Several years ago, I sat at the notorious Sing Sing Prison in New York listening to a convicted murderer tell me his story. He told me about the night he had been accused, and later convicted, of killing a 92-year-old woman after breaking into her house with two other teens. He told me how he had already served nearly 30 years for that murder, a crime which he still denied having committed. He told me how he had been denied parole four times, but could have been released long ago if he had only admitted to killing the elderly white woman. He talked about how enraged he had been over those long years, using the prison boxing ring as a way to work out his feelings. And he told me how he had recently begun to change.
When I met him, Dewey Bozella was part of New York Theological Seminary’s Masters of Theology program. In the room of 14 convicted murderers, Dewey talked about how God began to change him as a result of having engaged with the rigorous but reflective theological coursework. “That’s when God decided to test me,” he said. Turns out, the man who murdered Dewey’s own brother ended up at Sing Sing on another charge. Dewey says he had always thought about how he would take revenge if he ever met this man. That day had finally come. Dewey said, “I went up to him in the yard and I asked him, ‘Why did you kill my brother?’ and the man said, ‘I was 15 years old.’” Tears rolled down Dewey’s face as he recalled that moment and the realization which came to him. “I stuck out my hand, shook his hand, forgave him; and then I turned around and I walked away.” He says other inmates were very angry with him for not avenging his brother’s death, but he said, “I knew God had already started to change me, and I had to live with myself.”
In listening to his story of struggle and faith, I had no doubt that, indeed, Dewey had changed. There was no pride, and no self-conceit in his sharing. He wasn’t trying to manipulate or convince us of any outcome. He was simply relaying his experience of surrendering to the loving power of God, working in and through his life. He was profoundly humble. One heart speaking to others. All of us in the room were changed as a result of having heard it. I hunger to hear stories like Dewey’s. They are real and authentic. I hunger to tell them as well, because they make a difference to people and give them hope.
Many have asked me over the past eight years how I went from being a clergywoman to a TV news reporter. For me, it’s just a different way of telling stories. For the past 10 years, I have been either in front of or behind the camera, sharing the life experiences of others which I feel matter, while simultaneously working as a clergyperson in the church. The way I look at it, my ministry keeps my reporting compassionate and my news reporting keeps my ministry grounded in real life.
In the past few decades, membership rolls in churches across denominational lines have been declining. My guess is it has something to do with how relevant or irrelevant the church is to the lives of the people in the pews. People yearn for authentic connection with one another. They want to know others and be known on a deep level, and they will go wherever they can to find authenticity.
Some have found that deeply satisfying connection with others at 12-step meetings, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Al-Anon or Overeaters Anonymous. In these rooms people can hear honest, authentic stories shared by people who have faced their deepest hopes and fears and have reached out to the God of their understanding for help. Those who face the disease of addiction know that if they are not honest, it may result in relapse and possible death. Such honesty and humility is met by others in the groups with unconditional love and acceptance. For many, it’s an encounter with true grace, never before experienced.
The church can also offer space for people to experience that type of grace. Everyone has a faith story to tell which can be transformative to others, even if it doesn’t sound like a dramatic tale. The important thing is for the storyteller to share his or her feelings so that others can relate. For example, listeners might not have had the same experiences, but everyone can identify with feelings of loneliness, fear, hope and love. Open and honest hearts tend to open other hearts.
As faith educators, we have a unique opportunity to help others engage in the listening and telling of their unique stories of faith for the glory of God. It requires us to model being authentic and honest about our own hopes and fears in the midst of our communities. When that happens, transformation is inevitable.
By the way…Dewey Bozella’s story doesn’t end with my interview. Two years after my story aired, I happened to be watching the evening news. My jaw dropped as I watched Dewey’s release from Sing Sing. Ever since his arrest, he had written The Innocence Project on a weekly basis, asking them to review his case. The non-profit group finally responded and got his conviction overturned based on new DNA testing not available at the time of his arrest.
Last year, ESPN awarded Dewey with “The Arthur Ashe Courage Award” for his courage to never give up fighting. And a few months later, at the age of 52, Dewey fought and won his first professional boxing match. n
Shannon White, a clergywoman since 1990, is also an Emmy-nominated TV journalist and author. She’s written How Was School Today? Fine and Invisible Conversations with Your Aging Parents.