The Arc of The Moral Universe

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” was Martin Luther King’s off-quoted paraphrase of part of sermon in 1853 by a Unitarian, abolitionist preacher, Theodore Parker.  There is truth to that if you believe that God is sovereign, in control and has a plan.  But the assumption cannot be that the arc bends toward justice on it’s own.  Retired Attorney General Eric Holder said, “the arc bends toward justice, but it only bends toward justice because people pull it towards justice. It doesn’t happen on its own.”


One of many, many prayer requests for justice in this case. This one stuck in the “Wailing Wall” in Jerusalem, 2011

So it goes.  And when I get to Heaven and join what I’m sure will be a very long line of people with questions, mine will be, “Respectfully, why?  Why does everything take so long?” So we have to push, pull, work, vote, struggle and wait.  Often we are disappointed, frustrated, angered by delay.

We pray for justice and when all we seem to get is “Your prayer is very important to us.  We are busy with other problems, bute be certain that your prayer is heard,” 


I have known Brandon Hein probably longer than anyone except his family and high school friends. I was an associate minister at the United Methodist Church of Westlake Village when I received a prayer request from a family visiting our church. It said, “Please pray for our son, Brandon Hein, who has been sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole.”

Of course I visited the family and heard their story. My background includes pastoring a church in the South Bronx in the ‘60s, working as a volunteer clergyman in New York City prisons, and directing a drug rehabilitation program, so I was skeptical from the start. Brandon was in the process of being transferred from LA County to “State Property” and his family wanted me to visit. Before I visited him, I wanted to dig more deeply into the story and his family provided me with court documents, piles of clippings, etc. Still skeptical, but using my position as a clergyman, I went to visit Brandon.


Prison Polaroid

I’ll never forget when Brandon was ushered into the attorney visiting room, legs and arms in shackles and dressed in an orange jumpsuit. Immature, scared and facing a life in prison, although 18, he barely looked 16. That was the first of many visits. Brandon and I became friends and I’ve watched him through the years grow into a man whose courage, discipline, maturity and positive faith in spite of everything has been an inspiration to me. Dr. Robert Schuller would have described Brandon in terms of “tough times never last, but tough people do.”

Brandon’s crime was essentially being at the wrong place at the wrong time when another young man started a fight which resulted in the death of another teenager, all of whom were illegally using marijuanna at the time.  Under California’s Felony Murder Rule aggressive prosecutors were able to charge not just the boy who had stabbed the deceased, but everyone who had been there.  Thankfully, this horribly unjust rule was repealed by California last year, and as a result the State faces a tremendous backlog of cases that need to be reviewed and in some cases relitigated.

Brandon has been in prison since 1995.  He has developed into an incredibly talented artist, improved and educated himself, volunteered and helped to create programs in prison to improve institutional life and to help other inmates adjust, cope, and catch a vision of a positive lifestyle and future. Both inside and through his friends outside, he has shared his “Heinsight.”

If you ask folks who they most respect and admire they usually pick an athlete, historical figure, politician, usually a person of note. I would pick a friend in prison … K24820 … Brandon Hein.

I have watched Brandon not just do time, but grow through the challenge, evidencing the personal, emotional and mental maturing that Nelson Mandela spoke of: . . . “The cell is an ideal place to know yourself. People tend to measure themselves by external accomplishments, but jail allows a person to focus on internal ones, such as honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, generosity and an absence of variety. You learn to look into yourself.”

Brandon Self Portrait

Artwork by Brandon Hein, “Future ID,” one of his works displayed at the “Future IDs” exhibition at the San Quentin Prison Arts Project sponsored by the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy

So there have been many, many prayers, literally from thousands of “Friends of Brandon Hein” around the world, people, like me, who believed that it was wrong to steal the life of a young man because he had been in the wrong place at the wrong time.  There have been unsuccessful state and federal appeals, the underlying problem being California’s Felony Murder Rule. In 2009 Brandon’s “life without possibility of parole” sentence was commuted to 29 years to life.

Brandon artNow, after after almost 25 years in prison, Brandon has been granted parole, while in the meantime his case and sentencing under review, like thousands of others who were sentenced under the old Felony Murder Rule.  So thank you Jesus!  Better late than never.

I’m anxious for Brandon’s actual release.  I’m eager to walk along the beach in Ventura with my friend and for the first time be able to talk freely without worrying about who is listening in to our conversation.  I’m eager to see him get on with his life and adapt and adjust to a world that is very different than it was 25 years ago.  Brandon has not just been doing time all these years.  He’s earned a business degree and been instrumental in developing numerous programs for prisoners and he has become a very talented artist.

For more …

Reckless Indifference by acclaimed documentary film maker William Gazecki and the entire movie is available online.

A fairly accurate summary on Wikipedia

Heinsight, Brandon’s online art store

60 Minutes interview with Dan Rather


As Brandon’s friend and pastor we had an interesting relationship.  Early on, I’m probably the only pastor who was sending his parishoner in prison pictures of scantily dressed women, sexy but G-rated, until eventually the prison changed rules … no more supplying pictures for those dreams.  So, since we had travel agencies at the time, I’d send him cruise brochures to provide images for travel dreams so at least in his mind he could escape the walls that imprisoned him.   At any rate, I know that one of the cruise brochures inspired this painting, “Invision,” dreaming through prison walls.  I actually bought the original picture and Brandon’s dad is holding it for me.  I asked Gene Hein to hold it until the day Brandon could get out and personally sign the picture over to me, which is why I’m anxious to walk along the sand in Ventura when Brandon is free.