Journey of Hope: Life-Altering Community
By Robin Radford
About two months ago I had a heart-shaking and life-altering emotional experience that helped me get some perspective on my last four difficult years after going through a major operation for cancer. More on that later because it will be hard for you to grasp what happened to me unless you hear at least a little of what went on in the week I spent in Houston participating in "The Journey of Hope". I could not figure out a way to tell this story in an abbreviated format. In October this year my dear friend from Sweden, Monica Pejovic invited me as her guest to attend "The Journey of Hope" which was held in Houston, Texas.
The Journey of Hope conducts annual events in various states speaking in high schools, colleges, churches, social clubs and various other formats. Murder victim family members and those with other connections put the human face on the issue of the death penalty as they share their stories. The founder and President of The Journey, Bill Pelke, whose grandmother was murdered, came in from Alaska with his partner Kathy. (See Bill's story below). Monica met Bill briefly when she participated for two days in the Journey in 2005.
The fiscal year for the Journey of Hope runs fromAugust 1 to July 31. It is a separate 501(c)3, incorporated in the state of Indiana in 1997. The first Journey took place in Indiana, and the next two, prior to 1997, were special projects of Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation.
"The Journey" brings together people from a variety of experiences whose lives have collided with a homicide and/or with the legal system over the death penalty--people who passionately want to help change this system and to abolish state homicide. This collision of experiences has formed a most unlikely community. The process of forgiveness is key to all involved.
The Journey was led by:
-- Murder victim family members
-- Exonerees (individuals proved innocent and legally freed from Death Row).
-- Family members of persons on Death Row and family of the executed
Also participating were activists--people like Monica and myself who are friends and supporters of persons on Death Row. Our friend on Death Row is Roger McGowen who has been there for 20 years for a crime we believe he did not commit. (See www.rogermcgowen.org ).
A documentary team from Seoul Broadcasting System from South Korea was with us also. They were following Mr. Ko, an individual who had lost three members of his family to murder.
I flew from my home in St. Louis, Missouri and met Monica and about 20 others from all over the United States. We were in Houston with the Journey from October 12 to 18. The main events included a benefit (fundraising) concert (Nanci Griffith sang and played. One introduction for this abolition-supportive lady is http://nanci-griffith.com/fans_speak/index.html ) and a rally at Walls Unit, Huntsville, TX where all executions in Texas take place and where twenty-six inmates were executed this year.
The main activity every day--from 7AM through evening--was the many talks given by members of our group who spoke to high school, college, church groups, etc. about the hard won forgiveness and love that motivates their opposition to the Death Penalty. A smaller group, The Founders Tour, continued on from October 18 to 28 speaking at Universities in San Antonio, Austin, Waco, and Dallas - including the eighth annual "March to Stop Executions" on October 27 in Houston.
The core group of participants stayed at the Domincan Sisters Retreat center together and shared meals and other group experiences. A few people were housed at a nearby hotel. We all joined together for various group sessions-- especially in the evening-- but most of each day we all traveled to the various events where people were speaking.
Sister Helen Prejean (author of Dead Man Walking) came to be with us for 2 days and gave several talks herself. She is a very charismatic speaker but wonderfully approachable and unpretentious. She never minimizes the suffering of families that have had members murdered but she pleads very convincingly that the murderer's life is still of value and nothing is gained by another murder done in our name by the state and another family (the murderer's) devastated too.
The stories I heard were heart-rending accounts of ordinary people who had not paid much attention to the Death Penalty. They were most often in support of it until their lives abruptly collided with the issues surrounding it when they had a loved one murdered, were accused of murdering someone themselves or someone in their family was accused of murdering someone. Every story told involved an intense inner spiritual struggle of some kind as people grappled with the inequities in the legal system and how it eventually failed to provide justice, peace or closure.
An extended account of three of the stories of people who have had family members murdered and who were extremely angry at first can be found below this paragraph. These are not saints. These are real people who had all the normal reactions to horrendous crimes but revenge and anger could not heal the hole in their heart and they were propelled to go on an inner spiritual journey to seek other means to come to grips with their pain. These three important stories are at:
Mr. Ko from South Korea is representative of this journey so I will tell his story. One day he came home to find his wife, son and Mother all stabbed to death in a pool of blood. Of course he wanted to find and kill the person who did this. His disturbance and anguish made it impossible to sleep or work. Finally he decided to write out the Bible by hand. For hours every day he wrote with about two hours sleep each night. Eight months later he finished writing and felt that he must forgive the murderer. Resentment and the desire for revenge were killing him. It was a burden he could no longer carry.
