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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