Every human being has a need to connect with others in some kind of meaningful ways. Those living on death row are not exempt from these feelings, but for these men and women lack of trust may be the essential barrier to communicating with others. We all need to experience a sense of restoration and acceptance in order to be nourished and sustained. My letters always contain a spiritual focus because I believe that there is no other relationship which can sustain us like a direct link with God. People will always disappoint us and leave us empty as we seek out relationship with them. The primary purpose of each of these letters is to forge a connection with those who have no other outlet for being fulfilled and sustained in their daily lives.
Today is a gloomy day with intermittent storms passing through South Louisiana. It has also been a time of soul searching about the Dismas Project ministry. I received the art work today for the cover of the second book (written for offenders). I liked one of the items that were offered. I am struggling with my ability to continue to embrace a positive and motivated outlook about this work. I am at this place for many reasons, but the one that seems to be most apparent is the fact SO many people talk about the value of this ministry, honestly it is a struggle and major effort to continue moving forward. I frequently hear the voices of people who encourage this effort, yet they are unwilling or unable to come together in an organized fashion to change the face of isolation for offenders and their family members. So I am left wondering if I am carrying this message for God, or if I am pushing forward because of some unrecognized need of my own.
My head and heart tells me that there are millions of people in America who are hurting and wounded by events stemming from an encounter with the criminal justice system. My intellect tells me that these souls are hunkered down in communities’ across the country, trying to make themselves small and unnoticeable. Pain does strange things to people. One of the most consistent things that I hear from death row offenders is the lack of contact with family for any number of reasons. I believe that Dismas Project can be an effective resource in helping to re-establish and restore contact with loved ones. This is a practical outreach which is offered to you to help ease the pain of isolation and condemnation. Every human being has inherent value and dignity and even the smallest steps can be helpful in easing the pain.
I struggle with my own spirituality just the same as you. I long to be able to do the “right thing” but more often than not I fall flat on my face. I often feel like I am laboring in a long field that is covered with large rocks and boulders. My wife has interpreted that this dream and has told me that I must move the boulders and rocks before I can sew any seeds into the land below the rocks and boulders. She also told me that any harvest is a long way off. Now I can certainly agree with her assessment based upon the slow growth in this ministry outreach. By the way I do not like struggling with rocks and boulders, but that seems to be my lot at the present time. I share these things with you because I believe that perhaps these efforts may give you an understanding about the underlying thoughts that we have for each of you.
At this particular time, I have been experiencing a surge of gratitude. What that means in practical terms is that I find myself considering the past – my personal history- with a sense of newness and pleasure. The nuns that took the time to educate me as a student at St. Joseph’s elementary school: assisted in building the grounds to my monthly outreach to you. The gift of learning that they passed onto me is the basis of my ability to write to you each month. I think that more than a few of them would strongly approve of this ministry. The gift of helps that I received today from a laser printer repair man who came to my home to repair our new printer was astonishing. : After he finished his work he told me that I should take the money I would have paid for his efforts and use it for this ministry and the gift of encouragement that I received from the cheerful and helpful young woman at Walgreens. There are times when I struggle with the meaning to this ministry that God has given to me, but it is these private encounters that seem to restore my spirits and strengthens my resolve to continue this outreach. It is my hope that these simple messages strengthen each of you.
Today I received a letter from a death row prisoner who asked me to take him off the mailing list. Of course I will honor his request, but will continue to pray for him and others who find my letters a burden rather than a comfort. Today I also received a letter from a man in Arizona who is doing hard time in lock down or protective custody as the system calls it. His pain was discernible in his words. WE have all offended others in our earthly walk, some more offensively than others. But what I have come to understand is that God’s forgiveness covers all kinds of sins. So, I am not willing to engage in the judgment of others instead, it is my hope to restore others to human relationship by showing mercy and compassion to my brothers and sisters in chains.
Perhaps the words that flow as I write to you are part of my ancestral heritage having been born of Irish Catholic parents. They say that Ireland is the land of writers and poets and its offspring has traveled far and wide scattering the seeds of knowledge and discernment. Maybe a little of that heritage has rubbed off on me. I know that the American culture has morphed my viewpoint toward unwise tolerance and acceptance. Somewhere between these diverse viewpoints the bridge of Christianity has transformed my understanding and revitalized my vision of brotherly love and service. One thing that I am certain of at this point in my life is that personal spirituality is the key to restoring a meaningful relationship with God.
