Wednesday, July 02, 2008

300th Anniversary update: Death Row Support Project marks 30 years of solidarity and support.

The Death Row Support Project was birthed from the criminal justice program of the Washington Office of the Church of the Brethren 30 years ago. Since its beginning in 1978, it has followed the path of many other Church of the Brethren-initiated efforts: it now has participants from all over the world and from many different denominations.

The project began at a time when the death penalty returned to the forefront of political debate in the United States, after a five-year period in which the constitutionality of the death penalty was under scrutiny. There had been no executions for 10 years. There were, however, 400 people who had been sentenced to death by a few states who had refused to let go of the death penalty.

The twofold purpose of the project was, and continues to be, to "visit" those in prison, following the call of Jesus, and to provide a way for those outside of the criminal justice system to be educated about the realities of the death penalty. Interested people are asked to begin by writing a letter to someone on death row, reaching out in friendship.

Some participants have been able to visit their friends on death row. Once, in the Florida State Prison visiting room, a man from Texas and a couple from Minnesota met each other and discovered that they were both there because of the Death Row Support Project!

The death penalty is an issue that can be approached from many different directions. Most Death Row Support Project participants simply write letters. Others have become more involved. One couple testified at a resentencing hearing for their friend; another witnessed the execution of his pen pal. An elderly white woman makes an annual trek from California to Ohio to visit the black man whom she calls "brother." Sunday school classes have "adopted" a death row prisoner, making it possible to send small amounts of money in addition to writing letters.

A special calling is required to write to someone on death row. Not all people are easy to write to. Some individuals have been on death row for almost 30 years. Others will have sentences reduced and be in prison the rest of their lives. Some will become close family friends, and then be executed.

In spite of the challenges, as is often the case when the Spirit calls us, there is much reward in this important work of reaching out to "the least of these."

--Rachel Gross is one of the founders of the Death Row Support Project, along with her husband, Bob Gross, and continues as volunteer staff. Go to for more information.

Source: 7/3/2008 Newsline Extra

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