish line, but a meditative and meandering walk with twists and turns and breaks along the way.” After a year as a “millennial monastic,” Eloise Skinner discovers: “In the end, there was no triumphant metamorphosis; as it turns out, the work of transformation is messy, frustrating, and achingly slow.”
As I reach my mid-50s, I am more acutely aware that it is a “slow walk toward freedom” and we are dependent on our communities, embodied practices, and wisdom texts to keep us stepping. Giles suggests, “enlightenment is made up of these small windows of light where people help show us new ways to think about things.” Paulsell shares a similar sentiment: “Maybe the great revelation isn’t going to come. But maybe that’s okay. Maybe there will be matches struck in the dark that light the way—not the whole path, and not all at once, but enough to light our way.”
- The eight are: Kennedy Brewer, Levon Brooks, Keith Harward, Franky Carrillo, Thomas Haynesworth, Chester Hollman II, Kenneth Wyniemko, and Alfred Dewayne Brown.
- In this role, I accompanied sexual assault survivors through crisis line phone conversations, in emergency rooms, and occasionally during police testimony.
- I highly recommend two books, particularly to white women: Mikki Kendall, Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women That a Movement Forgot (Penguin Books, 2021), and Ruby Hamad, White Tears/Brown Scars: How White Feminism Betrays Women of Color (Catapult, 2020).
- According to the Montana Innocence Project, “misidentifying someone is incredibly common, contributing to nearly 75 percent of all exonerations based on DNA evidence. But for BIPOC, the problem is worse. . . . 42 percent of [these] wrongful convictions . . . are cross-racial misidentifications.”
Wendy McDowell is editor in chief of the Bulletin.