Call of Duty

8:05 a.m. Monday morning.  I’m late.  The windowless, gray-green room at the end of the corridor is already packed with 200 men and women sitting silently in tight rows of blue gray chairs.  may 2016 082I look around for a seat and squeeze in past a young woman in a blue business suit, a priest in a long black robe, and a young unshaven man with a little bob of black hair tied at the top of this head.  I shove my backpack and gym bag under my seat. I look up at the long rows of florescent lights humming above us, the bank of television sets fastened to pillars at the edge of the room.  I wonder how early everyone else was here. I wonder how long the video has been running about what we can expect in our next two days of jury duty at King County Superior Court.

8:30 a.m.  A woman with long dark hair and a round face stands at the podium at the front of the room and introduces herself.  Julie will be our steward to guide us through our next two days of service.  I thought we only had to be here for one day.  I wonder how I missed that.  I think about having to come here tomorrow on what was supposed to be my day off.  I can’t believe we have to be here for two days.

Julie smiles.  She thanks us for our service.  She tells us that the court sends out those white postcards calling us to jury duty to many more people than are actually required for service.  Most never show up or call in sick.  Others report back that they have responsibilities that make it far too difficult for them to come in.  I have done this as well, feeling that the mere fact of being a minister during Advent is a hardship that should prevent me from serving.

may 2016 068But this time was different.  I got the postcard and I followed up and reported in.  I didn’t have an excuse not to go and I thought I was required to report in if I couldn’t find a good justification not to like Advent.  I realize that Advent was rather a lame excuse.  Now I wonder why I was so responsible this time around.

Julie tells us it is our civil duty and responsibility to come in to serve.  She reminds us that in small communities the sheriff can go out and drag you in if you don’t report. I look around the room at the young women and men, the middle aged and gray haired. Some have their phones and lap tops out and open, already at work.  It’s rather an amazing group of people I think.  They didn’t throw out the postcard out or lose it in the pile of flyers and bills accumulating on their dining room tables.  No, these are the dutiful and organized who got the postcard and made the arrangements to heed the summons. They came happily or not, whether it was convenient or not.  They came nonetheless.  Duty called.  They responded.

I think about the Scout Law I recited every week for years, promising to “Do my best, to do my duty to God and country…”  I wonder if that’s why I am here.  I wonder if there are other Boy Scouts in the room.

Julie tells us she will give out what little rewards to us that she can.  She will let us know when we can take 20 minute breaks and go outside as long as we come back promptly at the end of the break.

She tells us that we are eligible to receive $10 for each day of jury duty, and that, yes, that small amount hasn’t changed in over 50 years.  Today, $10 I will discover barely buys you lunch in downtown Seattle.

“And now after offering you this small token of appreciation for your service, I’m going to invite you if you wish to give it back.”  She smiles.  She tells us that many jurors give their $10 and small may 2016 060transportation stipend back to support a childcare program for folks on jury duty who have responsibility for young children.  She tells us that so many jurors have supported the program that they’ve been able to expand it to other courts.  She tells us it has made a huge difference to families, allowing them to serve.  Many of us will fill out the form and give our lunch money back as well. There are good people here.

10:00 a.m.  We are told we can take a 20 minute break. I look over at the clock.  It doesn’t seem worth it to go to the trouble of dragging out my gym bag and back pack. The drab room saps any energy I have for doing much of anything.  I sit here in the middle of the long row, scribbling on my white legal pad.

10:20 a.m.  Names are called, people file from the room.  Others sit and wait, stand by the coffee machine and fidget.  I am exhausted after a long weekend of meetings.  I have spent the last two days at an annual gathering of leaders in our Pacific Northwest Conference of the United Church of Christ.  As with a jury summons, the call went out to many and some 23 showed up on a Thursday night to spend the next two days together talking about the work of our Conference.  Some drove for hours across the state to come here to Pilgrim Firs, our church camp on the Kitsap Peninsula.  Some made complex arrangements to take care of the kids, board the dogs, take care of stuff at home so they could be here. I am moved by their stories and the old-fashioned words they share about why they had made all sorts of sacrifices to come – duty, commitment, a responsibility to those beyond their own communities and walls.

10:40 a.m. I look around the silent packed room.  Almost every chair is taken.  I realize this would be a terrible place to be if you are claustrophobic.  I wonder if you can get excused from duty for being claustrophobic.  I wonder if I might be claustrophobic.  I get up, squeeze by the people in my row and stand by the refrigerator in the little brown paneled kitchen at the side of the room eating the peanut butter sandwich I had brought for my lunch and drinking water from my paper coffee cup.  I think about Flint.  I wonder if there is lead in the pipes.

may 2016 06711:30 a.m.  Julie releases us early for our lunch break and we are told to report back promptly at 1:30.  The room empties quickly.  I go to the Y and do jumping jacks and sit ups.

