"Lord, have mercy," Leonard "Rusty" Medlock says twice in a profile in the Dallas Morning News. Let's all pray the same as we puzzle over the newspaper's article.
On the one hand, Medlock is quoted several times saying that only God's grace awakened his artistic talent in prison, where he was serving time for a drug conviction. On the other hand, the newspaper says Medlock's very incarceration -- or his own talents -- turned his life around.
This dichotomy starts with the first two paragraphs:
No one has to sell Leonard “Rusty” Medlock on the idea of giving people second chances.
The same situation that threatened to marginalize him in society — a prison term for drug-related felonies — liberated him in a Texas prison.
See it wasn’t God, it was prison that liberated Medlock.
But wait, the headline says: "Set free by art in prison, ex-convict paints a new life for himself." So, it was neither God nor prison, it was art.
Or was it Medlock himself? One sentence says: "Those three words, 'Lord Have Mercy,' are the title of his signature artwork — a gripping piece that also reveals how he turned his life around." So God had mercy, yet Medlock fixed himself?
A friendly reader said it best: "Okay, so art frees people from drugs and crime, or people free themselves, not Jesus."
Not that the News necessarily meant it to come out that way. But we readers can get confused when several factors are tossed out as "the" change agents in someone's life. And why not ask the man himself? More on that in a moment.
Now, I'm not taking anything away from the man's obvious gifts. The News alertly reports that Medlock showed artistic talent even in elementary school. His recovery is all the more remarkable when we learn he was a track star in high school before he fell into drug dealing, then drug use, then prison.
And it's true that prison slowed him down, so to speak, and gave him time to develop that talent. Medlock used toothpaste and color from Skittles candy to paint, the News says.
But when he is quoted directly, Medlock talks plainly about his faith journey and whom he credits for rescuing him. One passage in the profile starts with a description of his picture Lord Have Mercy:
His signature drawing depicts a man with his head bowed, tattered-sleeved elbows resting on both knees, hands clasped, deep in prayer.
Beneath it is a verse from the Bible, 1 Thessalonians 5:17: “Pray continually.”
“Even in my darkest hours, I was praying,” Medlock said. “I was the only one sitting in a drug house, using drugs and praying out loud. I’d say, ‘Lord, please don’t let me die in this sin.’ ”
The profile ends in the same vein. Now out of prison, Medlock supports himself and his wife with his art. They live in a nice home and attend a Methodist church in downtown Dallas. And the addict-turned-inmate-turned-artist is clear whom he credits for his turnaround:
“Lord, have mercy,” Medlock said. “It’s amazing what God can do.”
Yes, you can and should point out factors and influences on his path. No, you don’t have to share his spiritual beliefs. You just have to tell what happened and what or whom he thinks was behind his renewal. No need to add your own gloss. Just let the readers decide.