One man’s quest for redemption

Ever read a story that leaves you nearly speechless — in a good way, I mean?

That happened to me nearly a year ago when I came across Associated Press Special Correspondent Helen O’Neill’s absolutely riveting account of Elwin Hope Wilson, a white bigot seeking forgiveness for sins of the past.

“Wow,” I thought after reading the piece. Then I read it again and dared to dream that I might, once in my life, write a story so close to perfection.

After opening with a chilling scene about the antique clocks that haunt this man, O’Neill followed with the nuts and bolts of this 3,100-word masterpiece:

Wilson doesn’t have answers for much of how he has lived his life — not for all the black people he beat up, not for all the venom he spewed, not for all the time wasted in hate.

Now 72 and ailing, his body swollen by diabetes, his eyes degenerating, Wilson is spending as many hours pondering his past as he is his mortality.

The former Ku Klux Klan supporter says he wants to atone for the cross burnings on Hollis Lake Road. He wants to apologize for hanging a black doll in a noose at the end of his drive, for flinging cantaloupes at black men walking down Main Street, for hurling a jack handle at the black kid jiggling the soda machine in his father’s service station, for brutally beating a 21-year-old seminary student at the bus station in 1961.

In the final chapter of his life, Wilson is seeking forgiveness. The burly clock collector wants to be saved before he hears his last chime.

I was reminded of O’Neill’s story this week when I read the announcement on that her article won the 2010 Eugene S. Pulliam National Journalism Writing Award:

According to the Pulliam Award judges, O’Neill’s story is a compelling, expertly written retrospective of this “sad, sickly man haunted by time.” They note her remarkable use of description and judicious use of details. They praise her nuanced storytelling that explores paradoxes and contradictions and avoids simple explanations. They pay tribute to O’Neill’s significant skills as a reporter and writer.

Since I read the story before I joined the GetReligion team, I was curious how my “media critic” eyes might judge it, so I looked it up again.

Once again, I was pleased.

Besides the fact that O’Neill is an incredibly gifted reporter and writer, I think what makes this story work is that it uses clear, precise language and lets Wilson — and those terrorized by him — explain the past and present through their own sometimes difficult-to-see-through lenses.

A scene that recounts Wilson’s spiritual conversion is told without judgment — with neither endorsement nor skepticism on the writer’s part. Readers can draw their own conclusions about Wilson’s come-to-Jesus moment:

“I’m going to hell,” he told Clarence Bradley one day in January, when, feeling poorly after yet another doctor visit, he stopped by his friend’s auto paint and body shop on Eastview Road. The two have long shared an interest in antiques and cars.

Slumped on the sofa, surrounded by mementoes from the 1950s — a vintage soda machine with bottles of Coca Cola and Orange Crush, dusty photographs of old cars and old times — Bradley had never seen his friend so sick or so low.

Bradley is a solidly built man of 62 with a serious manner and firm opinions about the urgent need for more people to invite the Lord into their lives.

“If you truly ask forgiveness and you mean it in your heart, you can be saved,” he told Wilson. “You just have to let the Lord guide you.”

They talked about it some more. Another friend, a part-time preacher, walked in. For the next five minutes the three men bowed their heads in prayer.

“Only God and Elwin know what’s in his heart,” Bradley says. “But I can tell you something in that man changed that day.”

Am I the only one who read O’Neill’s story and was touched so prof0undly by it? Do you agree with my assessment of this piece? Did I miss any religion ghosts? I’d love to know what GetReligion readers thought of this piece.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Jerry

    And he has been surprised by how liberated the apologies have made him feel. People don’t understand the burden of carrying all that hate, he says.

    I think that is a truly beautiful and inspirational article. That section I highlighted above so true and so needed in the world today filled as it is as with hate as recent stories have shown and continue to show about the health care law that was just signed such as this one that I just read a while ago.

  • Al Moonlight

    “Slumped on the sofa, surrounded by mementoes from the 1950s — a vintage soda machine with bottles of Coca Cola and Orange Crush, dusty photographs of old cars and old times — Bradley had never seen his friend so sick or so low.”

    A huge dangling modifier like that and she still gets the award.

    In other words: WHO was slumped, Bradley or Wilson? It was Wilson, but he is nowhere in the sentence.

    “Are there no more editors?” he asked rhetorically.

  • Bobby

    Jerry, it’s amazing how powerful such simple sentences can be.

    Al, good catch! I didn’t even notice that. I read right over it, but it reminds me how utterly difficult it is to be perfect. Especially in matters of grammar and style.

  • Kenny

    When this article first came out, some philosophy blogs discussed Wilson’s change of heart, and his talk about fearing hell, in terms of moral theory.


    One of the good things about the article is that it seems to describe Wilson’s change of heart almost entirely in his own words, and he uses a lot of theologically-laden language. It is made clear that Wilson believes that there will be black people in heaven and that there won’t be unrepentant racists in heaven. What is not clear is what kind of moral and theological commitments are behind this. In an article this long, that’s probably something that could have been dealt with.

  • Bobby

    Interesting posts, Kenny. Thanks for sharing.