What was I doing in this inner-city courthouse? In an area where more murders and violent crimes occur than anywhere else in the state?
The few benches were crowded with tense, quiet people. As I waited, snatches of conversation – some in other languages – drifted past me. A father wondered where his son was being held in jail. A woman asked how to fill out a restraining order. Another woman thumbed through a well-worn Bible, reading to herself.
How I had gotten there? Was it really this stupid traffic ticket – my first one in 25 years of driving? Why hadn't I simply paid the fine and been done with it?
Two years earlier we had moved from a sleepy rural town outside the city to an urban home in a vibrant multicultural neighborhood adjacent to the community around this courthouse. Every day, after dropping off my son for school, I drove through this section of the city on my way to work.
A glance out the window showed a depressed community – of disrepair, joblessness, broken families, and broken laws. I realized I couldn't just call the thriving part of the city where I lived my home; I had to embrace this part of it as well. These, too, were my neighbors. And I needed to pray with them and for them. Each day.
When the news reported a fresh crime in the area, I used my drive to pray for the welfare of all involved, to see each of us as children of God and worthy of grace. For me, grace conveys the power of divine Love to break through our limited, desperate sense of life with an understanding of eternal life that we can begin to live right now.
Mary Baker Eddy, who founded Christian Science, wrote, "Grace and Truth are potent beyond all other means and methods" ("Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures," p. 67). Grace transforms us and everything around us.
I began looking for signs of joy and of the spiritual innocence that comprise the enduring identity of each person. And I'd glimpse it in small ways – how a young father gently but firmly held the hand of his small son who twisted around impatiently, waiting for the bus. Or in the smile of the crossing guard. Or when new windows went into a dilapidated three-decker tenement, and the following week, a new coat of paint appeared.
When I had filed the protest of the ticket a few weeks earlier, I wasn't sure that I was in the right. I was ready to let my appeal drop, but something impelled me to stay with it. Instead of being called to the courthouse in my neighborhood, I was sent to this one. And for two hours, I waited for the magistrate to hear my case. I looked around. It was a call to prayer – for all of us there, whatever the reason.
The words from Psalm 51 became my refrain for the afternoon: "Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions. Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin."
What struck me was that divine mercy – even more than human justice – was the need of this community. And I let myself feel God's love penetrating the hearts of all there with me, cleansing all of us from any sense of falling short.
When it was time to plead my case, I was found – within half of a sentence of explanation – to be in the wrong. I fully expected to pay the fine. Instead, the magistrate looked at me carefully and asked me if I now understood the law. I nodded.
"I'm going to preserve your clean record," she told me. "You're free to go."
An acknowledged wrong forgiven. A clean record preserved. It was a grace note for me – a small confirmation that Love was quietly active in that courthouse ... and bringing its transforming power to every neighborhood in my community.