• Piyumi Kapugeekiyana

Death row devotional

I recently attended a devotions writing workshop by Rev. Im Jung, the Asia Pacific Director of the Upper Room—a ministry devoted to encouraging Christians in their walk with God through daily devotional guides. These devotionals—short personal meditations on scriptures—are written by ordinary Christians from all walks of life.

Most times, you encounter the voice of someone you recognize, someone with a life similar to your own. Regular folks the world over sharing the struggles we all deal with—selfishness, impatience, anger, unforgiveness—and meditating on biblical instruction so that they can do better. Most days, the stories are rooted in familiar environments - work, school, home, church. Not today.

Today's devotional was written by an inmate on death row. It gave me pause.

His message was a simple one, about how gratitude to God helps fuel contentment. Rendered powerful by his circumstances.

Naturally, I wanted to know more. Who was this person? Why was he on death row? Why was he writing for the Upper Room?

Here's what I found:

George T. Wilkerson is a 37-year old Korean/American who is incarcerated on North Carolina's Death Row after being convicted in 2006 of a double homicide. He was 23 when, in a drug-addled haze, he shot two teenagers Christopher Voncannon and Casey Dinoff. The story is a tragedy.

After George was sentenced, he began reading and studying the Bible daily. Not long after that, he gave his life to Christ. Today, he's both a writer and an artist—all while being imprisoned. I read some of his writing on The Marshall Project, starting with How a Phone Changed My Life on Death Row. It's blunt, evocative writing. Consider these opening lines:

"Dying is the easy part. Waiting years to be executed, with no one to connect with — that’s the nightmare."

Soon after, I delved into The Implications of Trying to Kill Yourself on Death Row.

Haunting in its portrayal of prison life, he writes:

"Death Row is unique within the prison system: men aren’t shipping in and out regularly. For the most part, our population is static. We live shoulder to shoulder with each other for decades. When one of us dies, it’s like losing a tooth, a digit, a limb."

In this interview with Christian writer Sandie Shirley, George describes trying to build bridges with his cell mates and shine Christ's light in a society considered to be one of the darkest. He called writing an act of faith..."never knowing whether my words will be read by others."

Today—thanks in no small part to the Upper Room—I ended up reading many of his words and they mattered.

So often, we divorce ourselves from marginalized voices like those of prison inmates. We relegate them to the scrap pile to pay penance for deeds that repulse us. We don't want to know their names and their stories are not our concern. But stories like George's are precisely what remind me that we have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). And yet, God seeks us out in our darkest places and pledges to transform us.

What would happen if we took the time to listen to the stories of those we currently refuse to acknowledge? What would we learn if we stepped into another's darkest moment and experienced life from their vantage point? Would we recognize our own fragile humanity in them? Would it affect our choices? Would it affect our policies?

I can't help but wonder.


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