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Activists share strategies for ending death penalty

NCR Staff
San Antonio

With state-sponsored executions on the rise and controversy over the death penalty growing, some 300 religious activists gathered in Texas to discuss ways to turn their opposition to the death penalty into effective action.

Representatives of numerous Christian denominations, as well as Muslims, Jews and Buddhists, explored ways to convey religious leaders’ opposition to capital punishment to people in the pews, where between 70 and 80 percent support the death penalty, according to polls.

“That’s an incredible majority,” said Zac Moon, a 17-year-old Quaker. “How can we be right? How is that possible? That’s why it’s important that we talk to these folks. This issue can’t be solved in the headlines. It has to be solved in the community. I think the movement will succeed only by people talking one-on-one.”

The conference aimed to provide participants with facts and strategies to turn that tide. Held April 8-11, this was the second conference sponsored by the Philadelphia-based Religious Organizing Against the Death Penalty Project, which was founded in 1996.

Participants called for more courage on the part of religious leaders and more teaching about forgiveness, an idea powerfully expressed at the conference by victims of deadly crimes.

Public support for capital punishment and an increase in state-sponsored executions notwithstanding, Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center said, “There’s a lot of good news, and I wouldn’t have said this a year ago.” Most notable, he said, are the “astounding” developments on the religious front.

In his visit to the United States, Pope John Paul II made capital punishment “the single most important issue that he addressed. It was a very pointed, clear, unfiltered statement,” Dieter said.

The U.S. bishops’ Good Friday statement, calling on Catholics and all people of good will to work against capital punishment, was enthusiastically embraced by conference participants.

A few non-Christians

The Religious Organizing Against the Death Penalty Project is still about 95 percent Christian, according to Sr. Helen Prejean, one of the founding members. At the San Antonio conference, “we had one or two Jewish people, one Native American, one Buddhist,” she said. “But the symbolism is important.”

She added that social justice -- “action with a common value of human rights and the dignity of the person” -- is a worthy ecumenical cause. “We have a common ground to stand on that can bring together people of different faiths,” she said. “There’s nothing artificial about it.”

In the past, such support from the religious community was not always forthcoming. The former governor of New Mexico, Toney Anaya, spoke of the cold reception his opposition to capital punishment received from religious leaders during his term in the 1980s. When he commuted the sentences of five men on death row just before he left office in 1986, he again found a “deafening silence.”

“I was hurt, I was disappointed, I felt personally betrayed,” said Anaya, a Catholic. “It was a betrayal of [religious leaders’] consciences and a betrayal of their mission. I’ve challenged them on every occasion since then.”

While the U.S. Catholic hierarchy has released statements against the death penalty since the 1970s, lay Catholics have supported capital punishment in much the same numbers as the rest of the country. James Megivern, author of The Death Penalty: An Historical and Theological Survey, said the bishops “weren’t leading very far or very quickly.”

Part of the problem, Megivern said, has been that priests have failed to convey the church’s teaching against capital punishment to their congregations for fear of alienating them.

Clarence Brandley, who spent 10 years on Texas’ death row for a crime he did not commit, chastised clergy who were afraid to offend and unwilling to speak about capital punishment from the pulpit. The church “must stand for that which it preaches about,” Brandley said in a rousing sermon-like speech at Saturday night’s dinner. “If you’re going to preach about love, preach about forgiveness, preach about mercy, then you ought to be able to say that capital punishment is wrong.”

Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking, said that clergy need to be educated in the issues of the death penalty to better prepare them to bring the church’s teaching to the congregation. “They need to be steeped in it. They need to know how to handle it because it’s an explosive issue,” she told NCR. “You get up in the pulpit and start talking about the death penalty, you get people mad at you.”

She said to make its message most effective, the church needs to stand “solidly on both arms of this cross,” and stand behind victims of violence as well as speak against capital punishment.

The San Antonio conference embraced both victims of violence and death row inmates, bringing in family members of both groups to talk about how faith has helped them through their trauma.

At the Friday night program, held at Trinity University, Bud Welch, a Catholic whose daughter Julie was killed in the Oklahoma City bombing, moved the audience to tears with his tale of meeting Timothy McVeigh’s family. “I can tell you the rage and revenge I had after the Oklahoma City bombing was incredible,” Welch said. “I changed my mind about the death penalty. I know what temporary insanity is -- I lived it.”

