Every so often, the New York Times revisits some of their most popular or most-read stories. Earlier in December, they returned to the story of a bunch of white kids who vandalized a mosque in Fort Smith, Ark., last August. At the time, the story of how the mosque leaders reached out and forgave Abraham Davis was amazing to read and I commented on it for this blog.
The reporter, Sabrina Tavernise, continued to follow the story for months, especially since Davis was ordered by a court to repay some $3,200 in fines and restitution; an amount that was nearly impossible for him to save. He had finally gotten a job at a convenience store, but it paid very little.
Then –- in one of those happy endings every reporter wishes for -– the mosque got an unexpected grant from a foundation. One of the things its leaders chose to do was pay off Davis’ fine. Now, the reporter happened to be back in town doing a follow-up to her widely read story. The main photo that runs with this article is from the Fort Smith Adult Education Center and shows Tavernise in the middle just before she's to speak on what she learned after five months of reporting in Fort Smith.
It's not every media outlet that can afford to send a reporter back and forth to the scene of a story. But Tavernise was there at the right time. When she broke the news to Abraham Davis, he was speechless for a time. She tells that story here:
FORT SMITH, Ark. — Abraham Davis had his mouth open, but no words were coming out. We were sitting together on his mother’s couch near her Christmas tree earlier this month and I had just played him a short recording of the president of Fort Smith’s Al Salam mosque.
Abraham had vandalized the mosque with two friends more than a year before. It was an act of bigotry that he deeply regretted. His expression of remorse — written in a letter from jail — and the mosque’s forgiveness and subsequent advocacy for him, inspired my Aug. 26 article, “The Two Americans.”…
But most of the debt still remained to be paid. It was one of his life’s daily stresses: If he stopped making monthly payments, he could end up in prison for six years.
Because Davis was forbidden contact with the mosque through a restraining order, the mosque’s leaders could not approach him directly. So they chose the reporter to deliver the message.
Five months later, that worry was wiped away, when Hisham Yasin, the mosque’s lively social director, climbed the stairs of the courthouse with a cashier’s check. That was what had left Abraham speechless next to the Christmas tree.
“There’s no words,” he said, his hands covering his face. “English. Find it.”
Along with the article is a 36-minute recording of the reporter telling how she put together the story and some of the details that didn’t make it into print. We learn how dirt-poor this family was; how sum total the money earned by all the adults in their household totaled about $1,700 and how other members of the family had grappled with a series of woes from leukemia to Parkinson’s, all of which landed them on disability.
We also learned how the vandals, including Davis, had considered themselves the scum of the Earth until they appeared in a New York Times piece. All of a sudden, instead of being monsters, there were a lot of people out there who pitied them. As the reporter wrote:
The article seemed to satisfy a deep craving for something healthy after months of gorging on outrage. At a time when each side of the political divide seemed sure the other side was crazy and maybe even evil, it was an antidote. It helped people see that Americans are much more moderate than Twitter and Facebook would have us believe, that we actually have a lot in common, and that our mutual capacity for tolerance and kindness is quite large.
As someone who’s written hundreds if not thousands of pieces over more than 30 years, it’s so gratifying when you see how your story has changed lives. It’s what keeps most of us in a profession with impossible hours and low wages. Davis began to dream of bigger things.
So many people want so much for Abraham. Someone from the university called telling him to get in touch when he was ready to enroll. I realized I was rooting for him, too. I wanted him to finish high school.
The youth did take some classes toward his GED, but the necessity of needing to pay off the court debt required he work six days a week. He stopped taking the classes. But the erasure of the debt fired up his hopes again and by the end of the article, the reporter is suggesting that maybe now he’ll go to college and redeem all the lost time.
Many times, real life doesn’t wrap up as nicely as it does in the movies and there’s been lots of times when I’ve followed up on one of my pieces only to discover there was no ending worth writing about. Here, there was one. There was a happily ever after. Would that all reporters could have this gift or search about until they find one. There's got to be more of those out there.