Renowned activist Bryan Stevenson visits campus

A full gym of students, professors and community members gathered in Coray Alumni Gymnasium on Tuesday night to hear Bryan Stevenson’s talk on mass incarceration and the justice system in the United States. Using stories from his career as a public interest lawyer, Stevenson painted the picture of a system in need of redemption, striking chords with audience members across many disciplines.
“One thing that stood out is the question of what do we Christians have to offer?” said associate professor of theology David Lauber. “And what we have to offer is the truth of redemption, that no one is beyond the power of redemption.”
Stevenson is a Harvard Law School graduate and the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, an organization based in Montgomery, Ala. that works to remedy problems of mass incarceration in the United States. EJI seeks justice for death row inmates, incarcerated children and victims of racial injustice, yet Stevenson’s message appealed to individuals with a variety of passions, and he described it as “an important challenge” for Christians in particular.
“Whatever your concern is, whatever burdens you, whatever motivates you to want to see the world change is fine,” Stevenson said as he opened his speech. “I want to talk about the things I think we have to do if we want to change the world.”
Stevenson explained four points that are necessary to creating this change: proximity to problems, truthful narratives, hopefulness and the willingness to be uncomfortable. “We have a particular responsibility to change the world,” he said of the Christian community. He went on to speak about ways in which the church has failed to play its role in “increasing the justice quotient,” as well as broad steps that can be taken by the Christian community to work for justice in the world around them.
Stevenson’s words received a positive response from the student body in attendance, garnering a standing ovation at the end, and the hopefulness of his message carried particular weight with several students.
“He gave a really hopeful perspective,” said senior Robert Jones, who has participated in internships relating to diversity in the criminal justice system for the past two summers. “I think when you’re doing the day to day stuff … it can seem like stuff really isn’t getting any better, but I think he provided a lot of hope in that, first, he was talking about how things, in some cases, do actually get better, and second, how transformative [justice work] can be for individual lives.”
Junior Brielle Lisa was also impacted by the challenges Stevenson issued to the Wheaton community.
“I think we do need to care about our world, and I think God wants us to do so,” Lisa said. “I feel like I have a lot to learn. I’m going to be mulling over a lot of the things he said and trying to discuss it with friends and get more perspective.”
Lisa commented that the most striking point of Stevenson’s speech was his challenge to Christians to go into uncomfortable situations and “get proximate” to the problems they care about. Proximity is something familiar to Kathryn List, a community member who volunteers with JUST of DuPage and Prison Fellowship at Logan Prison in central Illinois and was also in attendance on Tuesday. List appreciated Stevenson’s perspective of proximity and hope in the face of overwhelming injustice.
“[Stevenson] gave a voice to some of those people that show their circumstances, their situations. They’re desperate people,” List said. “I think he’s initiating a conversation that needs to be had in the churches, and I was so glad that they brought him here.”

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