For me to speak of personal spirituality means the attitude shift that has encompassed my view of life. Somewhere in my early prayerful engagement the Holy Spirit began a long term transformation which has introduced me to the Love of God. It was out of that experience with love that I have been able to come to understand the majesty of Jesus Christ’s life, death and resurrection in very personal matters. This does not mean that I have not stumbled in my thoughts words or deeds instead, it means that no matter how often I fall. Jesus is always standing by and saying I’ve got you covered Kevin! What a friend indeed. That reality feeds my desire to know Him better, so reading the Holy Bible is not a task, but a time to spend with a dear friend. It also becomes a time of refreshment and encouragement. My hope is that you find similar comfort. My words have no value in themselves; they merely point the way toward the One who loves us with such passion that He was willing to die for each of us. He NEVER gives up on any of us don’t give up on Him.
What I have noticed in my personal life is the strange reality that often, very often my best attempts to communicate with those close to me ( or those I perceive as close to me) triggers a cold and rejecting response. My spirituality has led me to a place where I now understand that the response informs me about their own personal struggles during their life journeys. That shift in awareness has helped me to continue to express mercy and compassion to them rather than to withdraw into a protective barrier of isolation. That renewal of spirit and focus toward others is directly related to the work of the Holy Spirit in my life. I could not produce that response on my own. It also serves well in writing various books to expand the understanding of others regarding the value and dignity of all lives.
In the early months of this year I wrote about rejection, despair and devastation, a range of topics which could touch every reader’s life if they cared to be honest with themselves. In fact I received a handful of requests for death row prisoners requesting that I take them off of our mailing list. I imagine that my words had a profound effect upon their lives in terms of revisiting sadness and regrets. I am not one to put a happy face on the truths of our lives I rather used that background of reality to paint a clear understanding of the absolute value that reconciliation and restoration has in determining the ultimate meaning in each of our lives. I trust in your ability to find value in having someone relate to you as a truth teller. The same principles that I have written about to you apply to my own life. That is why I have a passion to share with each of you a new way of looking at your life and the choices that you still have the ability to make. I believe in your value and dignity in spite of your earthly struggles.
Tonight I went to dinner at Cracker Barrel and received the third gift of the day. The young waitress who waited upon me has the unusual ability to be spontaneously honest with others. I asked a question which puts people in an immediate state of conflict with their personal accomplishments and she responded from the heart. What a wonderful gift to find another truth teller, even in one so young. It has been a red letter day, having encountered so many quality people. This is what replenishes my spirit and allows me to extend my hand to others. Sometimes I go a long distance without this kind of refreshment, but when I find it, it is so refreshing and rewarding. I write to you in the same hope of developing a relationship of caring and truth that underlies all of our correspondence. I can’t ask you for it, it has to be freely given and received. That is the nature of true human interaction. You will not find any entertainment value in my writings they are meant to touch a hallow place in your life that has gone a long way without any refreshment or care. That is my way of restoring a quality of humanity to your lives. It probably seems foreign to you that someone would want to humanize your experience of life. But that is who I am and what I am about as I move toward the finish of my life’s journey. Isn’t this what the meaning of life is all about?
While I am trained as a neuropsychologist, my views stem from the reality of God’s love in my life. I understand the structure and function of the brain, but it is my experience with the vitality of the human spirit that funds my desire to reach out and share a different viewpoint with you. It is not over till it’s over. That is the most dynamic aspect of having a soul. Things can be transformed in a moment of understanding and acceptance. There is no separate article this month it just felt right to share recent events in my life and offer them to you as a way of deepening your own understanding. If you and I could spend a few hours together, these are the things that I would most desire to share with you: The true experience of living. Then no one could ever take this away from you ever again or deprive you of living out each day to the maximum.
I am sitting here waiting for a call from a friend in Canada who was released from prison in October. He is having a very difficult time adjusting since his name and record was published in the newspaper upon his release, urging the public to protest themselves from this man. He served over 35 years in prison and somehow is still viewed as a serious threat in a wheel chair. Oh how Satan loves to use fear as a principal weapon to keep us from recognizing the humanness inside each of us. During our last conversation he told me that he was on the verge of re-offending so that he can go back inside. At least in that environment he would be accepted and have meaningful dialogue with others. His other choice was to commit suicide. What a tragic set of choice to live your life between. Few people have a true understanding of Christianity, and fewer try to live out its principles in their daily lives, yet they all think that they are going to heaven! That is pride and arrogance. God hates the proud, but He will sustain the humble hearted. I strongly believe that Jesus Christ has a special affection for prisoners based upon His actions.
