Letters to Death Row

Letter #2

The summer of 2013 is fast slipping into history with trips and meetings filling in the schedule gaps in my writing tasks. While taking the time to commit my ideas to paper is important, it seems that many new opportunities seem to be opening these days. I spent part of today helping to shoot a video commercial which will air on TV for a local business. It was the first experience with actual video production and the producer made it all look very easy. But having spent considerable time watching training videos and reading materials about producing videos for TV, I am still feeling somewhat intimated by the complexity of mastering all of the knowledge and skills. Next week they will be producing several more commercials, so I will be engaged in more training opportunities. You may wonder why I am tagging along during production of commercials this is a hands-on opportunity to get familiar with skills and techniques that I can use when I am ready to start producing videos for Dismas Project. This training experience is being provided to me through a local Christian TV station who will eventually allow me to use their equipment to produce my own materials. So it is not laid back time when I come to New Mexico, rather it has now become an opportunity to learn new skills and to use them to reach families of offenders all over the US.

This letter was intended to focus upon “family.” Just mentioning that word brings out a number of emotions in various people. It is a term loaded with meaning for many of us. If you grew up in an environment where you were mainly on your own raising yourself or other children in the family it will have one kind of meaning, while others will have other distinct feelings about those with whom they lived as they grew up. One way or the other we all carry around some notion of what family means to us. Traditionally it was supposed to have meant that special place where you were loved and protected. A place that you could always return to and feel accepted. The problem is that for many of us that is not the type of picture that comes to mind when we think about family. Likewise there are many of us who tried to start our own families and for any number of reasons failed miserably at this task. I know that while I was in prison, one of the hardest things was knowing that my children were in foster care because of my actions. That was over 35 years ago and there are still wounds which have not been healed. Sometimes there is no way to heal those past wounds and we are left to find some sense of resolution and comfort within ourselves. We may even get to the point of believing that our children are better off without us. That is a pretty bitter pill to swallow especially if I am alone in a cell by myself and for one reason or another there is no one to share my struggles or discomfort.

I believe that prison has a way of isolating us from each other and that the end result is that we become cut off from others and in order to survive emotionally we shut down inside. If I do not let anyone else inside, then perhaps I can avoid the pain which comes with violations of my trust or the failures of others to meet our expectations. The end result is that I eventually live out my days locked deeply inside of myself since I cannot afford to trust others. Many times the root of these difficulties starts in childhood when others failed us over and over again. So I grow up expecting that everyone is going to fail me at some point. If I cannot trust my own parents or brothers or sister that I have been raised with then how could I possibly trust in a God that I have never seen? So early in life I become a loner not because that is what I want to do, but because that is the only way that we can survive the experience of growing up and the betrayals we encounter along the way.

So what do we do about the problem of family and our impaired ability to trust others? Back through the history of mankind the foundation of society has always been the family unit. We learn about being nurtured and loved in the home and based upon the way that we are valued as individuals we learn how to respond to other people. If life is an endless series of bruising encounters then I learn to bruise others as I make my way through life. Eventually those encounters lead to conflicts or confrontations with others which bring us into our early experiences with the criminal justice system. Since the modern theories of criminology are based upon the belief that all “criminals” are mentally defective in some way, with each new encounter we become more of an outcast until we are eventually segregated from society by a prison stay. At that point society starts to write us off as worthless and beyond help. My question to you is simply this, are you worthless and without any value? My hope is that there was a resounding NO as an answer from all prisons where this letter is sent. Our value as human beings is not based upon our past behaviors, rather it is solely based upon the fact that God created us for His purposes: That fact alone is what determines our individual worth and value.

We are more than our behaviors!

Science, no matter whatever the discipline, uniformly embraces the view that God is an unproven entity and therefore He does not exist. That is the root of the difference between science and religion. Science is only focused upon what can be observed, so issues of a spiritual nature are avoided, since they lay outside of the domain of scientific research. Then along comes a situation in our lives which exists beyond the limitations of science and we run into a wall of informed ignorance. Yes I call it ignorance because the vast majority of scientists would rather deny the possibility that God exists and that He is a ready source of help to those who seek Him. It is much easier to deny the existence of God or to simply say I do not know (agnostic) or to state that there is no God (atheist). You see if I open my mind to the spiritual reality of life, then I come to understand the serious limitations of science. It is not the know all, be all, that it has been touted to be over the last 100 years. I could cite numerous failures listed in the journals of science from bleeding people and the use of leaches to cure people up to modern day failure to replicate the “cold fusion hypothesis.” You see if God truly exists, then the so called truths of science already existed, subject to His domain since He is the Creator of all that we call reality. Consider the simple fact that thousands of years before it was ever proven by science, the fact that matter is made up of invisible substances was already written in the Bible. Search it out for yourself, it is clearly stated in the Bible.

