Prayer & Work on Death Row

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The followers of Jesus in the early Church modeled how to live in relationship, with one heart and soul. The early Christian community was devoted to following and spreading the teachings of Jesus it meant living in a construct where they prayed and lived communally – sharing everything from routine to food – but also relationally, where they focused on resolution and openness. It was not easy. Today, this model is hard to find outside of monastic communities, but is thriving in the most unexpected location with six of the women living on Texas’ Death Row.

These women made a formal commitment as Oblates of the Catholic Sisters of the Morning Star. They live a monastic rhythm comprised of individual prayer, work, rest and communal prayer. Their work-assigned individual and group prison tasks. Their living quarters are a mere 14 by 6 feet [4.3 by 1.8 m] side-by-side cells with no privacy and constant proximity. These conditions, the chaos of a prison, and the 24/7 forced togetherness would test even the most patient person. Nevertheless, these women embrace the challenges with a daily commitment to reconciliation and expressions of gratitude with each other. They use the proximity to join their voices in prayer and soulful song that fills the halls while they sit in their cells. Their model of living came from the Sisters of the Morning Star. In addition, these Sisters, who regularly visit to pray with them, refuse to call their residence death row, but refer to it as “Light row”.

Though statistically women only comprise 7- 10 % of the 2.1 million incarcerated US population, their imprisonment takes an outsized toll on our communities. Women are generally older when incarcerated, and 60 – 80% are active mothers still responsible for the wellbeing of their children. Many provide the livelihood for their families. This is true of every woman currently on Texas’ Death Row.

70 – 98% of the women incarcerated in the United States have been a victim of sexual assault or domestic violence. They have usually been sexually assaulted repeatedly since a young age – and someone close to them victimized many. Because such crimes are hard to prove or the victims are not believed, there is often no way out. Many women self-medicate with alcohol or drugs, or other addictions to numb the pain. These behaviors often spiral and lead to incarceration.

“How do you sit here for 20 years and wake up each morning with joy?” a correctional officer asked one of the women on death row. Her response, “its God!” The uniqueness of the Texas women on death row has come from transformative pastoral care. However, the path to their faith started with listening and having the image of God mirrored for them. It was through pastoral care that they were loved unconditionally and neverabandoned. They were taught how to be a community and to pray for each other, to provide hope and support and to forgive each other in day-to-day living. The group as a whole firmly believe God has a plan for each of them and it is all in God’s timing.

The message of the Gospel and our Catholic teachings is to practice the ministry of accompaniment; to provide active listening, a safe space for healing and growth and a validation of emotions. This call to provide an experience of unconditional love applies to all of our brothers and sisters. The need is great for this ministry, but the number of ministers s too few.

How might the US Catholic Church regain its missionary zeal for spreading the Gospel to the marginalized as Pope Francis has called us to do? There are millions of incarcerated people waiting to experience the face of Christ. Texas has a large incarcerated population and many states have similar numbers. In Texas, the Galveston-Houston diocese alone has 26 State prisons, 10 county jails, a federal prison, 10 juvenile facilities and an immigration detention center. Some prisons house over 20,000 people. The bishops and ministers are trying to have a mass delivered to them monthly in these facilities, but there are not enough priests, nor lay ministers for the pastoral care of this massive population. The 122 US Federal Bureau of Prisons facilities have only 15 Catholic chaplains. As they say, “Houston, we have a problem.”

As Pope Francis stated on Nov 6, 2022, “Caring for prisoners is good for everyone, as a human community, since the way in which these ‘least ones’ are treated is a measure of the dignity and the hope of a society,”

As a Church, we are called to walk with our sisters and brothers. We have to be careful not to judge, demonize, or classify people as victims or offenders. The road leading to incarceration is complicated, and for many it is embedded in family and community systems that give many people no other choices. As Catholics, we are called upon to advocate for systemic change to prevent and break cycles of abuse and provide other practical and realizable options. In addition, US Catholics must consistently promote the dignity of everyone’s life by abolishing the death penalty, ending life without parole for children, and ending long-term solitary confinement. These inhumane practices are counter to honoring the dignity of life.

Prisons humiliate and strip those who enter them. Prisoners are constantly treated as if they are ‘unhuman’. “The treatment a person receives inside, determines who we are when we leave this system,” said one of the women on death row. We should consider what the treatment in prison means for the 95% of people who later return to society after incarceration. As we have seen on the Texas death row, we have options about how we want to shape even the most hardened person. The patient, compassionate pastoral care of the women on Texas’ death row has born good results, including the reception of a fifth Sister into the Catholic Church. This the result of decades of prayer, unconditional love, and patience by her sisters on death row. No one is beyond redemption.

What is the message the women want those in the free world to know? “Jesus is the way, the truth, and the light! We were distracted by kids, work, and life and did not have God as a priority. We chose to walk away from God. We are not monsters. We made some bad choices and will never not let God be number one in our lives. We know his small quiet voice and it gives us peace and joy. We are not condemned, we are loved”.

Karen Clifton, M.Div, is the Executive Coordinator of the Catholic Prison Ministries Coalition. This article was originally published in L’Osservatore Romano.

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