A Very Thoughtful Editorial on Honesty

In this past week’s edition of the Old Gold and Black, there was a very thoughtful editorial on honesty from our Chaplain, Tim Auman.  I’ve copied the content from the online edition of the Old Gold and Black below.

Tim is one of the people I respect most on this campus.  I have seen him at work in both happy occasions and during terrible tragedies, and he is amazing.  A safe haven in a time of trouble.  A person you can trust.  If your student ever needed help or a listening ear, he/she could go to him and find compassion and comfort.

It is worth your time to read this.

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Twelve steps from the past lead to honest future

Posted on April 20, 2012 by Reverend Tim Auman

When I was a student in divinity school, I remember reading about a civil rights murder that took place in 1966 in Hattiesburg, Miss.  What happened was this: on January 10 civil rights activist Vernon Dahmer was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan.  At about 2 a.m., Dahmer’s home was firebombed.  Reports suggest that two or three carloads of Klan members forced their way into the Dahmer home and ignited 12 one-gallon containers of gasoline.  Dahmer’s wife, Ellie, and their small children survived the attack by escaping through a rear window, but Vernon Dahmer did not.  Why were Dahmer and his family targeted?  His mission had been to assist the African-Americans of Forrest County in registering to vote, and this infuriated the local Ku Klux Klan chapters.

Fourteen Klan members were eventually indicted.  Four of those involved in the murder were found guilty and sentenced under federal law, another entered a guilty plea.  Three were sentenced to life terms, but each served less than 10 years.  Few people were convinced that justice was done.  Yet, for over 30 years, the case remained mostly dormant in police files, until finally someone came forward.

Twenty-eight years had passed when the local police received a phone call from Bob Stringer, a middle-aged man who at the age of 19 had sometimes run errands for the local Klan.

Stringer offered eyewitness evidence that the Klan’s then-leader, Sam Bowers, had ordered the hit on Vernon Dahmer.  Seven years after Dahmer’s murder, Bob Stringer had left Forrest County, eventually moving to Mississippi’s coast.  For much of his life, Stringer had lived with the guilt of knowing the truth about Dahmer’s murder and remaining silent.  At one point, out of work and out of options, he had begun attending a 12-Step program for addicts.  He credits the program with saving his life.

Stringer also credits the program with leading him to confess to the Dahmer family, since one of the 12 steps encourages participants “to make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves” and to “make amends” to people they have harmed.  He eventually contacted the Dahmer family, saying, “I had to tell them what I knew.”  On August 21, 1998, due primarily to Bob Stringer’s testimony, Sam Bowers was convicted of Dahmer’s murder.  Said Vernon Dahmer Jr. at his father’s grave:  “Dad, we’ve come to the end of a long journey.  You can rest in peace.” I thought back to this story from seminary because it reminded me of the unsolved hit-and-run incident that took place on the campus back in December.

I don’t know who was responsible for this tragic accident.  What I do know is that Colleen Brehm has been out of work for almost six months and has lost nearly 40 percent of her income.  Many of my friends who have been in 12-Step programs will tell me that Step 4 is the one that really changed how they lived their lives.  They faced, with integrity and honesty, the choices that they had made.  They did not hide behind excuses or invent fantasy stories to fill in the gaps — they simply opened their hearts and minds and took ownership of their behavior.  No blame, no pity party and no excuses.  They honestly evaluated themselves, developed the courage necessary to admit their fault, and decided once and for all what kind of person they wanted to be from then on.

I will never forget a letter I received from a woman who graduated from Wake Forest many years ago.  She was in a 12-Step program and had come to Step 4.  This is what she said: “I do deeply regret that I dishonored myself and Wake Forest University through [my] actions 30 years ago, and I do ask you and the university for forgiveness.  I also am very aware that such a confession puts my degree in jeopardy, but I am more concerned with being honorable now to the university and being righteous before God than I am about protecting my degree.” Powerful things happen when we take ownership of our poor choices.  We take the blinders off and see ourselves for who we really are and realize, “This is too much to carry.  I can’t keep this up.  My spirit won’t bear it.”

And this is where confession steps in.  Most of us know that making mistakes is part of the human experience. We often forget that the trajectory of those mistakes often separates us from the ones we love the most, and perhaps most significantly, separates us from our most authentic selves.  Step 4 asks us to stop and think, to take ownership of our actions.

It puts us in the right place to begin again, to stand a bit taller, and to assess our character, so that we can decide what kind of person we want to be now and in the future, beyond our time at Wake Forest.

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