But he remembered an occasion when Julie heard about a Texas execution on the radio and told him, “Dad, all they’re doing is teaching hate to their children in Texas.”

In September 1998, he was able to arrange a meeting with McVeigh’s father and sister, Jennifer, through the family’s Catholic parish. Before he left, he and Jennifer cried together. “I was able to hold her face in my hands and tell her, ‘Honey, the three of us are in this the rest of our lives. We can make the most of this if we choose. I don’t want your brother to die and I will do everything in my power to prevent it,’ ” Welch said. He added, “I have never in my life felt closer to God than I did at that time.”

Told to forgive

Arun Gandhi described his experience when his grandfather, Mahatma Gandhi, was assassinated. “The first thing our father told us was to forgive the assassin,” he said. The assassins were executed. When Arun Gandhi later met with the man who had been convicted as an accomplice, Gandhi found the man was still convinced what he did was right. “I said to myself, there’s no point in trying to change him. All I can do is forgive him -- unconditional forgiveness -- and be done with it.” Gandhi said. “I wanted to unload that burden that I’d been carrying with me for a long time.”

Marietta Jaeger, a founding member of Murder Victim Families for Reconciliation, said, “Forgiveness is hard work. Anyone who thinks forgiveness is for wimps has never tried it.”

Jaeger, who made herself pray each day for one good thing to happen to the man who had kidnapped and killed her daughter, said, “There’s no one who can say to me, ‘Well, Marietta, you wouldn’t be opposed to the death penalty if it happened to your little girl.’ ... No amount of retaliatory death will compensate for the loss of our loved ones or restore them to our arms. And, in fact, to say that the execution death of any one malfunctioning person will bring justice is an insult to the immeasurable value of our loved ones’ lives.”

Participant Shelly Shafer, whose 20-year-old son, Wesley, is on South Carolina’s death row for a murder committed during a robbery, said she found support and inspiration from the murder victims’ families.

“This is the cream of the crop, the best of the movement,” Shafer told NCR. “They’re genuinely united in love and with all those who suffer.”

Shafer started a Death Row Family Support Network, which she hopes to expand across the country. She has worked for awareness of social justice issues in her Presbyterian congregation. The music director at her church cast her as Mary in their Lenten production to provoke thought about the death penalty. Another son, Barry, was Joseph of Arimathea and took the actor who played Jesus down from the cross. The tomb was designed by one of Wesley Shafer’s fellow inmates.

Sharon Davis said that her brother, sentenced to death in 1982 for a murder he did not commit, “is still living because God is powerful. One of my prayers was that the judges and anybody that was connected to this case would have a pure heart.” His case was overturned in 1998, and the South Carolina Supreme Court judges voted for a new trial.

Davis called on the faith community to reach out to families of death row inmates and of victims of crime. “Sometimes it’s hard to ask for help,” she said. “But I believe if we are the faith community, we should be seeking those who are in need.”

Ministers to inmates described their battles for religious rights on death row. Lenny Foster of the Navajo Nation Corrections Project said he has spent 19 years as a spiritual adviser, struggling in courts and prisons to obtain the right of Native Americans to practice their traditional beliefs. “Our beliefs are not viewed as a valid religion,” Foster said.

For Native Americans, ceremonies such as the sweat lodge help a person “come in touch with his mind, his body and spirit,” Foster said. “It effects change. ... You can see the wrongs and make these right. You pray for the victims and feel for them.” But prison wardens and chaplains don’t recognize these practices as a way to provide inmates “with sobriety, responsibility and respect,” Foster said.

Naked before the Lord

The Rev. Peggy Harrell of the United Church of Christ has fought court battles for the right of California death row inmates to choose their own spiritual adviser. When she has been allowed to minister on death row, she faced other obstacles: no water at hand, no bathroom and strip searches.

“That strip search -- naked before the Lord takes on a whole new meaning. They never told me about this in seminary!” she said.

Harrell was not allowed to bring her own Communion hosts, and the Catholic prison chaplain would not let her use the prison supply.

“It’s never not a fight,” Harrell said. “And what today is about, what these tears are about, what this joy is about, is that it’s not a fight today. ... This is preaching to the choir.”

On Sunday, a delegation of 10 conference participants visited Texas death row prisoners in Huntsville. The conference concluded Sunday evening with a procession from the Alamo to the Cathedral of San Fernando, where a prayer service was led by local high school members of Amnesty International.

National Catholic Reporter, April 23, 1999