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Look Me in the Eye
Offered by NEC member Kathy McGregor
Project Director, The Prison Story Project
I was held up at gunpoint in my driveway by two men wearing ski masks in 1999. What frightened me even more than the gun in my face were the eyes of the man wielding the gun. His stare was blank, soulless…the kind of blankness behind the eyes one might find if encountering a dangerous animal. Shaken and victimized, I was slowly able to get over the shock of what happened and the fear of pulling into my driveway afterwards, but I couldn’t shake the fear I felt when I flashed back to the lack of human to human contact I encountered in my assailant’s eyes that day.
I sought solace and counselling from my pastor at the time. She suggested that I pray for a psychic change and spiritual awakening in my assailant. When she first suggested this, I thought she was crazy and that he didn’t deserve a prayer from me. She gently suggested that she would help me through the first prayer and so, together, we prayed. She asked me to continue that prayer every day and I promised her I would. It was tough to do at first, and I admit I didn’t have a very prayerful attitude when doing so, but eventually – and to my surprise – praying that prayer actually helped with the PTSD I’d been experiencing.
Years later, in May of 2016, I made my first trip to Arkansas’ death row to visit with men who had signed up for storytelling/creative writing with the Prison Story Project, a prison arts ministry I founded in 2012 through St. Paul’s Episcopal Church here in Fayetteville, Arkansas where I live. Our team was given unprecedented access to the men on the row who agreed to participate. They were placed in holding cells on either side of a narrow hallway where we were able to conduct class. Once unshackled, they extended their hands through the bars of the cells to shake ours and introduce themselves as we moved from cell to cell to greet them and hand out pen and paper.
We were able to conduct writing class with them once a month for four hours over a six-month period, spending the time in between following up by US Mail. In October 2016 we made our way back to death row for our final in-person visit to perform their work back to them in the form of a staged reading. We came with 6 actors, a musician, and our creative writing team.
A few months later, in February of 2017, the state of Arkansas announced that it would execute eight men over ten days, just after Easter. Four of the men we served were on that list. We held silent vigils in the chancel of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church for each of the eight scheduled executions. Several of us were on our cell phones, following the news on Twitter as last-minute appeals and motions were filed. Two of our participants received last minute stays just before their death warrants expired and two were executed over those ten agonizing days. One of our volunteers said the silent vigils felt like silent screams. In all, four of the eight men scheduled were put to death.
We had our first Prison Story Project board meeting after the executions two months later. We quickly realized that we needed professional counselling after what we had been through. We made an appointment with a kind therapist to help us process our feelings. As our group therapy session began, one of our volunteers told that when he was riding with us on the five-hour drive for our final visit on the row, he admitted he was nervous, as it was his first visit, and he asked if there was one thing he might be able to do that would be of benefit to the men on the row. He said that I spoke up and told him to “look them in the eye.” I had not remembered that until that very moment. Sitting with my team in that therapy session, I had the profound realization that God had answered the prayer I had prayed those many years ago.
Perhaps the victims of some of the men on the row had seen that same blank stare just before their lives were taken. The men we served on the row had been in solitary confinement for twenty plus years. After all those years locked away in a cage from everything except themselves, they found forgiveness and redemption, and their humanity had returned to them. I know this with all my heart. Each month, as we greeted each other, we looked deeply into each other eyes and they often wrote about how important that was to them. They said that our ability to look them in the eye reminded them of their humanity.
Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption says that “each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”
I know this to be true for the men I have come to know and love on Arkansas’ death row.
We are reminded by our Baptismal Covenant to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being. We must, therefore, continue to work to abolish state-sanctioned murder as we are called to do by our faith.
Watch this space! Coming soon, your opportunity to see a filmed version of the stage production of "On The Row." EPF National Executive Council member Kathy McGregor will make this impactful film available to our Peace Partner Parishes and Chapters as soon as travel restrictions imposed by reason of the pandemic are alleviated.
Have you been graced with a COVID-19 stimulus check? And are prayerfully pondering how you might share this money in an impactful and much needed way? Please consider sharing your stimulus check to help stimulate EPF’s efforts to eradicate the death penalty with this ambitious new initiative! We plan to focus sharing this "On the Row" film in jurisdictions which have execution as a penalty still on their books, yet have not executed a condemned person in years. Oregon is an example — they have the death penalty, yet no one has been executed since 1962. Jurisdictions like Oregon seem particularly ripe for effective advocacy against the death penalty, and we are hoping to have news of the abolition of this barbaric practice by reason of EPF’s inspiring work towards this goal. Your donation here will support this effort and our other criminal justice reform advocacy initiatives. Thanks for your consideration.
About The Prison Story Project: The Prison Story Project offered incarcerated women and men an opportunity to explore their truths through poetry, creative writing, literature, song-writing, and visual art. Their work was then curated into a staged reading performed by actors and presented first to those on inside prison, and then outside to the community.
Eleven of the thirty-four men on Arkansas’ death row participated in the Project. Six actors and a musician were brought back to Varner Prison’s death row to present the staged reading of “On The Row” to the men. Three months later, the state of Arkansas announced it would execute 8 men over 10 days just after Easter 2017. Four of the men set to be executed were participants in the Project. Two were executed and two received last minute stays.
“On The Row” has been touring the country since 2017. Last year the Whiting Foundation for the Humanities awarded The Prison Story Project a substantial grant which has allowed us to create a filmed version of the staged reading as well as creation of a comprehensive teaching guide to share with other arts organizations interested in replicating our work. EPF looks forward to making this powerful film and the teaching guide available to you in the near future.
COVID-19 has forced the nation into an unprecedented emergency. The current emergency, however, results from a deeper and much longer-term crisis — that of poverty and inequality, and of a society that has long ignored the needs of 140 million people who are poor or one emergency away from being poor.
In 1968, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and many others called for a “revolution of values” in America and sought to build a broad movement that could unite poor and dispossessed communities across the country. Today, the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival has picked up this work. People across the nation have joined under the banner of the Campaign to confront the interlocking evils of systemic racism, poverty, climate change and ecological devastation, militarism and the war economy, and the distorted moral narrative of religious nationalism.
They are coming together to demand that the 140 million poor and low-wealth people in our nation — from every race, creed, gender, sexuality and place — are no longer ignored, dismissed or pushed to the margins of our political and social agenda.
Reminder that June is Episcopal Month of Action:
In the month of June, join the Episcopal Church Office of Government Relations and Episcopal Migration Ministries for Love God, Love Neighbor: Episcopal Month of Action, a series of webinars to learn and advocate with and on behalf of immigrants, DACA recipients, refugees, and asylum seekers.
Newcomers contribute greatly to U.S. communities, enriching our common life, strengthening the U.S. economy, and bringing joy as they join and reunite with families and friends. And yet, immigrants, asylum seekers, and refugees face a wide array of challenges, including federal policies and legislation that are outdated and do not address the realities of immigrants in America today. As the Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement, we are called to advocate with and for our siblings seeking safety and a better life in the United States.
June 7-13: Episcopal Action on DACA Week
WEBINAR: June 9, 3:30-5:00pm Eastern Time
June 14-20: Episcopal Action on Resettlement Week
WEBINAR: June 16, 3:30-5:00pm Eastern Time
June 21-27: Episcopal Action on Asylum Week
WEBINAR: June 23, 3:30-5:00pm Eastern Time