A Sermon for Roddy – The Rev. Dcn. Sue Bonsteel
December 13, 2020
A sermon preached to the online community of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY on the third Sunday of Advent, December 13, 2020. You can read the scripture here. Listen along by clicking the play button above.
This is a sermon I was beginning to think I’d never get to preach. As many times as I wanted to share some Good News with you, I was losing hope that someone I deeply cared about would ever see freedom again. But on December 1st that changed. As I told you last week, Roddy is home at last after close to 24 years behind bars and all charges against him have been dismissed.
There has been so much waiting and watching since I first met Roddy. So many Advents have passed by. Every few years there was a bit of hope…a court ruling in his favor…a team of new, young lawyers eager to take on his case and prove themselves…or a local news story that brought a bit of attention to the injustice of his sentence…but his case was always tossed back to other courts, other judges, and long periods of time would pass before there was any movement in his case.
The cruelty of being unjustly incarcerated for over half one’s life…of which 9 years were spent on death row… is beyond comprehension…yet it is Roddy’s story. Roddy WAS that caged bird we see on the cover of this week’s bulletin. And it would take decades before his voice might finally be heard.
For a long time I knew nothing about Roddy or his situation. In fact, like most of us, I knew nothing about the 2500 men and women on death row in our nation. Most of America didn’t acknowledge their humanity; they were simply statistics. Their faces became visible to us only when their execution date approached. We learned about them as we watched the news and the families of the victims and the soon-to-be executed inmates were put on display, revisiting the terrible tragedy in their lives for public consumption. Once the execution took place, the families of the dead were left to grieve on their own, no longer of interest to anyone else. But what had deeply troubled me was the real possibility that innocent people were being executed. Roddy’s story is proof of that possibility.
You might wonder what ever brought me to the decision to write to a stranger on death row. I still don’t have an easy answer. The only word that comes close is…a call…a nagging sense that I needed to respond to something that I couldn’t physically feel or hear or sense in any normal way…it was just something that was always present, in varying degrees of intensity…it was more like a strong spiritual beckoning that just wouldn’t let up.
I’ve said this before…for a long time, I tried to ignore it. The idea of connecting with someone condemned to death was unnerving. At that time in my life, I had never stepped inside a jail or prison before. I didn’t know of anyone personally who had gone through the court system, let alone ending up incarcerated. And I certainly knew that people sentenced to death row weren’t there simply because they didn’t pay their parking tickets.
It would have been so much easier to simply turn away from all the ugliness and let someone else do it. I had no special skills or understanding to take on death row ministry. I had no more courage or compassion than anyone else. Who was I to minister to someone facing execution? I had little understanding of the kind of commitment I was being asked to make.
Yet, despite my hesitancy, it became clear that God had plans that involved me. And so…in 2001… the slow journey towards Roddy began.
Around that time a priest-friend of mine was wrestling with a ministry in which he was involved. And we would get together over coffee on occasion and talk about the tensions we felt as servants in the church…it was during one of those conversations that he suggested that perhaps God was asking me to be a witness…to enter into a relationship with one of God’s broken children on death row and to help shine a light onto their existence.
The more I thought about it, the more the pull I was feeling intensified. And I realize now that it felt quite similar to my involvement in the early days of the founding of Angel Food East…when fear and ignorance about people living with HIV and AIDS kept so many from reaching out with love and compassion. But it took just a few caring people to step forward and say “Here I am…send me.”
I suspect many of us who have stepped into a challenging ministry have had major events that drew us into places that we never anticipated. For me, a local rabbi was looking for volunteers to accompany him to Eastern Correctional maximum security prison. There was a certificate program for soon-to-be released prisoners and volunteers were needed to support the teaching staff. It seemed safe and so I went partly out of curiosity. It turned out to be an eye-opening experience. If you’ve ever driven past Eastern Correctional in Napanoch, you won’t soon forget the sight of the medieval-style structure that looms ominously above the trees. I can tell you that the inside isn’t any cheerier! But the men we met there were openly optimistic and committed to their education. They had hopes and dreams for their future and families who were eagerly awaiting their return. What surprised me was that they were dressed in khakis and golf shirts and looked like any other men you would see walking down the street. They certainly didn’t look or act like hardened criminals. They stood as we entered and greeted each of us with a handshake and a smile…and it began to dawn on me that many of my cookie-cutter preconceptions about prisoners were wrong. These men had joy in their hearts.
