Courageous love shows up in the most unlikely places.
When Army veteran Joe Serna told his wife Rocia
what happened after he was arrested for driving while
intoxicated and sentenced to jail, she exclaimed, “No way!”
Like most of us, Rocia had been raised to expect that when
you break the law, the punishment will fit the crime. But
the circumstances of the sentence her husband told her he’d
received were like no other, and it changed both their lives.
Joseph Serna is a former Special Forces soldier who had
been deployed to Afghanistan three times. He was injured
by a suicide bomber and a roadside bomb and came home
with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Serna has
appeared before Cumberland County, North Carolina,
District Court Judge Lou Olivera 25 times in his fight for
sobriety. In his most recent appearance, he didn’t tell the
truth about his urine test, and Olivera sentenced him to
spend 24 hours behind bars. When Serna reported for his
punishment, he was met by the judge.
“When Joe first came to turn himself in, he was trembling.
I knew what Joe was going through,” says Olivera, a fellow
veteran who served in the Gulf War. Then the judge did the
unthinkable: “I just felt I had to go with him.”
“He said he was going to stay with me,” Serna told his
wife. “I couldn’t process a judge being my cellmate.”
Throughout the night in jail, the judge and the veteran
talked about Serna’s PTSD and how the inmate could
reverse his downward spiral. “We talked for hours about
our military service,” Olivera remembers, “our dreams for
us and our families, and the road to take us there.”
“I cannot even put into words how I feel about him,”
Serna says. “I look at him as a father. I’ve seen a lot of
things, and this by far is the most compassionate thing
I’ve ever seen anyone give to anybody. I will never let
him down again.”
Granted, from a practical viewpoint this is a simple
case of a soldier with PTSD who got on the wrong side of
the law and the judge realizing that society would benefit
much more by giving empathy and support rather than
jail time alone. But something deeper is going on here
that has to do with our universal need for significant
human relationships—our shared humanity instead of
just our behavior alone.
In this instance, a county judge comes down from his
bench, drops the pretense of his legal authority, and presents
himself to the offender as a fellow human being. They
become fully present to each other. This is the realm of the
sacred, the habitat of compassion—the place where God
works, where the past is transcended by the present—where
more life is created.
On my grandfather’s farm, the pump gave you water only
if you first gave water to the pump—you primed the pump.
It’s a life principle as simple as it is profound. Jesus put it to
words: “Give, and it will be given to you … for the measure
you give will be the measure you get back.” We see it when
we nurture a child to adulthood or when we start a business
and shepherd it to success.
Olivera’s compassionate decision is the heart and soul of
those bold words, “I behold the Christ in you.” We could use
more such courageous love—it is life-changing!
A Singular Sentence
Reflections and ruminations from respected Unity reverends
... SOCIETY WOULD
BENEFIT MUCH MORE
BY GIVING EMPATHY
AND SUPPORT ...
REV. PHILIP WHITE, AN ORDAINED UNITY
MINISTER, IS A FORMER DEAN OF UNITY
INSTITUTE AND SEMINARY AND A FORMER
EDITOR OF UNITY MAGAZINE. NOW RETIRED,
HE LIVES IN LEE’S SUMMIT, MISSOURI.