1:00 p.m. I get in line for lunch at the food court.  Lunch is slow coming.  I look at the clock.  I tell the woman at the counter that I need to change my order to take out.  I think about eating my salad in a plastic box with a plastic fork in the back of that grim windowless room.

1:20 p.m. I step outside.  It’s a beautiful day here in mid-May, warm and sunny.  I hear Mary Oliver whisper to me, “You do not have to be good.  You just have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves…”

I am tired of being good and dutiful and sitting in a dreary room on a beautiful day.  I want to stay out here this afternoon.  Perhaps I don’t need to report back at our 1:30 deadline.  I am so tired.  I don’t remember when I’ve been this tired before.  I fantasize playing hooky and finding a park and lying down on the grass with a view of the sky and the sound of the waves lapping on the shore. I think how much I would love to do this.

1:25 p.m. I hurry to the security line to get back into court. I wonder why I’m doing this. I think again about Mary Oliver and what I would really love to do this afternoon. I wish I didn’t feel so may 2016 058compelled to be good and dutiful.

1:40 p.m. I stand in the small kitchen and eat my salad in my plastic container with my plastic fork.  I remember that Julie told us that for many of us there will be no summons, no call, no trial, but just two long days of sitting here in rows or stretching at the edges of the small room.  I feel already like I am stuck in a plane on a very long trip that is going nowhere.

2:30 p.m. My name is called – #74 out of 80 potential jurors in the pool for what is expected to be a two week trial.  We file into the court and sit on long wooden pews.  The judge smiles.  He reminds us that the government asks only two things of us – registering for the draft, and jury duty.  I wonder if he forgot about paying taxes.

The judge tells us that jury duty is certainly better than being called up to serve in the army overseas.  I think about Pha, the sweet young man from Vietnam, who I met with this afternoon.  He wonders how long he will need to be here.  He is supporting himself as an hourly contract worker.  Unlike the folks here who work for Amazon or Starbucks, no one is paying him for reporting to jury duty.  It’s costing him two days of potential salary.  He isn’t complaining, he tells me.  He just worries about his job.  He wants to do the right thing.  He knows that the right thing comes with a cost.  I think about duty.  I think how 50 years ago my country would have called me to fulfill my duty and go to Vietnam and kill people like Pha and his family.

may 2016 065I raise my placard with my #74 and request being excused from the jury pool for this trial that is expected to last until June 8.  I am leaving in a week to officiate at a wedding for a young couple at church. I feel bad that I can’t help out with this trial.  I’m surprised I feel this way and not just relieved.  I try to think how I could possibly adjust my travel arrangements to make serving on this trial possible.  I know this is ridiculous.  I think about the gray bearded man who now stands, pivots, nods to us from the center of the room, a man accused of doing terrible things.  And yes, as the judge reminds us, is also presumed innocent until proven guilty.  In this room that surrounds us are some who will decide his fate.  I won’t be one of them.  Other duties call.

7:00 p.m. Exhaustion drags me to our church council meeting that night. I am totaled. Whipped.  Done in.  I fear that I am one of those people whose lack of energy saps everyone’s energy from the room. I have nothing to offer here except the sense of duty that compelled me to show up because it is my job, my responsibility.  I think about how duty sometimes feels like begrudging compliance – being good without the goodness. All I have energy for during the meeting is fantasizing about calling in sick to court tomorrow morning and sleeping in.  I could so use a day off.

Like many other communities our church too is “restructuring”, figuring out new ways to get our work done. Fewer people want to serve for years on boards and committees that meet each month may 2016 061for two hours.  We hear a report that something like a third of our families don’t pledge to our stewardship drive. We hear that lifestyles and needs have changed and the church needs to change.  I wonder if our sense of duty has changed as well.  I wonder again what duty means. I wonder is duty is a good thing or not.  Perhaps it too needs to be reimagined.

9:30 p.m. I wonder if it is my sense of duty or my guilt for my lack of contribution at the meeting that compels me to stay and stack dirty dishes in the dishwasher.  I think, “I may not have been able to contribute much but at least I can contribute this.”

10:40 p.m.  Home, asleep.

Tuesday, 8:45 a.m.  We pack the room again for our second day of service.  Pha tells me he spoke to the judge yesterday afternoon.  He told him that he worries about not understanding English well enough to serve on the jury.  He feels bad that he asked to be excused. He tells me over and over again how he worried about having to slow the process down, to ask for clarity if people spoke too fast or with an accent he didn’t understand.  He says that he didn’t ask to be excused because he is an hourly employee and looking for another job. It’s just understanding English well enough that worries him.  He so wants to do the right thing.

may 2016 069Across the counter, a young man named Luke, overhears that I am a minister.  He introduces himself.  We shake hands.  He’s studying to be a counselor at Bellevue Community College and attends City Church.  He tells me that many of his friends aren’t looking at careers in public service. I ask him why not.  He blames technology, the culture of instant gratification. He tells me about his friends who have found jobs where they can make a lot of money.  “Don’t get me wrong, I too like nice things, but there is something else I want besides making lots of money. I want to look back fifty years from now and say what I did made a difference.”  I nod, smile.  Duty still beckons and the world is a better place because of it.

