25 May 2011

I led a chapel.

I did a little chapel this week. Wished you, dear reader, could have been there.

Welcome to Chapel: Please stand with me as I offer a prayer from the words of Sister Helen Prejean:
A Prayer to Abolish the Death Penalty
by Helen Prejean, CSJ
God of Compassion,
You let your rain fall on the just and the unjust.
Expand and deepen our hearts
so that we may love as You love
even those among us
who have caused the greatest pain by taking life.
For there is in our land a great cry for vengeance
as we fill up death rows and kill the killers
in the name of justice, in the name of peace.

Jesus, our brother,
you suffered execution at the hands of the state
but you did not let hatred overcome you.
Help us to reach out to victims of violence
so that our enduring love may help them heal.

Holy Spirit of God,
You strengthen us in the struggle for justice.
Help us to work tirelessly
for the abolition of state-sanctioned death
and to renew our society in its very heart
so that violence will be no more.

Please remain standing and sing hymn #493 I heard the voice of Jesus Say

 The scripture I’ve chosen today has kind of set the course for a lot of interactions, ideas, and changes in plans I’ve rarely expected:
Matthew 25:
31-33"When he finally arrives, blazing in beauty and all his angels with him, the Son of Man will take his place on his glorious throne. Then all the nations will be arranged before him and he will sort the people out, much as a shepherd sorts out sheep and goats, putting sheep to his right and goats to his left.
 34-36"Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Enter, you who are blessed by my Father! Take what's coming to you in this kingdom. It's been ready for you since the world's foundation. And here's why:

   I was hungry and you fed me,
   I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
   I was homeless and you gave me a room,
   I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
   I was sick and you stopped to visit,
   I was in prison and you came to me.'
 37-40"Then those 'sheep' are going to say, 'Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?' Then the King will say, 'I'm telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.'
 41-43"Then he will turn to the 'goats,' the ones on his left, and say, 'Get out, worthless goats! You're good for nothing but the fires of hell. And why? Because—

   I was hungry and you gave me no meal,
   I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,
   I was homeless and you gave me no bed,
   I was shivering and you gave me no clothes,
   Sick and in prison, and you never visited.'
 44"Then those 'goats' are going to say, 'Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or homeless or shivering or sick or in prison and didn't help?'
 45"He will answer them, 'I'm telling the solemn truth: Whenever you failed to do one of these things to someone who was being overlooked or ignored, that was me—you failed to do it to me.'
 46"Then those 'goats' will be herded to their eternal doom, but the 'sheep' to their eternal reward."

As I’ve read this scripture at different times in my life, I’ve always been led to do something. The different cases of need: hunger, thirst, homelessness, clothed, and imprisonment have all kind of reached me at different points. In the past I’ve really been taken with the shivering part of the text and I’ve passed out old blankets from the trunk of my car when I lived in Phoenix. Sometimes I’d have a conversation with someone on the street and run back, grab a blanket and hand it over. Sometimes I’d see a person slumped over in the cold night air, and I’d quickly hop out and throw it on the person and dash back in the car.

But lately I’ve been drawn to the whole imprisonment thing. On several of the orientations, we invited SueZann Bosler, to come and tell her story of violence and forgiveness. That struck a chord with me and it added a layer of intentionality that hasn’t been present for me before. The quick version of SueZann’s story is that a person entered their house and fatally stabbed her father, the Brethren pastor, Rev. Bill Bosler. The person also stabbed SueZann repeatedly in the head. She laid silently near to him and pretended to be dead so the intruder would leave. SueZann lived through the attack and throughout the years through a trial and another sentencing re-trial, has asked the courts to sentence him (James Bernard Campbell) to life in prison, instead of a sentence of death. What’s really remarkable about SueZann’s story is that she ultimately forgave James Campell and became a fierce advocate for states and other countries to abolish the death penalty. One of her frequent statements that pokes fun at the absurdity of it all says, Why does the government kill people to show killing people is wrong?

As my friendship with SueZann grew and a few years passed, I realized that I could live up to the words in Matthew 25 in a new way. I got in touch with Rachel Gross who works as the main person for the Death Row Support Project. She and I were in conversation about the faithfulness needed to be a penpal. It’s quite a commitment to write to someone on death row. The odds are great that a person in prison could potentially outlive you, the writer. So in April of 2009 I got my first letter from XX, a 33 year old man, sentenced to death in Illinois for a brutal double murder that he confessed to (also confessed to me during a visit in 2010).

We began exchanging one letter per month. XX is much better at being consistent with sending his letters. Sometime we write each other at the same time and our letters “pass each other” on the way to their destinations. Sometimes we won’t write each other for a spell and then we’ll pick back up.
Quick summary: Met in person. Several times. Sometimes with card games. Sometimes behind glass due to clerical errors. 3rd visit was his re-telling of his crimes. Through it all it’s been very interesting. Some letters he’s completely coherent and other times he’s an entirely different person. 

“Combatants and slaves. Really sooth when creating pariahic artifacts. That’s nomenclature for a sort of esoterical mandala.”
And there’s something else that’s a bit nonsensical about XX that I learned early on, He’s a fan of The Office. I quote, “Dwight is a trip. He can’t help but fall prey to Jim’s antics. Jim and Pam do have a nice storyline. They all work together nicely, filling out their own niches.”

As Illinois and Gov. Quinn abolished the death penalty in Illinois earlier this year, our relationship changed. XX was relocated to a prison in Dixon, Illinois. Strangely, it’s about the same distance as his first prison in Pontiac, Illinois. And through this very quick, unannounced and clandestine move, XX has been through a readjustment phase. His letters are quite incoherent now and he isn’t writing much. I can only surmise that he’s dealing with the new idea that he has his entire life to live in prison and that the death penalty isn’t looming over him as in years past.
What I want you to think about today is the possibility of establishing a relationship (whether in person or by pen and paper) with someone in prison. What is really stopping you from this? I believe that most of the Bible because pretty figurative. In this Matthew 25 passage Jesus really calls us to act. Not to debate. Not to let someone else better suited to do this. But to do something. Let’s get it started…..

Hymn #323 I see a new world coming

May I close with the words that were sent to me in a letter from May 18, 2011
“Shall you realize peace in the midst of calamity.”

Can you commit to a penpal for a year or longer? Check this out and let's get it started:

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