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Episcopalians: Grace encountered during visit to death row
Tue, 13 May 2003 15:44:58 -0400
May 13, 2003
Episcopalians: Grace encountered during visit to death row
by David Skidmore
(ENS) It could be a hospital emergency room. Bright recessed
flood lamps, stainless steel stands for hanging IV bags and
tubes, a portable stand and tray for other medical tools, a
privacy curtain and, bathed in the yellow-green light--an empty
But no lives have been saved here. This is a killing room.
Its most recent occupant -- Kevin Lee Hough -- was admitted May
1 around the dinner hour, and, with a physician and prison
chaplain present, strapped to the gurney and attached to an IV
feed line. Shortly after midnight May 2, after Indiana State
Prison officials confirmed that the U.S. Supreme Court had
denied his final appeal, Houck received a saline solution
through the IV tube. A minute later, after the reading of the
execution order, the first of five syringes containing sodium
pentothal--an anesthetic--was injected into the IV line. As
eight witnesses watched, among them Houck's mother and daughter,
four more doses were administered, the final being the
heart-stopping drug potassium chloride.
At 12:25 a.m. the physician confirmed his heart had stopped and
brain function had ceased. The 43-year-old was the 849th person
put to death in U.S. prisons since the Supreme Court reinstated
the death penalty in 1976, and Indiana's 81st execution since
Harry Jones was killed by hanging in 1897.
But not the last. On June 13, Joseph Trueblood of Lafayette,
Indiana, has a date with the gurney.
In the room where witnesses watched Houck's final moments, the
Episcopal Church's presiding bishop, Frank Griswold, viewed the
empty death chamber apparatus, the final stop of a half-day tour
of death row facilities in Michigan City, Indiana, April 2. In
his first visit to a death chamber, and in fact to a state
prison, the presiding bishop said he was moved by the "profound
irony" of seeing life-saving equipment being used as the
instruments of an execution.
"It struck me looking through the window at a hospital gurney
how an execution now parodies hospital procedures. Intravenous
tubes and all the rest of it are an effort to help heal someone,
when what is really happening there is just the opposite," he
Earlier in the tour Griswold spoke with three death row inmates
temporarily housed at the Maximum Control Facility in nearby
Westville. His conversations -- conducted by phone in a booth
divided by bulletproof glass -- confirmed for him how much
capital punishment is at odds with his understanding of the
gospel. In each of those short exchanges he said he was struck
by the "deep sense of prayer" emanating from the three men, how
each considered himself "all right with God, acknowledging that
God is in charge," and holding "a deep sense of being forgiven
In his conversation with Keith Canaan, a 44-year-old inmate on
death row since December 1986, and later talking with death row
guards, Griswold said he learned that popular perceptions of
those condemned to die can be misleading. They are not all
hardened and defiant towards the society that enables their
death. "He [Canaan] said, You know we change here. We are not
the same people we were when we came here,'" recalled Griswold.
Unfortunately for Canaan and the other 38 residents of Indiana's
death row, there is no way for the justice system to acknowledge
or accommodate that change of mind and spirit, said Griswold.
Grace operates on death row
The personal encounters with inmates also reinforced the views
of other members of Griswold's party on the death row visit:
Bishop George Packard, bishop suffragan for the Episcopal
Church's chaplains in the armed services, healthcare services
and prison ministry; Bishop Edward Little of Northern Indiana;
Bishop Catherine Waynick of Indianapolis; Barbara Braver,
communications assistant for the presiding bishop; and the Rev.
Jacqueline Means, director of prison ministries for the
Waynick said that her opposition to the death penalty has
deepened as a result of meeting the men living under its cloud.
"These are human beings who in extraordinarily difficult
circumstances manage to make the very best of it for
themselves," she said. "There is really grace operative here.
And my opinions and perceptions about whether the death penalty
is a valuable part of our social structure have not changed. I
think it is abhorrent."
In her testimony before the Indiana state senate committee
looking into the death penalty, Waynick has focused on the moral
arguments in Scripture, whereas other religious leaders have
concentrated on sociological factors, such as apparent racial
bias in death sentences and the higher cost of running death row
as opposed to lifetime incarceration. Scripture permits capital
punishment, she said, but only under strict guidelines requiring
the eyewitness testimony of two persons, and that the execution
be carried out by those bringing the charges. "We don't have any
of those provisions in our statutes about the death penalty,"
she said, "and I think we need to play that up more. We need to
be honest about that."
Church members favor death penalty
There is little ambiguity on the issue for Means. "I am
completely against it," she said. "When we kill somebody legally
what we are saying is that God cannot change a person's life.
And I don't believe in that. God can do what God wants to do.
And even the worst person in the world doesn't deserve to be
Means, who organized the visit to the Michigan City prisons,
acknowledged that her view is not shared by the majority of
Episcopalians, who see inmates on a different plane than other
social service recipients. She estimates that up to 70 percent
of the people sitting in church pews on Sunday support capital
punishment. The prevailing view for them, she said, appears to
be that taking a life should be paid through the forfeiture of
life. Even in the church she serves as vicar in West Terre
Haute, Indiana, the sentiment runs in favor of the death
Despite reluctance in the pews, the Episcopal Church has long
been on record as opposed to capital punishment. Beginning in
1958, and reaffirmed several times since, the church's General
Convention has adopted resolutions calling for the abolition of
the death penalty. The most recent statements have been made in
an Executive Council resolution in June 2001 calling for an
immediate moratorium and eventual abolition of capital
punishment in all state and federal prisons, and in a letter
last January from the presiding bishop to Illinois' former
Governor George Ryan, who made headlines last year for placing a
moratorium on all executions in the state and commuting over 100
death sentences in the final weeks of his term.
