I want to tell you about the weekend I spent on death row at Holman prison through the Kairos ministry, but find it difficult to know where to begin. If I tell you about the nuts and bolts of the talks and lessons on God’s love and forgiveness and on Christian behavior and disciplines, if I mention the songs we sang, the food we shared together, the lively conversations at the tables you would certainly think I was nowhere near a prison environment, and yet, I was.
If I started with my feelings about being in that place, the physical facts of Holman prison and of a tiny death row cell, the colors of the walls and bars, the heaviness and drabness of everything, you might conclude that everyone there must be severely depressed, but most are not.
Yes, I learned some of their stories – and those of course I am not at liberty to share. I guess I can tell you about some things that surprised me, and let you draw your own conclusions.
I was surprised to learn how long a person can spend on death row. We had a man at our table who had been there for 29 years. Some have been there much longer. Some are now so old that they are infirm – completely. They need people to care for them just like nursing home patients – help with eating, bathing (although there are no baths – just open showers at the end of the hall – no curtains).
Who does this for them? The State does not try to run a nursing home with trained professionals. The answer is that other death row prisoners are the ones who nurse the elderly. Who would do such a thing for people who are not family, and without being paid? Prisoners who have gone through the Kairos weekend, who have come to know God’s love in their hearts, who understand that Jesus is able to transform them. When we speak of love the question that lurks in the background is: “but this is death row; is love possible here?” The answer can be witnessed in action, not in sentimentality; in the soapy towel and warm water of a sponge bath given to a person who is dieing by a person sentenced to death.