Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Death Row Support Project: DRSP News, Issue 7, February 2015

By Rachel Gross

Dear Friends of DRSP -- Four years ago, a group here in North Manchester, Ind., asked me to talk to them about the Death Row Support Project, as well as general issues related to the death penalty. A week later, I met with individuals from that group interested in writing to someone on death row. I took to the meeting all of the letters we had from death row prisoners waiting for pen pals. Several people attended; they passed the letters around, reading through them until each person settled on someone they wanted to write.

One of the letters circulated that evening was from Raymond Johnson, who is on death row in Oklahoma. David Waas, a retired Manchester University professor and a member of Manchester Church of the Brethren, selected Raymond's letter and began writing to him.

We ask correspondents to write at least once each month, and more often if possible. Raymond is a prolific letter writer; it seemed like every time I saw David at church, he would say, "I got another letter from Raymond!"

Within a few months, David started sending Raymond a copy of pastor Kurt Borgmann's sermon each week. Raymond very much appreciated the theology expressed in those sermons, as well as the beliefs and views that David expressed in his letters.

One day, David got a letter from Raymond in which he said, "I would like to be a member of your church!" Over time, Raymond continued to express that sentiment.

Eventually, David took this request to pastor Kurt and the church's Executive Board. The board suggested that Kurt begin writing to Raymond, which he did. On Sunday, Jan. 4, 2015, Kurt preached about Jeremiah's prediction of God’s people returning home after being in exile (Jeremiah 31:7-14). Here is part of his sermon:

"Over the last almost 11 months, I have been corresponding with a prisoner on death row in Oklahoma. I started the correspondence because I was asked to by the church board. Raymond is his name, and David and Becky Waas have been writing to him for some years now and sharing with him their Christian love and the messages and spirit of our church. Almost a year ago, Raymond asked them if he could become a member of our church, so the church board asked me to engage in a conversation with him about that.

"Raymond lives on death row. He does not have a home. He wants this to be his home; us to be his home.

"I have to confess that this has been a testing journey for me (and when I say confess, I mean that in the most open sense, because Raymond will read these words--I send him the sermon by mail every week). It's been a testing journey for me because I cannot quite wrap my head around the idea of murder. I cannot fathom it--what possesses a person to kill another. I cannot fathom it and I cannot stomach it. And yet...what Raymond and I have shared with each other across these months of writing back and forth is not inhumanity, but humanity. When I talked in a sermon in early November about upcoming stewardship enlistment--a sermon about the stewardship of self, Raymond made his own commitment card and sent it tucked into a letter. The card said this: ‘I, Raymond Johnson, commit to being the best me I can be and giving of myself freely, and in love and in service, to further the kingdom and still strive to be a light in darkness. All I have is myself, so I strive to better it and give more of it. In God's service, Raymond.’

"The Church Board, at our last meeting, back in December, decided to accept Raymond into membership. (That's the way it works in our church when someone asks for membership--the pastor brings the request, and the board takes a vote.) So, sometime soon, we receive Raymond into membership. He comes home."

This will not be the first time a person on death row has joined the Church of the Brethren. About 30 years ago, Wanda Callahan, then pastor of Jacksonville (Florida) Church of the Brethren, baptized at least one person on Florida's death row, and I believe that person was then a member of the congregation.

Photo courtesy of DRSP
There is a man on death row in Pennsylvania who grew up in the Church of the Brethren. In a letter exchange last year, he and I discovered that we both attended the 1985 Annual Conference. He said he was a kid at the time, there with his parents, and his main memory is playing four-square. This person now has a pen pal who graduated from Manchester University. When he writes to her he sends a piece of origami he has created.

When we started the Death Row Support Project in 1978, I certainly had no idea of the impact it would have on hundreds of lives. And it certainly did not occur to me that someone on death row would become a member of my church. I am grateful for those heeding Jesus' call to visit those in prison, including by letter-writing. And I am grateful that our church can be home for Raymond Johnson.

Praying for a world where all find home,

Rachel Gross

P.S. An update! On Monday, Jan. 26, the man in Pennsylvania who created the origami shown above had his sentence commuted from death to life without parole (lwop). LWOP is not much different from a death sentence, but it still feels like good news.

-- Rachel Gross is director of the Death Row Support Project, P.O. Box 600, Liberty Mills, IN 46946; www.brethren.org/drsp; www.facebook.com/deathrowsupportproject.

Source: 02/10/2015 Newsline

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