"It is my hope that, with your bold action as witness and
example, each state and this country as a whole will reconsider
the use of the death penalty and cease this practice," wrote
Education could make the difference
Resolutions alone are not enough to make capital punishment, and
prison ministry itself, a concern of the average Episcopalian,
maintained Means. Education is the key, and the most effective
teacher is the presiding bishop, she said.
"People need to be educated. We need to talk about this instead
of sweeping it under the rug," said Means. With the presiding
bishop's statement and now his visit to a death row, "it is
going to bring it out from under the rug now, and we are going
to have to start talking about some things," she said.
The presiding bishop's visit is a powerful catalyst, agreed
Bishop Little, but high profile events and pronouncements must
be followed up with local engagement. One approach is for
parishes to explore the death penalty issue in adult forums and
Bible study groups, allowing "the Scriptures to do the slow work
of changing hearts," said Little.
It is telling, he noted, that the church has invested more
effort in the theology of "just war" theory, dating back to St.
Augustine, than in issues dealing with the life's beginning and
end. "It is more sloganeering than anything else," he said of
the resolutions and statements produced by the church around
In the case of the death penalty, which has been part of
American culture since Plymouth Rock, "we have never approached
that with the same theological seriousness with which we have
approached war," said Little. "Maybe we need to do a parallel
Christian reflection on the death penalty."
Starting points, he said, could be the House of Bishops Theology
Committee, or even an Anglican Communion commission, much like
the Eames Commission of the 1988 Lambeth Conference which
addressed a process of reception on women's ordination.
Given Christ's injunction in Matthew 25 -- "when was it we saw
you sick and in prison and visited you?" -- it is hard to
imagine people not engaging this issue and getting involved in
prison ministry, he said.
Need for more prison chaplains
In some dioceses, the issue is taking hold. Means notes that all
four Michigan dioceses have made prison ministry a priority. The
Diocese of Northern Michigan operates a camp for kids whose
parents are incarcerated at the state prison in Marquette, she
said, and invites family members to stay in an apartment above
the diocesan offices while visiting inmates in Marquette. In the
state prison in Angola, Louisiana, the Diocese of Louisiana
helps support the Church of the Transfiguration, an Episcopal
congregation operating within the prison. Similar prison
churches have been started by Episcopalians in Pennsylvania and
Another promising sign is a growing interest in chaplaincy work.
Means is in conversation with Seabury-Western Theological
Seminary in Evanston, Ilinois, on sponsoring a school for
chaplains. The seminary, she noted, has a student outreach to
St. Leonard's House, an Episcopal Charities agency on Chicago's
West Side that operates a residential program for ex-offenders
While the church has over 300 health services chaplains, it has
few prison chaplains compared with other mainline denominations.
Just three Episcopal chaplains serve in federal prisons, and
around two dozen in state prisons. One problem is the age
requirement for chaplains serving in the federal bureau of
prisons. They have to be under age 37 and have two years parish
experience, said Means. Episcopalian candidates are few, given
that the average age of our clergy is in the upper 40s, she
"If I had ten Episcopal priests that had the experience and
education," she said "they could probably go to work in the next
Restorative justice offers healing
Beyond the moral issue of legally sanctioning someone's death is
a concept that has been incorporated into the General Convention
theme this summer: restorative justice. Endorsed by the 2000
General Convention, restorative justice as applied to prison
ministry moves debate from fault-finding and retribution to
truth-telling and reconciliation.
Patterned after the process used so successfully by Archbishop
Desmond Tutu and the South Africa Truth and Reconciliation
Commission, restorative justice involves those most directly
affected by a crime--the victim, the perpetrator, and the
community--in deciding accountability and appropriate
restitution. The key concepts it promotes are an understanding
of crime as a violation of a person rather than primarily an
infraction of a law or statute; an emphasis on the roles of
community, victim and violator in determining the response to a
crime; face-to-face dialogue of the primary stakeholders as
opposed to adversarial court proceedings; and understanding an
offender's accountability as involving restitution to the
victim, participating in treatment for behavioral disorders, and
Inspired by the biblical principle of Jubilee -- which links
justice and economics through the call for freeing slaves,
forgiveness of debt, and leaving the land fallow -- restorative
justice does not mean the church or society excuses or overlooks
the crime, but that all those affected are ministered to
equally: the victims, the offender, and their respective
families, said Griswold.
"Clearly we are not called about being mediators of death to one
another," he said. "We are called to be about transformation,
If a restorative justice program could be implemented throughout
the country, the prison population could be reduced by up to 40
percent, said Means. The process used within the walls --
talking with inmates about their actions and how they can go
about restoration -- would be equally effective as a prevention
tool in their communities. "You take it into the community where
it belongs, where the damage is done, and deal with it in the
community," she said.
The church also needs to be involved in the political arena, she
said, pushing for states to abolish the death penalty or at
least enact reforms on eligibility for the death penalty. A
moratorium would be "wonderful," said Means, but noted "there
are not that many Governor Ryans in the world. The church needs
to be advocating and being present for those who can't be
present for themselves."
The Episcopal Church on capital punishment:
More about the death penalty:
Death Penalty Information Center:
National Coalition Against the Death Penalty:
More about Indiana's Death Row:
More about Keith Canaan's case:
--David Skidmore is director of communication for the Episcopal
Diocese of Chicago.
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