When I got the invitation from Journey of Hope … from violence to healing to join their 17-day, 15 plus-city tour of North Carolina, an invitation to travel with other family members of murder victims and tell the story of my brother’s murder and my ongoing opposition to the death penalty, I balked. I’m not a social activist. I’m a writer. I like privacy and quiet, but I also know I can talk with ease in public and have felt an obligation to add my voice, especially as a murder victim’s sister, to the gathering momentum for a moratorium on executions in North Carolina.
So it was that, on a Saturday night two weekends ago, I found myself in the pulpit of a small church in Asheville looking out at 25 or 30 upturned faces. I’d been told by the local contact that the church was very liberal, very anti-death penalty. I relaxed. I could just share, more personally than usual, my own struggles against bitterness and about what I’d lost, apart from a brother, to murder. Heads nodded, brows furrowed; I wondered if I really was reaching them or if they were simply being polite.
I saw a woman sitting perfectly upright and still in a middle pew. She wept silently. Her pastor sat in front of her, resting his hand on her knee; the man beside her gripped her hand, and the hands of women behind her rested on her shoulders. It was as if they were keeping her from rising to the ceiling in a levitation of grief. I couldn’t just walk past, as if I had not seen this woman paralyzed in her distress–a distress I would seem to have caused. But neither did I wish to add to her discomfort. I sat next to the pastor, reached over the pew’s back to take the woman’s free hand and said, “I don’t want to intrude, but is there anything I can do to help?”
She turned wide, red-rimmed eyes on me and squeezed my hand. “I had a brother who was killed,” she rasped.
“Tell me about it,” I said. From that moment, we slid into conversation like a hot knife into butter, held in place all the while by that ring of protective souls. We even laughed about our brothers–hers had been killed 30 years ago, mine only six–and I could feel her relief to be talking this way, to me, to another sister who knew that the murder was never over, no matter how many years had passed.
Here’s what I didn’t know, while we talked. She favors the death penalty. She feels her church’s opposition to the death penalty is a luxury they can afford because they don’t know. The only reason the Journey was there that night was that she gave her okay, and she only accepted because we, too, were families of murder victims. The church member who shared all this with me said, “It’s a huge deal that she came tonight. And now it seems possible, for the first time ever, for her to consider a shift in her feelings about the death penalty. It’s really just amazing.”
People told me all weekend they admired our courage to speak. How can I convince them of their own courage–the courage to show up and listen, really listen; the courage to let their hearts be touched, and to let their hearts change their minds? Now, that’s a journey of hope.