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Seeing God in Broken Places: A Farewell Letter from the McNeely Family to Friends Church

Not too long ago, before Kelly, Sammy, and I moved from Bryan-College Station to our new home in Dallas, I was summoned for jury duty selection in Brazos County. With dozens of other potential jurors, I reported at 8:25 AM to go through a day-long proceeding where the two legal representatives of opposing factions asked us numerous questions related to the case on which we might be seated.

Kelly had recently finished her own summons, where she was selected for the jury and sat for the entire criminal case. That experience (and her obsession with true crime podcasts) gave her insight about what I should expect. Just as she predicted for me, the potential jurors were all assembled in the court room for an introduction to the day by the judge and other officers of the court. It was relatively brief, but we learned that the case was a criminal, not civil, matter. Over the next several hours, we would be considered for our fitness to sit and listen to the details of an act of profound violence, the circumstances around it, and the people involved, including, most importantly, a young man being charged with homicide.

Maybe you have seen the next step on TV or been a part of it yourself. The prosecution and defense attorneys take turns asking potential jurors questions related to, but not specifically about, the case they are working on: the theory of the relevant laws, hypothetical situations similar to the facts of the case, and general musings on morality and ethics. What you might not know – unless, like Kelly, you listen to way too many crime podcasts – is that when this process begins, the potential jurors are brought into the room in a specific order. The prosecution and the defense have already filtered the summoned individuals based on characteristics they’ve seen on paper: age, race, sex, education, occupation, etc. They do this because they know that certain characteristics tend to indicate that a person is more likely to be impartial, the most important aspect for any potential juror. Based on these characteristics, they order the candidates for juror with the most desirable at the front of the pack, numbered starting at one. The lower your number, the more likely you’ll be selected by the court to serve on the jury. I was five.

From here, the lawyers ask their questions. The prosecution, simply put, want someone who is likely to find the defendant guilty; the defense is looking for a more sympathetic mindset. They need to hear people’s honest answers to their serious questions, which means they need people to talk. And they know people are more likely to talk if they are relaxed and comfortable. So they tell jokes, share personal stories, get a little casual in the conversation, do whatever they can to lighten the mood a little so that people will respond enough for them.

And it works. We laughed, we listened with genuine interest, and we answered the questions. It was surprising how candid some people were. The juror on my left outright claimed he couldn’t be unbiased, that his experience with being robbed meant he would never consider parole for the defendant despite that being an option under the letter of the law; he would always seek vengeance for being wronged. A man several rows behind me was adamant that being charged with a crime was the same as being guilty of it, and the trial part was just formality; the exact opposite of “innocent until proven guilty.” Each lawyer gets a number of jurors to remove from the selection entirely based on answers like these. The defense clearly wouldn’t have wanted those two men with their draconian sense of the legal process. I think the prosecution nixed me from the list after I answered one question by saying I don’t believe punishment has a place in any system of justice.

Throughout the day, I found myself watching and wondering about the only three people there we hadn’t heard from. The young man accused of the crime, sitting at the defendant’s table silently and mostly motionless, and his parents, seated on the far side of the room, away from their son, and equally silent. I could not help but look at them, and wonder what this whole proceeding was doing to them. The crime involved murder, and though the young man was not the perpetrator of the act himself, Texas criminal code is such that his direct involvement in the circumstances leading to the death meant he was facing life in prison. I cannot imagine the anguish the young man’s parents must have been feeling every time the lawyers spoke about the potential for putting their son in a cage for the rest of his life.

And there we were: the jurors, chuckling at bad jokes, speaking casually and indirectly about abstract examples, sharing half-formed thoughts. At times, it felt like many of my graduate seminars, where topics are discussed philosophically, hypothetically, informally. For us, even though it was a real case, it still felt separate from reality. Our reality, at least. For the defendant and his parents, it must have been all too real. I wondered about the absurd disconnect of the whole process. The young man at the defendant’s table was likely scared beyond all reason, but he had to bear it in silence as complete strangers debated whether he deserved even a chance at walking the streets again; it must have been a twisting of the knife in the hearts of his parents every time we laughed between discussions of sending their baby away forever.

Those that know me know I don’t often speak about spirituality in this particular way, but it’s in those places of brokenness where I see God; brokenness not just of hearts, but of connection. That courtroom was operating as it was designed to, and yet there was unmistakable dissonance between experiences, between the jurors and the defendant, between the irritated people answering tedious questions and laughing at silly jokes and the agonized souls of the parents who cannot comfort their son. That’s where I see God reaching out to us, binding us back together through empathy and understanding, through action that leads to true justice, through reconciliation, peace, and wholeness.

I see God in those places because that’s where I believe we are supposed to be too. And it’s where I have seen Friends Church many, many times. In so many of the broken places of our community and our society, Friends has intentionally placed itself to do the work of reconciliation, of empathy, of justice. In that broken place, where our humanity has been sundered, where Friends lives the extravagant and radical example of Jesus, in those places is where I see God.

Kelly and I were, and are, so thankful to have been a part of Friends, for being able to find community and companionship in the people, to be offered support and love as we brought our son into the world, and for him to have even just a few years to grow up in front of all of you who share our joy in him. I hope we will be able to find a community here with even some of the welcome we were shown at Friends, but regardless, we will always treasure our time with you.

Peace be with you, Friends. Never stop being in that place.

With Love,

Andrew, Kelly, and Sammy McNeely

wholeness through peace,

peace through justice,

justice through action,

action through community,

community through service


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