Unbearable facts, authentic journeys

I wrote the below essay about the dedication of my World War I novel, The End of Innocence, which is about renewal and reconciliation after a Boston community was ripped apart by war and ethnic suspicion.

The murder discussed below was the subject of an April 2016 televised docudrama. I also wrote a poem, and it is here.

About Rex Copeland

My novel The End of Innocence (formerly HARVARD 1914) is dedicated to Rex Copeland, a beautiful man whose brief life is remembered most today for his name being synonymous with the best debaters in college debate. The trophy is the Rex Copeland award and I wrote the dedication found in it.

Rex was my best friend when we were two of the nation’s top college freshman debaters. We were like Achilles & Patroclus: warriors who cared at the deepest level for each other. We were not romantically involved. How I have missed him and this friendship that helped us both flourish.

In 1989 he was found murdered in what was called the crime of the decade in Alabama. When I found out about Rex’s death, I went to our team debate coach, William Slagle,  for solace. We grieved together, wondered what could have happened, and then I left his office.

Later that month, William Slagle confessed to Rex’s murder and fled. I had nightmares he’d show up and want to speak with me or worse. I had never cried so hard or lost so much.

William Slagle a year later turned himself in, was convicted by the evidence, and in part by my testimony. He died in prison. I do not know that he ever showed remorse. He claimed the murder, 22 stab wounds, was done in self-defense. His justification was narcissistic, and the wound he caused devastating.

Unbearable Facts; Irreconciliable Realities

At 21 I stood as a witness testifying against a person who robbed me of my dearest friend.

It’s not complicated to help condemn a person you do not know for a crime to which they admitted. But this was complicated. I knew the murderer. He had supported Rex and me like no other teacher I had had before (see the picture below). He’d approved of scholarships for me, and I needed them. He had supported my competitive debate ambitions and Rex and I were able to compete with our foot on the gas and nothing holding us back.

How can one have integrity when faced with such unbearable facts? It would have been so much easier to write-off Bill Slagle.

There was one problem. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I grew up in Selma, Alabama and learned from teachers who lived, ate, housed, and marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. They had experienced terrible violence and loss from people with skin the color of mine.

As Martin Luther King Jr said, “We have before us a glorious opportunity to inject a new dimension of love into the veins of our civilization.  There is still a voice crying out in terms that echo across the generations, saying, ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you, that you may be the children of your Father which is in Heaven…The end is reconciliation, the end is redemption, the end is the creation of the beloved community.”

How can I ask my teachers to overcome their wounds to reach out to me, when I could not do the same. They had friends murdered. They had dreams lost. And yet, I found it very convenient to ask them to reconcile with white people.  I liked it when I was the beneficiary of reconciliation.

Was I – am I – one that gives and asks for cheap grace?

I also had well-meaning Christian friends tell me that this was easy. Just pray and God will give you all the forgiveness you need right away. I do not doubt them if they say and believe this has worked for them. That was not my experience.

I know some people who have had this “interruption of forgiveness,” especially the great peacemakers of Burundi and Uganda. I have envied them, though the great ones will say that forgiveness is a gift not everyone receives and they do not know why. They are realistic and must be in the face of unbearable facts including genocides, especially those in East Africa which often find killings by Christians of other Christians in the same church.

So sudden forgiveness was not my experience.  Having worked in the Christian reconciliation movement for four years, I have learned that my experience is all right too, and more common than a sudden ability to forgive and sort through brutal events.

But from this I learned much. I learned to listen deeply, because it mattered.  Death is a singular event. How we piece things back together is part of our becoming beautifully human. If forgiveness had come easily, I would have lost much hard-earned wisdom. I’m now glad it didn’t because the challenge forced me to grow in ways that I would not have otherwise.

I also felt grace. When one has positive feelings towards a guilty person it’s agonizing. One is sad about the loss but carries on an exhausting fight with the side of one’s brain that says, “They got what they deserved, how could your heart feel otherwise? It is shameful to mourn when justice has occurred.” To not be condemned (by myself or others) for mourning the guilty is a relief that sometimes we find.

So what do I do with memory of my beloved friend? How is love injected into this wound? What fresh imagination is needed to move forward? What do I do with the memory of a narcissist, now dead, who never apologized, never took responsibility, but from whom I had also received great care? How can I see each person – even the killer I know – as a child of God while demanding justice?  And what is forgiveness? Is it an act of will? Rest and acceptance: a quiet period on the end of a long sentence of grief? How do we bind up these wounds?

These are issues I wrestled with and found peace. And these are the themes of my life today.

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