Church of the Brethren
Rachel Gross, Director
P.O. Box 600
Liberty Mills, IN 46946


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DRSP News June 2018

by guest columnist Katie

Editor's note: It was several years after DRSP began before a correspondent had to face the execution of his pen pal. Even as the number of executions peaked in the '90s, there were not many active correspondents whose pen pals were executed. We pray that the death penalty will be abolished before it becomes a common experience. In any case, we are grateful to Katie for sharing her story.

My connection to the Death Row Support Project (DRSP) began last year. I was feeling called to step up and engage more deeply with my wider community, but I didn’t know how I could serve. My husband and I operate an organic farm, and I home school our two children: big domestic responsibilities that take most of my time.

It occurred to me that I could perhaps contribute from home and also engage in one of my personal favorite hobbies: writing letters. I knew that many people in U.S. prisons don't have outside connections, so a friend connected me with DRSP, and I eventually received the contact info for Erick, a man living on death row in Texas.

As I had been counseled might be the case, I had to send Erick several letters before I heard back from him. I wasn't sure what to expect from our pen pal relationship. I had no personal experience with prison, and I was so hesitant to ask questions that might be awkward or uncomfortable for him to answer.

In one of Erick's early letters to me, he told me not to worry so much — that he was an open book to me and that we were going to have a wonderful honest friendship. We talked back and forth about our interests and our families. I learned to be less cautious and more open in my letters to him. I looked forward to a long friendship and wondered what we might learn from each other over the coming years.

But earlier this year I learned from Erick that he had been assigned a date: his execution was scheduled for April 25.

This news shifted everything. Until that moment, it hadn't really occurred to me that execution was a real possibility. I live in Oregon, where the death penalty is not implemented. Killing one person as retribution for other deaths makes no sense to me. More people experience loss.

I reached out to DRSP for more information about how I could follow Erick's execution process. On their recommendation, I also shared about Erick's impending execution with my church community and friends so that they would know that I was about to lose a friend in a way that wouldn't otherwise be obvious or visible.

The most challenging letters I've ever written were the last two that I sent to Erick, knowing that they might be the last he'd receive from me. What words of comfort could I offer in such a situation? How to say good-bye to someone I was only just getting to know?

In one of his final letters to me, Erick wrote that he wasn't afraid of death itself but regretted not getting to see his son grow up. He spent his final weeks attempting to connect with his family, especially his sisters, whom he hadn’t seen since he being incarcerated.

Meanwhile, I wrote a letter on Erick's behalf to the Texas governor and kept praying for clemency.

On April 25, I alerted friends via Facebook and spent the day praying and checking websites and social media to see if anything changed in Erick's status. Friends also joined me in praying, and two friends subsequently volunteered to become letter writers with DRSP as well.

The next morning I looked again at the Death Penalty Information Center’s website and saw the change in Erick's status: "EXECUTED."

I really wasn't prepared for how abruptly this new friendship would end, but I'm thankful to have known Erick, even briefly. I appreciated the gifts of openness and frankness he shared with me. And, I’ve learned on a more personal level about how the death penalty affects individuals and families in our country.

I am continuing to volunteer with DRSP, grateful that I have found a meaningful way to connect with the world beyond my home.

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