Preached, as you might have guessed, by the Rev. Dcn. Sue Bonsteel at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY on Advent I, December 2, 2018. You can read the scripture for the day by clicking here.
“Give us the grace to cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”
At this Advent time of the year – as the chill of autumn becomes more pronounced and winter approaches – we find ourselves searching through boxes for wool sweaters, long underwear, and hats and gloves we had carelessly tossed aside last spring when they were no longer needed. Flannel sheets and down comforters come out of storage and surround us in warmth at night. The furnace is cranking away and fires are glowing in the fireplace. We light candles as the daylight fades. We try to hold off the darkness by turning on more lights or throwing another log on the fire. We are determined to hold back the night as long as we are able.
Yet the season of Advent is the ideal time to welcome the cold, the silence, and the darkness. For these coming days are more than a pause between the holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas; these days offer us a holy space in which to settle…to rest…and to prepare for the coming of the Christ Child. Advent offers us an opportunity to look deep within ourselves and ponder the darkest places where Jesus is most needed in our lives.
So it’s particularly poignant then that we recently received the news that a dear friend Roddy Johnson will soon be released from prison after over 20 years of incarceration, 16 of which were served in solitary confinement on Pennsylvania’s death row. It’s the advent of a new life for him.
If there are any of you left who don’t know the story, I will tell it for the last time. For Roddy will soon be writing a new chapter in his life story as he prepares to enter the world once again.
Roddy and I became friends shortly after his incarceration through the Death Row Support Project, a pen pal prison ministry of the Church of the Brethren. The program’s aim is to connect those on death row with people on the outside, offering friendship and support to men and women discarded or shunned by society.
Looking back last week at the pile of letters from Roddy, I came across his initial request for a pen pal. He had simply asked for someone with a friendly heart who was willing to listen. And tears came again to my eyes when I realized what a simple “yes” to Roddy’s request came to mean to him, to me and so many others.
What is so admirable about the Death Row Support Project is the way it supports the often abandoned men and women behind bars and helps them make a connection beyond the prison walls. Its ministry is one of compassion and love, forgiveness and redemption. The letters exchanged become a glimmer of light in a world where darkness prevails and too often justice is denied. Roddy and I began as strangers in 2002, but it wasn’t long before we came to understand that God had truly led us to one another through this ministry.
Building a relationship with someone behind bars is, as you can imagine, a serious commitment…one that requires perseverance and a willingness to cast aside preconceptions and prejudices. I certainly had my share. A middle-aged privileged white woman writing to a young black man caught up in a drugs and gang culture of New York City brought us both frustration at times… but also laughter. Often Roddy wrote using street slang that might as well have been a foreign language to me. I sent him classic literature that I thought he’d enjoy when all he really wanted was the latest trashy novel.
But there was also a sweetness in our weekly correspondence. Long handwritten letters about mundane things brought a bit of normality to our relationship. Roddy wanted to hear about the day-to-day events in life – the trips to the grocery store; vacation plans; memories of my childhood; the visits from grandchildren – anything that helped him connect to a world that he was no longer part of. These letters were eventually accompanied by 15 minute phone calls and then finally email. We stuck together during his many years in the wilderness of appeals. And at times it was truly hard work. At Roddy’s request I contacted national anti-death penalty groups as well as The Innocence Project. I spoke to lawyers who listened politely but regretfully said they could not take on any more pro bono work for capital cases. Roddy connected me with Linn Washington, a Temple University professor of journalism, author, and political activist who had interviewed Roddy and included him in several mainstream articles. Dr. Washington suggested I contact 2 colleagues of his, notable newspaper journalists Leonard Pitts of the Miami Herald and Bob Herbert of the New York Times. Both were interested in Roddy’s story and had their interns contact him. And two of our own bishops, Mark Sisk and Andy Dietsche, were gracious in their support, helping fund some of the expenses I incurred. It was through Bishop Sisk that I became a regional deacon for prison ministry.
Despite the many people familiar with Roddy’s case, we were, however, reluctant to say aloud to one another that there was but a glimmer of hope that Roddy’s sentence would ever be overturned. We all understood that getting an innocent person off death row would be an uphill battle.
The darkness had to be overwhelming at times for Roddy as the years passed. As a father of young children when he was sentenced for the deaths of two men, Gregory and Damon Banks, he was often worried that he would become mired in the grief and anger that consumed so many around him. His faith in a generous and loving God was tested over and over but it never seemed to waver. Roddy truly believed that the Righteous Branch in Jeremiah would ultimately execute justice and not death, even when those around him were skeptical.
Oh, he came close to death on two occasions soon after arriving at Greene Correctional Facility. Once he was but 24 hours away from a scheduled execution before he received a stay. It’s horrifying to realize that Pennsylvania came that close to executing an innocent man. It’s also horrifying to realize that innocent people have – in all likelihood – been executed in our nation – in our name -despite claims to the contrary by those who support capital punishment. The work to end the death penalty must continue….
Despite the reality of this, Roddy would sometimes say, that even in the midst of the darkness and cold of the prison system, there were glimpses of light in the faces of people who refused to bend to a system that sought only to enslave and punish. It was, he said, in those people that he saw the face of God.
Some of you have asked if he were exonerated so I wrote to Roddy, asking him to explain it in his own words. This is what he wrote to you:
I know this is confusing to all. The Appeals Court did not exonerate me. Rather they declared the Capital Case a “Wrongful Conviction” saying that my constitutional rights to a fair trial were violated by the district attorney who hid evidence and lied to the court. Therefore the convictions could not stand. There was also the issue of double jeopardy – meaning that you can’t be tried for the same crime twice – so the life sentence I was given at the same time as the death sentence was also thrown out.
My lawyer explained that the State argued against dismissal based upon my actual innocence because the State would then open itself for additional lawsuits – not only from me – but from anyone else convicted through the actions of the same corrupt police department who were involved in my case or by the same District Attorney’s office. My lawyers said the State was more concerned about a lot of appeals by others on death row and not about absolute justice for me.
When I asked him how he felt about this decision he wrote: After all of this, I can only say…Thanks be to God! I have been given my freedom and I will make the best of it.
Roddy is ready to cast off the works of darkness at long last. The years of watching and waiting and wondering what is to come are almost over. While he is eager to begin his new life, he is not surprisingly anxious about all that has changed and all that he must learn anew. Just think about the changes in the world today and the one he left behind 20 years ago.
Long ago you and I welcomed Roddy into our Beloved Community here at St. John’s. He’ll need our prayers and support more than ever. He’s hoping to visit us one day and thank us personally for all we were able to do for him and his family. I know we will greet him with joy.
Luke’s gospel this morning – and Roddy’s own story – remind us of the need to always be prepared…to understand that while we may never know what the future holds for any of us, we are called to live with love and hope. For the kingdom of God is everywhere, even in the darkest of places. It can be a struggle to move through the darkness to the light. Yet when we discover that we can cast off all that weighs us down in our lives – whether it be fear or cynicism or isolation or whatever burdens we bear – only then will we be able to rejoice and put on the armor of light that is Jesus Christ.
May we all have a blessed and holy Advent.