When the Chosen Become Vulnerable

Once, I confess, the Feds got me.

Did I end up in shackles, accused of poor writing or telling way too many half-truths? Nope. Was it for that little-bitty IRS sleight-of-hand a few years back? Wrong again (and please tell the IRS I’m only kidding). Alas, it’s mundane.

I was summoned for jury duty. Federal Court. The Eastern District in California. Whoa.

Federal Court is different from my local Superior Court. Instead of a citizen lassoed for one week or one trial, the Feds nab you for an entire month. If selected for duty, you’re done with the obligation. (Though who knows how long a trial could last!) If not selected, the Feds are like a bad habit—they keep coming back. Do they want me this week? Or the next? Or the next?

A month can seem a long time. I rarely like to be dismissed, but after a month, I was glad the Feds no longer cared about me!

Another lengthy experience was sitting in the jury room lounge, viewing the “Federal Jury Video” with forty or so other Eastern District denizens. Bring on the popcorn and Milk Duds, it was Hollywood at its worst. For the fifteen loooong minutes, I remained on the edge of my seat, mostly just trying to stay awake. The sacrifices we make to be, er, good citizens!

Jury duty can be like many events in life: wait. Then wait a little more.

Finally, after several dreary hours of sitting, we were herded into elevators for an upstairs courtroom. Since jury duty demands confidentiality, I must speak in generalities. After all, I was soon privy to a smidgen of the when, who, and what of a (drum roll, please) nasty federal case.

I played math games as the judge started into the welcome and instructions. Maybe forty to forty-five of us were ready to serve. We were told a computer had randomly regurgitated twenty-one names to be “interviewed.” Ah, I thought, I have about a fifty-fifty chance of selection.

Name calling.


Name calling.

When the twentieth name was announced, I—because waiting is boring and I was figuring out ways to pass the time—continued to work on mental math projects. With one final “winner” to be selected, there was less than a 5% chance of hearing my name.

From 50% to 5%. The last name was called. Make that 0%.

I waited—again—with the other not-chosen people while the prospective twenty-one were questioned. And finally, jury duty became interesting. Each of the possible jurors were obligated to respond. Each of us waiting in the wings paid attention to those questions. There was, of course, a chance that some of the original twenty-one would be asked to leave. If a potential juror was cast aside, we zero-percenters might change the day’s statistics.

Why rejections? Well, the judge might not like an answer and had the power to say “goodbye.” A lawyer, hearing the responses to the judge, or asking his or her own questions, might also bid farewell to a juror. If too many of the first chosen become former potential jurors, guess who was available? Yup, those uncalled, still-waiting “losers.”

We were in Boy Scout mode: be prepared.

The standard questions included how long a person had lived in this area, employment, educational background, a spouse’s work situation, number of children, and so on.

This was where the two score and one strangers became fascinating. The questions were a powerful, peculiar “ritual.” Whether this kind of questioning is deemed fair or unfair, necessary or intrusive, those queries are a way to achieve—maybe—a jury of open-minded peers.

Fresno’s federal courthouse.

In the questioning, strangers become flesh and blood human beings. I heard about children and spouses. Tragedies, successes. About past actions and future plans. I listened to each person, rapt with attention. Nearly everyone, already feeling awkward because of the surroundings, and many probably shy by nature, spoke quietly. However, this was a relatively new courtroom (the Feds spent millions to build Fresno’s tallest structure) and the room’s acoustics were excellent. Even timid whispers were easily discerned.

It was real. True. Raw. I felt like these people, reluctantly exposing glimpses of their lives, were declaring to the judge and the two opposing sides that they would be ready to listen. They were no longer faceless, nor were they without faults and flaws. In their obligation to be “good citizens,” they had become vulnerable.

My math games were forgotten. Given my wandering and faithful mind, I thought of fellow sojourners in my religious tradition that had their faults and flaws on display.

Two examples suffice.

What of King David? So powerful, to this day traditional Jews await the return of David’s realm. Isn’t that the long-awaited longing? And yet, in the stories we have of David, he is vain, petty, and deceitful. He is King and he is flesh and blood. And we also see, in the story of David, a Creator willing to forgive, trusting in hope more than punishment, and forever claiming and reclaiming the creation.

Or, shifting to the Christian Testament, what about the “Z” man, Zacchaeus? Unlike David’s chapter-upon-chapter story, Zacchaeus is like a whack-a-mole in a flash of verses. And yet, we know him. The short, greedy man (who can scamper up a tree trunk) becomes a still short, but generous man. Jesus, Luke claimed, saw not just a fellow “Jew” or a citizen of Jericho. Jesus saw, and talked with, Zacchaeus. Flesh and blood. Transformation occurred, not to someone or everyone, but to Zacchaeus.

Yes, my faith can be summed up by laws. By the “dos” and the “don’ts.” But religion, if it’s limited to laws, is no more than a stranger.

Mostly, I don’t care much for “religion.” I care about the flesh and blood. About relationships.

I listened to the jurors.

We are a nation of laws. I’m thankful for that. I am part of a faith made better because we have the Ten Commandments or can recite ancient words in baptism. Well and good. But we’re flesh and blood. We are created by One willing to forgive, trusting in hope, and forever claiming the creation. Us. Me. You. In God’s good realm, there are no strangers.


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