One of my most memorable experiences of being in church as a child was hearing “The Judgement of the Nations” (Matthew 25:31-46) read aloud, which includes Jesus saying:
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.
No other text from the Bible has ever resonated with me so much. It helped me understand that through loving those who are the most unloved and the most outcast we can demonstrate our love for God. Few in society are more unloved and more outcast than those who are in prison — especially those who are on death row.
The row is not a pleasant place. “We all die a little bit on the row each day,” wrote Richard Michael Rossi, who spent more than 20 years on death row in Arizona before dying of natural causes. Depending on which state they are incarcerated in, death row inmates could be locked up for 23 hours a day in tiny cells with no natural light and fed only inadequate servings of inedible food which is shoved through slots, all while waiting in anguish to be killed.
No matter what they may have done, nobody deserves this. For some inmates, it becomes too much, and they willingly give up all their appeals to hasten their executions. These prisoners, who have abandoned hope, are euphemistically called “volunteers.”
A few years ago I read something that changed my life: a request for pen friends for death row inmates in the USA. I remembered hearing “The Judgement of the Nations” read aloud in church years ago, and I felt myself drawn to this ministry — but I knew it could not be approached lightly.
First, not counting those who are genuinely innocent (and they do exist, as is evidenced by those who are exonerated on DNA evidence), you do not end up on death row for stealing a bicycle. So, could I befriend someone who I knew had committed a terrible crime?
Second, I struggled with what to say if anyone ever asked me if I had any idea how the friends and families of victims felt, as if I was somehow “taking sides” with murderers over their victims. I found it difficult to think of a meaningful response until several years ago, when a close friend was the victim of a homicide, and I found myself able to pray for his killer.
Finally, I had to be certain I could keep such a commitment. You should never start writing to someone on the row unless you are prepared to keep it up. Becoming involved with a death row inmate means committing to accompanying someone on a difficult journey whose final destination is probably an appointment with an executioner. It is going to be emotionally and spiritually demanding.
After much prayer and contemplation, I eventually contacted a friend in
Voices for Death Row Inmates and offered myself as a pen friend. The next day I was given contact details for “Mark” (named changed to protect his identity), a man on the row in Ohio. It was Maundy Thursday, the eve of Jesus’ execution.
Over the last three years, Mark and I have shared our stories and become good friends. I tell him what I have been up to and he tells me about life in prison. One of the less negative aspects of Mark’s situation is that he is in Ohio, where conditions on the row are much better than in some other states. The inmates are allowed out of their cells to mingle and participate in activities, and they are allowed contact visits. But life there is still hard. Before the current moratorium came into effect, every few months there would be another execution and everyone was reminded why they were there.
I know how Mark ended up on the row. But I have also come to know an incredibly caring person. When I mention something that is bothering me (forgetting how trivial it must be compared with the issues he is facing), he prays for me. He sends me things he has made and poems he has written. A couple of years ago, I had a health scare (that thankfully turned out to be of no consequence), and Mark bought a card for me out of what little money he had. And on the day before my birthday one year, he phoned me and sang “Happy Birthday.” The fact that he had mixed up the time zones and called around 4:00 am didn’t bother me in the least because it was such a wonderful surprise to hear from him.
Mark demonstrates an incredibly positive attitude that you would not expect to find in someone in his position. His tremendous faith encourages me. And his knowledge of the Bible sometimes puts me to shame.
Life on the row changes people, and I would suggest that there are few, if any, on the row who ever experience a day without regretting what they have done and wishing they could undo it. But unless Mark’s appeals are successful, there is only one place his journey is likely to end up.
Like the men and women currently on death row, Jesus was also a condemned prisoner, and, by being there for Mark, I am also there for Jesus. Accompanying Mark on his journey is the closest thing I will ever do to accompanying Jesus to the cross, which makes it one of the greatest privileges I have ever been given.
I believe there are some places where we are more likely to encounter Christ than others: soup kitchens, homeless shelters, AA meetings. I have encountered Him on death row, and it has changed my life forever.