In June of last year, I happily booked an appearance at Baylor’s Chapel. Religious presentations (and op-ed writing) are not a central part of my work; I’m a law professor, after all. But I looked forward to the opportunity to come back to Waco, a place I dearly love that is full of old friends. The date was set in consultation with the Chapel staff: Feb. 13, 2017 — this Tuesday.
By fall, I had a good plan. For the past several years, my students and I have worked on federal clemency, seeking to shorten the sentences of non-violent narcotics prisoners who have an exemplary prison record and a personal narrative that includes taking active responsibility for what they have done wrong and a fervent commitment to do better. That work for me is a very satisfying vocation; at its heart is the mercy that Jesus urges us to show one another, balanced with a love for community that calls us to protect it from harm.
Over and over, this work deepened my students’ faith, and my own. There is nothing quite the educational equal of fulfilling Christ’s instruction to visit those in prison and then, months later, calling up that man or woman and telling them that they will live the rest of their life in freedom.
One of those prisoners was Ronald Blount. Two of my students visited him and eventually I did. His story was tragic.
At the time of his arrest, he was addicted to crack, wholly and horribly. He was so impoverished and outcast by his addiction that he lived on his mother’s porch and begged for change in a park. He got caught helping his brother sell crack — in hopes of getting some for himself — and, because of two low-level prior convictions, he received a mandatory sentence of life in prison without hope of parole.
Yet, he had since turned his life around. He worked in the chapel of the prison and, when I visited him alone in a small dank room, he took my hands in his and said, “Pray with me.” For a former career prosecutor, that was a singular moment.
When I called him in November to tell him that his petition was granted, that he would be free, our conversation was short and full of quiet joy. When he was put on the phone in the warden’s office, I said, “God is good.” There was a pause. “All the time,” he replied.
Once I knew Ronald Blount was out of prison, I knew what I wanted to do for Baylor Chapel. I wanted to bring him up to Waco Hall — he works in Houston — to sit in the audience or behind me. I would tell his story — and the story of this deep vocation — then introduce him and have him speak.
It gave me chills to think of it.
It won’t happen, though. Several weeks ago, Baylor University Chaplain Burt Burleson cancelled my appearance. He cited as the reason two pieces I had written in the Tribune-Herald. One, which did not mention Baylor, argued for integrity and rootedness in the Bible as churches struggle with the possibility of gay church members. The other decried the PR-centered approach Baylor had taken regarding the tumult over sexual assaults by students and urged that the Pepper Hamilton report on those assaults be reduced to writing and made available to the students.
Over the years, I have spoken at a number of conservative educational institutions, including Regent University, Fuller Theological Seminary, Carson-Newman University and Azusa Pacific. None of them flinched, even when it was clear that some of my views might conflict with some of theirs. Only Baylor showed this kind of fear, and that is a sad thing, for me and for them. At Baylor, it seems that the fragile snowflakes needing a “safe space” free from divergent voices aren’t in the student body — they are in the administration and on the board of regents.
Baylor has too many strengths, too many good traditions and good people, to stay down for long. The Spirit will always be there, waiting to be embraced again. Ronald Blount was right: God is good.
All the time.
Formerly of the Baylor Law School faculty, Mark Osler occupies the Robert & Marion Short Distinguished Chair of Law at the University of St. Thomas School of Law.