Imagine being accused for something you didn’t do. Not something trivial like breaking a traffic signal. Think farther, think the worst. Rape. Murder. Imagine rotting in prison for thirty years for it. Now stop imagining because it’s all real. This is not a movie plot. It has happened to real people.
There’s a lot to be said of Henry McCollum and his half-brother Leon Brown – death row inmates in North Carolina who were recently exonerated from the rape and murder of an eleven-year old girl after thirty years. Just when you think all goodness has left humanity, you come across people who show you what strength is all about. It’s not about power, money, or fame. It’s not even about being intellectual. It’s about having crazy, almost unreal belief that you will get by. It’s about having the foresight to see past the fog. The two brothers have been labeled intellectually disabled with limited abilities to read and write. But no one would have guessed their secret powers.
Two things that Henry can teach us supposedly intellectual people.
1. You don’t need much, just faith. In God.
In an interview to the press after his release, Henry showed utmost gratitude to Almighty God. After a three decade long ordeal you’d imagine a disillusioned, angry person with hatred and vengeance oozing out like plant sap. What you see instead is the calm and thankful face of Henry Lee McCollum that blows you away. He is nothing you’d expect. In a world that teaches us to fight back with fury and hate, you don’t expect such faith. How can a person having suffered so much still be grateful? He has a low IQ, some would give this reason. But what does that prove, other than superficial standards of who is clever and who isn’t? He sees and feels what most of us don’t. He probably saw faith every morning in his prison cell. He felt gratitude in every breath he took, or with every bite of inedible food; reassuring him he was meant to live another day. Maybe his smile and the friends he made willed him to go on. He probably endured unimaginable horror but he held on tight. Imagine this level of gratitude coming from a person who experienced hell and came back. “God is good all the time,” he said. As it appears, it is the mentally challenged people like you and I who could do with a bit more faith.
2. Hope for the better, even if it kills you.
Henry took this quite literally. He hoped with the angel of death hovering over his head. He knew he wasn’t wrong and that is reason enough for the hopelessly hopeful. In Henry’s own words, “I knew one day I was going to be blessed to get out of prison, I just didn’t know when that time was going to be.” This stubborn and childish dream in a land where the sun refused to shine for thirty years is what makes Henry stronger and better than most of us.
Everyone doesn’t get justice like Henry. Many innocent people suffer till the end. But maybe hope and faith together make the journey livable.
It is rather presumptuous to call such exceptional people ‘mentally challenged’. I wonder why actual murderers, liars and rapists aren’t called so? If having a high IQ means humans can mastermind brutal crimes and treachery, aren’t people like Henry better off?
After Henry’s release, the first thing he learned was fastening his safety belt. Later on his father James shared plans to teach his fifty-year old son fishing.
If only unlearning hate, dishonesty and faithlessness were that easy.