I have been trained as a social scientist and I know the ways of science, since that was my primary profession for 25 years. Over the course of that period of time, I kept running into this barrier between fact and faith, an artificial barrier that holds science as the standard of excellence. To me, science is a useful tool, when it is balanced with an understanding of spiritual reality. Standing by itself, it offers a partial view of life as we know it, like looking into a rear view mirror in the dark of the night. We see the obvious things like headlights behind us, but have no accurate perception of the landscape of life pulsing behind us. We just know that the cars lights mean someone is behind us. Those lights and my limited ability to make out the shape of the vehicle following me are just informed guesses. My limited view cannot tell me anything about the personality or life history of those in the cars following my vehicle. So I make “educated” guesses about the passengers and drivers of the other vehicles. That is exactly what science does in exploring and observing those things upon which it is focused. But science would never be able to tell me how much the other driver paid for their car or what kind of insurance they have, because that is well beyond the things which can be “observed.”  Now you have become informed of the vast limitations of science. Certainly science cannot reliably tell me anything about God or His nature. Those facets are solely discovered and observed by using the skill of faith. If I refuse to even look at the spiritual nature of humanity, then I will never observe what is clearly visible to billions of other people. Another short example….can you tell me what color of tie the warden is wearing today, or if his wife has a cold; of course not, you do not have visible data to support your judgment. But every time in the past that you have observed him, he has ALWAYS been wearing a tie: So it is relatively safe to act on your prior observations and accept that he is likely to be wearing a tie today.

If science is unable to help define what constitutes a family, then where do we turn to develop an understanding of this shaping influence in our early lives? Well maybe the most useful way to approach this problem is to start with the understanding of what a family is and does that is different from all other aspects of community life. It seems to me that the most elementary aspect of family is a place to cradle, love and to nourish those who live in close contact with each other. A baby can be fed and changed regularly, but without sufficient love and nurturing, the baby will fail to thrive and grow. Love is the universal element which feeds our inner spirits. That is one of the reasons that the isolation which prison breeds in each life is so damaging. You cannot isolate an individual for a number of years and expect them to return to a suspicious society with an open and trusting manner. That isolation of spirit will take many years of healing before one gets to the point that they can start to function productively in open society. In the meantime there will be frequent breeches of trust on both sides which merely reinforce the hard lessons learned in prison or even earlier in life.

With enough of those encounters and subsequent periods of isolation and exclusion from society, individuals come to a point where they totally disconnect from any meaningful relationship with others. Contact with others becomes an opportunity to get our needs met, not to socialize or actually relate to others. Hence we come to be called anti-social. There are more of us on the outside, then those that exist in prisons, because our ability to trust and relate to others has been severely damaged. There is no family to turn to when we are injured or damaged by the various events of our lives. There is no protective place that we can seek out to heal our wounds in the company of those we can trust, so we continue to turn inward, relying upon ourselves only. Of course, science has a number of explanations for these behaviors and they all become terms that are used to identify us and to isolate us even further from community life. Eventually we come to a point where we start to believe these statements about ourselves and to act on our beliefs. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. We just get bad and mad and eventually wind up cut off from everyone else. We cease to have any value to others and therefore become physically, spiritually, socially, emotionally and economically isolated from others in the community. This only serves to confirm our original beliefs about others and about God. But these underlying thought processes are faulty and as a result we arrive at wrong-headed conclusions based our own experiences. Our value as individuals is established by the fact that God created us for His own purposes. We are made in His image and likeness. No matter where you find yourself now, there is still a purpose in your life and that purpose establishes your value.

It is not a court, community or congress that defines our worth and value. It has been declared by the Creator before the beginning of time. Do not be deceived or fooled by your present circumstances, God still has a purpose for your life. Dismas Project has been developed as an outreach ministry to all individuals on death row, to help them find their own purpose and to help them fulfill that purpose in whatever time remains in your life. We are not here to tell you what to do with that time, but to help you explore your options and then to assist you in making your dreams a reality. You see, that is what family does for each other. You may have a deep seated soul sickness which has kept you from ever trusting anyone, including God. Inside you may have a core of pain and rejection, but family looks past all of that and sees your worth as one of God’s creations. That is why we can look upon a child with horrible developmental disorders and still see the spirit of that child, not just the child’s limitations. Those of us who have offended much, are also much forgiven and loved by God, who sent his Son, Jesus Christ to pay the sin debt that we all have owed personally. Remember in seeing the whole picture, the jury that convicted you, the judge who sentenced you and the prosecutor who pointed the finger at you before society, all have the same sin debt and are in need of Mercy, Grace and Forgiveness.

I am not a perfect person, because I have come to understand God’s love for me, but rather I am aware that His love extends past all offenses and events of our past. That awareness has fueled a desire in my heart to reach out to those who have been most rejected by society and are considered beyond hope or worth. From discovering how valuable my own life is, I can appreciate the value of your life. It does not matter what behaviors or crimes have brought you to your current state, you are a unique creation, an expression of God’s great love. If you have never had a family which loved and nurtured you, or your offenses have driven them away, there is another family which will always have an affectionate spirit toward you. It does not matter what kinds of storms rage in your souls or minds, your worth and value stand apart from all of those issues. This letter is meant to offer a hand of encouragement and acceptance based upon the value which God places upon your life. It is my hope that my words will help to frame a different view of your life, in the context of how God sees you and me. This is a process, not an event and so I send out a monthly letter to help guide that process. This outreach has nothing to do with religion, it is about relationship: My relationship to you, yours with me and the way that God relates to all of us.

Perhaps it is time to start to build a new family of relationships based upon our individual worth, dignity and value. You are welcome to this family where caring, compassion, healing and understanding are the basic currency of our lives. That is how we relate to each other and how we build trust in ourselves and in others. Life is merely a journey between two places, comfort and hope is found in sharing that journey with another person. I will be looking for you on this road called life and I believe that we have much to share with each other. You see I want to hear about the things that are important to you and how you view life itself. It is kind of like sharing your conception of a song or a color, it is a unique sharing between two people. The outcome is that each of us grows in our understanding and capacity to develop a new appreciation of life.

Stay strong and be blessed in all that you do.


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