Everyone who receives this letter has something of great value to share with me and others, a color, music, thoughts or memories. I need to encourage you to reach beyond those bars that confine you and share the slightest of treasures. They will have meaning to me personally and to those who are learning about your humanity. I believe that the way that we change things happens by building connections one person at a time. I attended a conference at Delta State University in Mississippi this week where I was a speaker. Before I started my talk, I gave a short pre-test to understand the scope of knowledge that those in the audience had regarding the plight of mass incarceration in America. Only five percent of those attending were able to identify the accurate number of people currently caught up in the criminal justice system. With your help the number of uninformed individuals can steadily be challenged. As they come to real understanding of this political and economic situation they can be a voice for change. So your voice matters and I will amplify it by thousands or more, if you share your words.
One of my hopes for the coming year is to start a family group via Google or Skype so that families of those in prison can have a free resource that speaks to their needs. As I drove home through the Mississippi delta, I passed MSP at Parchman and I thought of the men living just outside my reach in that environment. My thoughts go out to them and to the others across the US. I noticed as I traveled that things are beginning to bloom. The colors of Spring are a treat and of course they vary by the region that I happen to be visiting. For my spirit they are an evident sign of renewal and hope in new beginnings. Currently I am working on my third and fourth non-fiction books. One is being written for professionals who work with offenders and their families to open their eyes to the need for mercy and compassion. The other is being written for the general public as a way of informing the average reader of the experience of incarceration, particularly life on death row. The words are my own, but the awareness I am hoping to share with others has come about in part through the letters which have been shared with me over the last several years. Each writer has blessed me in some tangible way and I thank you for what you have entrusted to me. I believe that WE can change things, one person, one day at a time.
During that drive and others like it, I have been given reason to think deeply upon the many circumstances of my own life. At times I find myself reflecting upon those situations which seemed to envelope my life, refusing to let me go. While none have proven fatal each have shaped some aspect of my life, I am sure that I am not alone in these deep personal encounters. So I include the following paragraphs as an invitation to reflect upon your own experiences. So much of our personal experiences occur in the silence of our own persons. I believe that there is a substantive quality to each of these life encounters and when they are shared with others freely they provide a window into the soul of a human being. My thoughts here are nothing more than a window on my personal struggles with fears real and imagined.
The most difficult place that I have ever been trapped is deep within me, far from the comfort of those who truly know me and even farther from the reality which is pressing in on me. My eyes and ears are monitoring data, but my senses can scarcely compete with the excessive head noise that continually distracts me. My mind goes from the extremes of relief to grief as I try to sort my way through a wilderness that I thought I knew so well. There is a battle raging between my head and my heart and the conflict rarely abates. The fury of this struggle causes me to lower my head and block any thoughts or feelings which disagree with what my pain is telling me. Somehow I have become accustomed to the pain of the moment and if I do nothing else, it will just remain the same or it might ease a bit. Nothing I am doing seems to bring actual relief from my on-going pain and as the walls of my protective castle start to fall around me, I am once again starting to wonder where can I flee to next? Inside I feel as if my heart has melted and my mind is permanently stuck in the on position. My taste is gone, my faith is broken, my hungers go unrecognized and my thirst is beyond satiation. I am a form which everyone can reflect upon, but few truly see me these days for who I am. I avoid the mirrors because the image they cast back has no common points with the person that I was at one time.
In my haste to abandon pain and threats of exposure I have left behind a world of people, places and things. Somehow I have exchanged that reality for an illusion of safety and personal peace. It is not distance which feeds my spirit, nor will safety be found in exchanging one role for another. Inevitably wherever I go, there I am, the same person carrying the burdens that I sought to leave behind me. You see I am your soul, I see all, hear all and more importantly I know all: That little voice, that troublesome nudge from conscience, that dull reminder of damaged ties fill the soul with the laments of distress that cannot be extinguished in the absence of truth. If truth is our guide, then I can always return to the dream I have been pursing, only this time with the soothing balm of healing love, rather than the turmoil of ongoing pain. I can repair & restore the damage which has been created by defusing the terror which has pervaded the lives of those who love me. Then I am free to choose whatever course suits my present & my future. In giving love to those who treasure me, I can recapture a sense of intimacy we have shared & move past the demands my fears make.
PRAYER FOR FAITH
Lord only You know the pathways of my life and the things that I have done. When things continue to kick me when I am down it is hard to even imagine that someone really loves me. I have few options and one of them is to shut you out and pretend that You do not exist. The options seem bleak and beyond belief. If I am ever going to understand the way You see me, then I desperately need You to fill my life with purpose. I need something that only You can give to me. And the worst part of it is that I do not even know what it is that I need. Perhaps I am horribly broken and unable to recognize or accept myself as I am. Lord I truly need the gift of self-understanding so that I am able to draw some meaning from the journey of my life. But here I am on the edge of eternity and I really have no reason to believe You have any conscious thought of me or my life. But I am taking the only small step possible and asking You to accept me as I am and come into my life. I surrender it all to Your loving care and direction. Thank You.