About a year or so later I was asked to travel to a Pennsylvania state prison with a friend whose partner was incarcerated. I haven’t spoken much about this experience. It was a long, hard trip for his was a particularly vile crime and many in his family had written him off. While his was not a capital offense, I was acutely aware of his isolation, the animosity others felt towards him, and the harshness of his treatment due to the nature of his crime. The tension I felt in the presence of this man was unsettling. I knew I could not return to see him again. Yet…a brief unexpected note of heartfelt gratitude for my visit appeared a few days after I returned home. That simple handwritten note broke down another barrier. It helped me see that despite his grave offence, he was still a child of God seeking forgiveness and redemption.
And so I finally asked to speak with the Bishop.
There were few in our diocese at that time who were involved in death row ministry. Eager to hear of my experiences, the Bishop spoke about the complexity of prison ministry and the need to share the love of Christ with those society had cast away. And he shared with me a story about baptizing a group of incarcerated men in an Orange County correctional facility…and being startled by the unexpected joy on their faces. It was, he realized, more than happiness…it was a visible sign of God’s presence in them that he was unprepared for in such a harsh environment. He spoke of the unease he too felt entering a prison for the first time and hearing the clang of the doors as they closed behind him. He encouraged me to push myself a bit further…to keep my heart open and pray that I would soon understand where God was leading me. A few weeks later, I received a small icon depicting Jesus Christ in Prison. A note was with it that included these words from the passage we heard in Isaiah: The Spirit of the Lord God is upon you…Go and bring good news to the oppressed.
And so I made the decision to connect with some friends at the Episcopal Peace Fellowship. They directed me to a website of interfaith pen pal programs. There I discovered the Death Row Support Project, a ministry of the Church of the Brethren, a Christian community with a strong focus on service in the world. Since the 1970’s they had been sponsoring a pen pal ministry which linked death row prisoners to correspondents beyond the walls. I recall very clearly taking a deep breath and then calling Rachel Gross, one of the founders of the project. Within a few weeks I was given the name of Roderick Andre Johnson who resided on death row at SCI – Greene in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania.
In December of 2004…in the midst of the Advent season…I wrote my first letter to Roddy.
There’s a striking symmetry to all of this, if you haven’t caught on yet. Advent has been a season of significant events in my life and more importantly… in Roddy’s. We once made up a game to see how many positive things took place in the Decembers of our friendship. Roddy kept a diary when he was on death row so it was interesting to hear what brought him happiness in such a dark and often fearful place. His list was comprised mostly of small blessings…a letter, a new book, a gift of money to put into his commissary account, a phone call, new socks to keep his feet warm in his old drafty cell…I would tease him about how detailed and vivid his entries were…and he would always laugh and say he needed to remember the colors and smells and sounds and the way things felt…for he never wanted to forget the beautiful things in the world he had left behind.
The challenge for Roddy now…during this Advent of new beginnings…is to adjust to this strange new world where nothing is as it was when he left it. He asked me to thank all of you at St. John’s once again for your support and prayers over the years. I assured him they will continue, with our love.
And so…perhaps this is what God is always calling us to do…to be witnesses to the Light of Christ and the joy it brings and then to find a way to spread that joy to those who may be in the greatest need. For one of God’s greatest gifts to us is when we are shown that we can move beyond our own preconceptions and fears and comfort zones. For it’s only then that we are able to see one another as we truly are…children of the One God who loves us equally. And what an Advent gift that can turn out to be.