The Welcome Project PA | April 27, 2020
Not too long ago ago I called the Norristown Courthouse eight times.
Eight times. You see, a month ago, I received my fourth summons to appear in Norristown, PA for jury duty.
Now this won’t be a rant about someone’s “civic responsibility” or bureaucracy, or the government, or whatever. Instead, I’m going to tell you my jury duty story, because something happened there that mattered to me.
I was shown great hospitality when I didn’t expect it.
Let’s go back to Sunday night. I didn’t sleep well. Perhaps I was anxious and overly tired, or maybe I was anticipating something new and interesting; after all, I had received jury duty summons before but never actually had to show up. My lawyer friends scoffed, knowing that a clergyperson such as me would never get selected for a petit jury, much less a criminal case. But I couldn’t sleep, maybe because I thought: why not?
I rolled out of bed on Monday morning—resembling the freakiest of zombies—and I made my way to the courthouse. I went through the metal detector, scanned my little summons paper at the door and showed my ID. I put on my plastic badge with my juror number; I was in!
The room was packed. There were 300 people in there. Whoa. I couldn’t believe it.
No food, no drink. Just sit down.
That’s what the sign said.
Everyone looked tired. Some were visibly cranky. One guy all dressed up in his suit and with a briefcase, sauntered about the room as if to say:
Look at me. I’m so important. Can’t you see I have better things to do? Look at me!
One lady, in front of me, was intensely knitting something as if to say:
This is our lot in life. Suck it up, grin and bear it, we’ll be here for a WHILE.
Two other ladies in front of me gossiped about their families; a woman in a hijab asked me and the woman sitting next to me if we knew exactly what these numbers meant on our plastic badges. One lady didn’t make eye contact with a single person while she frittered away on her laptop. People kept coming in; some were visibly frustrated with traffic, or the parking, or perhaps…life in general?
The lady on staff who scanned us in and gave us our plastic badges entered the room periodically and said:
Juror number 5609, you need to fill out your juror info form. 5609? 5609?
Though we were all supposed to arrive at 8:00 a.m., it wasn’t until about 9:00 a.m. that the same lady patiently calling out numbers put in an old-school DVD to fill us in on all the details of being a juror. The DVD speaker, Larry Kane of Comcast, reminded us:
If you are in need of an internet connection, you may visit the juror’s lounge and ask for the internet connection cable. That way, you can connect it to your laptop.
Yeah, thanks, Larry. But the nice lady calling out numbers just told us that wi-fi [not requiring a cable] was free.
The DVD mercifully ended with Larry telling us how much of a privilege it would be to serve as a juror. Another period of time passed.
The kind lady who scanned us in, gave us our plastic badges, called out the numbers of people who hadn’t filled out their info forms, explained the DVD, answered a multitude of questions, and continued to run back and forth to the courtrooms—finally addressed us again around 10:30 a.m.
She maintained her bright smile and said:
Okay, everyone, thank you so much for your patience. They are ready for you, so what I’m going to do know is to read off 50 juror numbers. If your number is called, that means you have been randomly selected. Please stand and I will escort you to where you need to go.
She paused and smiled.
And I know that you’re tired and that the weather isn’t great, but hang in there. We will get you moving, and those of you who aren’t called, you are free to use the facilities or to get a drink of water, or whatever you need. Thanks again for your patience and your service.
One guy behind me sighed so exasperatingly loud that I could feel his eyes rolling even though I couldn’t see them. Another lady to the right shook her head in disgust.
But the patient, kind lady wasn’t fazed. She started calling juror numbers. My number ended with a 09. Numbers 08, 07, 06, and 10 were all called, but not mine.
Some people breathed a sigh of relief, others scoffed in disappointment.
And…the 50 chosen—they left…
Never to be seen again.
Finally, it was about noon and the kind-hearted, smiling, patient, hospitable lady [how I now thought of her] addressed the remaining lot by saying:
Some news, everyone. The last case to be tried is a criminal case.
Some groans in the crowds.
It has now gone to bench. So yes, I’m sure some of you know what that means.You’re free to go home! Don’t forget to scan your papers on the way out so you receive your stipend check in the mail. And thanks for your service.
We filed out of the courtroom. Some people were actually running. I’m not kidding. Cars whizzed out the parking lot.
As I sat in my car, I reflected on how jury duty experience had been so less painful than I thought. Why? The welcoming, hospitable, incredibly-patient lady on the petit jury staff who led our tired, grumpy lot through the morning.
On an early Monday morning in Norristown’s Courthouse, that seemed crazy.
Why? Because oftentimes, true hospitality is rare. It was a courthouse full of women and men of various socio-economic levels; people of all sorts of cultural and ethnic backgrounds; transgender folk; religious and non-religious folk; people late and people early; people eager and people confused; full of all kinds of people.
And yet, that woman welcomed us all. Truly. I saw it.
It was a radical welcome.
So I’m left with this question: are we considered crazy for the radical hospitality and welcome we show to all people?
We should be.
We should be pushing the limits of what hospitality and welcome mean—no matter how crazy it may sound or if it’s not religiously or socially acceptable.
How crazy are we?