Monday, June 22, 2009

Just a 'Typical' Day?

Thursday, June 26th – We began walking 8 miles east of Rocky Mount and walked through Tarboro, Princeville, Conetoe and Bethel, stopping just short of Parmele. I realize that most of you have never heard of these places, but we have met some very friendly, helpful and hospitable people in them.

One man, Michael J. (not Jordan), stopped me on the sidewalk in Tarboro and asked what we were doing. I told him about our work with murder victim family members and with families of people on death row and our opposition to the death penalty. He immediately began telling me about his spending a few years in Central Prison and how quiet and cold and eerie it was on the nights of executions. We talked more about his life outside of prison and about us. He invited us to eat lunch with him. So after prayer in front of the Edgecombe County Courthouse, we went to meet him at his usual lunch stop – the local soup kitchen. Although our prayer time and talking with reporters had made us miss the 12:15 closing of the lunch line, Michael advocated for us until the folks serving food relented and served each of us a full plate of food. While it might seem strange for us to eat this way, it was as if we had been invited to eat in this man’s home and to have said ‘no’ would have been rude and overly prideful.

After lunch we walked across the bridge into Princeville, a town known for its founding by freed slaves in 1865 and its devastation in the floods of Hurricane Floyd in 1999. The racial history of the area reminded us of the Racial Justice Act which is currently moving toward the floor of the NC House of Representatives – an act that aims to provide an avenue for removing some of the racial bias from capital punishment. Not from the entire judicial system, mind you, but just from that small piece of the judicial system associated with capital punishment.

In the evening we are settled down to sleep on cots at Bethel United Methodist Church in Bethel, NC. The pastor, Steve Smith, was most hospitable and accommodating. Pastor Heath Faircloth of Bethel Baptist Church helped us as well, delivering a fresh, homemade dinner of spaghetti, salad, bread and vanilla cream pie all made by one of his parishioners. He wanted to give us lodging in his home but he thought his one-week-old child might not cooperate with our need to get a full night’s sleep. These two pastors did not state clearly whether they agree with the entire purpose of our walk but they gave time from their busy day to help out some passing Pilgrims. They did so with a lot of love and kindness. For that we are so thankful!

After a good night’s sleep and a breakfast of spaghetti leftover from the previous evening, we went into the Bethel UMC sanctuary for our daily prayer and reflection time. Surrounded by eight stunningly beautiful stained-glass windows, we settled near the one that depicts a scene just after the execution of Jesus. A woman – probably Mary the mother of Jesus – clings to the stone base in which the cross – the instrument of Jesus’ execution – had been mounted. Part of Jesus’ robe lies torn on the ground and a beam of the broken cross lies nearby.

The scene evokes the grief of a mother whose son has just been executed. How often we forget that Jesus’ crucifixion was an execution and that the cross was the lethal injection paraphernalia of that era. I could easily – and painfully – imagine some of the mothers with whom we work laying themselves across the execution gurney as a modern parallel to this scene. Just as easily, I could see the image of another parent of a child was taken by violence inside or outside prison walls, laying across their loved one’s bed, seeking some continued connection with their loved one.

One mother of a man executed by the state of North Carolina told me (and gave me permission to tell others) that she has slept with her son’s tennis shoes as a way of dealing with her heartache for beloved son. We’ve heard similarly heart-wrenching stories of others whose loved ones were murdered.

After our bittersweet time of prayer and reflection, we set out walking toward Williamston. Near Robersonville, we encountered a young man walking. We immediately noted his distinctive t-shirt and listened as he explained that the t-shirt memorializes his brother who was shot to death on May 23rd of this year. Another grieving family member working out and walking out his grief.

On Friday evening, we had dinner with several of Willie Brown's family members. We first met them on the day of Willie's execution in April 2006. They were one of our first families at Nazareth House. It is difficult to describe the bond we formed with them through Willie's execution night and our subsequent contacts.

Courage - Ann, Villia, Teresa, Kendale, Trellis and Geneva (a family friend whose son is serving a life sentence) and Lorenzo (whose brother was recently shot to death). Courage, we will walk with you and for you.

Courage, brothers, sisters, families; You do not walk alone. We will walk with you!

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