11:00 a.m. Julie tells us we may get to go home early.  A hundred or so of us are still waiting unassigned this second day.  Pha wonders if there is any kind of trial where he could feel comfortable serving with his challenges in understanding English.  I wonder if Julie knows that I had to excuse myself from that jury pool I got called into yesterday.  I wonder if there is really any chance of my name being called today.

The process grinds slowly forward. We dutifully wait, reading, checking our phones, flipping through the morning paper, typing on our keyboards.  The willing, the not so willing, the tired and bored, the responsible and those yes, who showed up, ready to get up and serve when duty calls.

Noon.  No such luck for going home this morning, we are sent out on lunch break and told to report back promptly at 1:30.  may 2016 062

12:15 p.m.  I change into my running geat at the Y and run to the Seattle Sculpture Garden.     It’s such a beautiful day.  I want to keep on going, keep on running down there by the sailboats in the marina.  I turn around, run back.

1:30 p.m. Back in the jury waiting room, I eat my yogurt and strawberries and peanut butter sandwich leaning against the counter in the kitchen.

2:00 p.m.  Julie steps up to the podium.  “When I call off your name, will the following people come forward to the desk.”  We all dutifully pull out our little sheets of paper to write down our numbers in case we are called.  “Just kidding!” she laughs, “We’re done for the day.  You can go home.  Your jury duty is now complete.”

We cheer, say our quick goodbyes, drop off our little white badges in the gray plastic bins and scatter into the hallway.

I wonder why I am sad.  The ending all happened so fast.  Down the hall in the foyer ringed by gold plated elevators I drop my gym bag to the floor, lean down to tie my shoe.  I look down at the words engraved in gold on the floor of the foyer.

“Never allow it to be said you are silent onlookers, detached spectators, but that you are involved participants in the struggle to make justice a reality.” (Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Commencement Address, Oberlin College, 1965.)

may 2016 083Sometimes I have heard the call to duty and responded.  Sometimes I have walked away.

Sometimes I have reported for duty begrudgingly when I’ve had nothing to give.  Sometimes I have worn duty with exhaustion, and sometimes, yes, with pride.  And sometimes I have stepped forward in hope to give myself to the duty of serving something larger than myself.

I look again at those words, “involved participants” at my feet.  I want that to be me, an involved participant in the struggle to make justice a reality. It sounds so glamorous and noble.  So exciting.  And sometimes, yes, on days like this requires the duty to just show up and sit and wait in a dreary room on a beautiful day.

The roomful of folks who reported for jury duty has dispersed anonymously on the streets only to reveal themselves again when people like Pha and Luke, the woman in the blue business suit, the priest and the young man with the bob of hair at the top of his head will step aside from the teeming crowds and take their place when duty calls again.

2:15 p.m. I stand up, adjust my back pack.  I wonder if I will be one of them.

may 2016 071

9 thoughts on “Call of Duty”

  1. I still have never been called… I hear your anguish and frustration and yet also your curiosity of being in this process. I very much want the chance sometime!


  2. Peter,
    Thanks for your inspiration. Last Friday I too was summoned for jury duty. I was chosen to serve. Fortunately it is a civil case and I will not have to send anyone up the river. Keep the faith my dear friend. Wes


  3. I have had a similar experience and appreciate your honesty. You express all those mixed feelings so well. Thanks.


  4. Patty Whisler

    I spent almost three weeks on jury duty in March. For the first two days I felt truly put upon, but as we, members of the jury, warmed to each other and began to see the contours of the case, we admitted at lunch that we felt honored to be part of the justice system. When our verdict was delivered with 100% consensus we were sorry to leave the courthouse – almost.


  5. I have only been called twice, and the first time couldn’t because of short staffing at work. That was many years ago. I hadn’t been called again until last fall, and I was excited. Then I received a letter telling me I wouldn’t have to come anyway. Sheesh. I want the experience at least once. Thank you for your detailed explanation. Now I know at least what I have been missing. 🙂


  6. I have been called to jury duty countless times in AZ, CA and now in Seattle. The frequency seems to be every 2 1/2 years for decades. Every time I see the dreaded white card, my heart sinks. I think the airless windowless rooms must be all the same regardless of location. I have had all the same feelings frustrations, and experiences you so artfully depicted every time I am called. And yet, I come away each time enriched in some way whether by the my fellow jurors or by some event that has moved me to my core. Thank you for describing this civic duty with such eloquence!


    1. Thanks Susan for writing and sharing your experience as well on jury duty! I too found it a privilege and yes one of those experiences I will definitely remember whenever I reflect on the cost and meaning of fulfilling ones “duty”.



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