Churches should be more like grand juries – except for the judging part

They made it clear that if I ever mention a defendant’s name, a witness’s story or a lawyer’s hair color I will spend the rest of my life in a windowless room begging for bread and water. They told us about a juror who posted a picture of a witness on Facebook. That juror will be the last one out of Guantanamo.

I recently spent two weeks on a grand jury dealing with 21 cases that I cannot talk about. We were allowed to take notes, but could not take them home. I wrote things that would make you laugh out loud and break your heart, but those amusing, tear-jerking notes have been destroyed.

When you hear the marshal call your name the first time it is alarming: “Congratulations, Mr. Younger, you’re the foreperson. There’s no judge in a grand jury courtroom, so you sit in the judge’s seat, swear in the witnesses and lead the deliberations.”

“Was I chosen at random?”

“We picked you because of your age and occupation.”

I understand why they want old referees, but am surprised that they recognize that ministers know all about officiating arguments.

If you are ever fortunate enough to be on a grand jury, you want to be the foreperson. Because there is no defendant, defense attorney or judge, some witnesses mistook me for someone with authority. When anyone asked permission to do anything I always replied, “I’ll allow it.” I found this amusing, though one attorney said, “Stop doing that.”

“There are too many battered, hopeless and frightened people and too many angry, unloved and mean people.”

I decided my job was to lighten the mood during deliberations:

“Do we agree that we have sufficient evidence that the defendant is not a criminal mastermind?”

“Let me remind you that nothing I say has any probative value.” (You had to be there.)

“I have reasonable cause to believe we should go to lunch.”

The 23 of us enjoyed each other’s company. The jury checked just about every box on the ethnicity questionnaire. We were uneducated, overeducated, unemployed and overemployed. We had a variety of viewpoints on politics and the New York Yankees.

We talked compassionately about victims, our complex feelings about law enforcement and the way race complicates everything. We learned that if you are arrested for stealing and are shown a videotape of the event, you should not shout, “That’s me!”

We listened to people who have been robbed, beaten and shot. We heard about people who think their best option is to sell drugs from a basement apartment, and that it makes sense to take a gun to a barbecue. These people have hard lives.

I decided that if no one asked my occupation I would not tell them, but at the end of the first week, after I quoted Atticus Finch without giving him credit, a member of the jury asked, “Are you planning to go to law school?”

I said, “I don’t think I need to quit my day job just yet.”

“What is your day job?”

I thought about questioning the relevance of the question, but told the truth: “I’m a minister.”

The jury stopped deliberating. The conversation slowed. In that setting, being a minister got in the way of being a friend. The camaraderie was gone for those who have not experienced the church at its best.

Why doesn’t everyone say, “I’m so glad to hear that you’re a minister, because the church has always been a source of hope for me and my family”? Sometimes churches do not offer comfort. Most churches are not as inclusive as they want to believe.

“What would happen if the church asked broken people, ‘What kind of church do you need?’”

We spent two weeks listening to stories that make it clear the world needs good churches. There are too many battered, hopeless and frightened people and too many angry, unloved and mean people.

We need churches that ask hard questions: What can the church do for women who have been beaten by their boyfriends? How should the church care for the cashier who is stealing money to pay the electric bill? How should the church respond to those who drive drunk? How can the church be honest about the racism that has infiltrated our communities of faith? Does the church worry about what God worries about, weep over what God weeps over and love those God loves? What would happen if the church asked broken people, “What kind of church do you need?”

We have enough churches that keep their distance from shattered lives, do only what is expected and exist to maintain the church. We need churches that proclaim release to the captives, care for the victims and become family to those who need a family.

I do not get to serve on another jury for eight years, but I have been given sufficient evidence that churches need to figure out how to become friends with victims, change the lives of offenders and listen to the broken-hearted.


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