By Trevor Thompson, Director of Pastoral Ministries
3rd Sunday of Advent
On a dark Advent night in Durham, our new parish Coordinator of Justice and Peace Frank Lesko and I participated in the “Evening with Sr. Helen Prejean” at the Trinity United Methodist Church. Sr. Helen, renowned for her book Dead Man Walking, shared her many experiences of the injustices surrounding the use of capital punishment in our country, including the way that race still remains a predominant factor in how the death penalty is sought and obtained. This was a timely and poignant message in light of the recent decision by NC lawmakers to repeal the fledgling Racial Justice Act. Rooted in the Gospel of Jesus and the Catholic view of the dignity of the human person, Sr. Helen advocates against our country’s codification of capital punishment as a kind of “justice.” And with a firm belief that the entire death penalty system is full of flaws and thus inevitably executes innocent people wrongly, Sr. Helen renders the entire system unworkable. Although there has not been an execution in North Carolina since 2006, when a series of lawsuits led to a de facto moratorium, there remain 154 men and 4 women on death row in our state; and the number of inmates rises every year. In light of this evening with Sr. Helen, I am asking myself an awkward and difficult question this Advent: What is it like to experience Advent and Christmas while awaiting your death behind bars?
Sitting with that question this Advent has been really helpful for me to put this holiday season into perspective. For prisoners and especially for those on death row, I know that this time of the year is particularly lonely and dark. The distance and separation between family and friends is acute. The juxtaposition between a cold life behind bars and a haunting death sentence and the cheery warmth of the holidays and plastic Santa lawn ornaments is felt to be especially disheartening. I wonder how our men and women on death row hear today’s lectionary readings, especially the prophet Isaiah from whom we hear named the target audience and principal actions for the promised Messiah: “He has sent me to bring to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners.” The poor, the brokenhearted, the captive, and the prisoners: these are the ones who live in darkness and long for a great light; these are the ones for whom the Christ-child was born; these are the ones for whom our promised Messiah comes in the form of healing, freedom, and liberating love. Despite my own kids’ anticipation for Christmas Day, I might daringly say that Christmas really and truly comes as anticipated LIGHT to those most in darkness. And it’s hard to imagine a darker place than death row.
I believe we’d all do our Advent journeys well by asking ourselves who in our community and in our world most needs Christmas this year.
Come, Lord Jesus, Be Our Light.