When they caught the man it was learned he had killed 23 people. Mr. Ko received a small stipend from the government and he decided to share this money with the murderer and his family who were very poor. This unusual act of generosity might be enough to bring him to the attention of the public, yet Mr. Ko has become a media star in South Korea because of another decision he made which is unprecedented. In Korea there is terrible shame and stigma attached to having someone murdered in your family.
Victim's family members refuse to show their faces on TV or give interviews. Mr. Ko has done both and he has helped found the first organization for victim family members with his priest. He heard about the Journey of Hope and he wanted to understand more so he came to the US with a Korean TV crew to film his experience. He spoke to groups through his interpreter.
Terry Steinberg is a mother of four children, who’s oldest, Justin, now 26, was 20 when arrested and charged with murder. He now sits on Death Row in Virginia with one more year of appeals left. Justin was a good kid, a loving brother and son with so many things going for him that a murder charge was the last thing on earth his mother expected for him. Yet Justin, like so many young people his age, saw nothing wrong with the recreational use of marijuana or with selling it to friends. The turn of events that led him to be suspected of murder is too long to tell here but an overzealous prosecutor aided by the lying testimony of the man who was really the murderer resulted in a conviction.
Justin was never accused of committing the murder. He was convicted solely on the questionable word of the man who committed the murder, saying that Justin told him to kill the man (murder for hire being a capital offense). This murderer avoided the death penalty by testifying against Justin and received a lighter sentence. Instead, Justin got the Death Penalty. Much evidence has come to light since to prove Justin's innocence but legal technicalities and a system that seems to be indifferent at best and hostile at worst to the importance of the truth coming out has so far hampered the overturning of Justin's conviction. Many are not aware of the US Supreme Court's ruling in recent years that legal procedure is more important than innocence (this happened in a case in which a man was executed on a legal technicality even though it was certain he was innocent.)
Terry focuses her attention on speaking to young people, trying to warn them about the dangers of getting anywhere close to the drug scene where the possibility of getting linked to unforeseen criminal charges exist. Meanwhile she and her family, as well as her son, are victims of a legal system that doesn't go the extra mile when a person's life is at stake. She and her family endure ongoing torment while they hope and pray that Justin will come home one day to them and the promising life that was stretched out before him when this nightmare happened.
(For more, go to www.justice4justin.net ) .
One of the biggest windows into the failure of our legal system, especially in the area of capital (murder) cases, is the wrongful conviction and imprisonment on Death Row of innocents. Three of these innocent inmates who were exonerated were with us in Houston. Somehow these situations hit me harder than all the tragic stories I heard. I just kept thinking: "What could be worse than knowing you were going to be executed for a crime you didn't commit?" They explained that inmates on Death Row have experienced their execution MENTALLY thousands of times before they actually die.
It is the mental torture that destroys you. Just think how much greater that torture might be for someone who is innocent. That is why, even in the unusual case where innocence is legally proved and they are released, these men are never the same. It is similar to having been a POW. You never get over it mentally and your physical health frequently deteriorates with the terrible food and bad health care in prison. It is still difficult to get a job even when you have been exonerated just because of the stigma of having been accused of murder and being in prison.
Marriages dissolve, children grow up, and the thread of the life you were trying to live can never be picked up again. Very few of these people have even gotten an apology from the state -- let alone monetary compensation. It is the rare person who can pick up their lives again without great bitterness and go on with the semblance of a normal life.
Now that I've given you a little taste of the enormous irreparable damage that goes on in these cases, now imagine the courage and just plain guts it takes to go out publicly and speak about your experience. You have to make yourself vulnerable all over again as you tell your story -- literally let yourself hurt again. These men frequently broke down emotionally as they spoke even though it has been years since they were imprisoned. They do it because they are convinced that the percentage of innocent people waiting to die on Death Row is very high. The reason they think this becomes very clear as you begin to see the common themes that emerge from all the stories: the underfunded Public Defender services for poor people that cannot afford to hire a lawyer (and the refusal of the courts to rule that legal incompetence can be used as an issue to challenge the guilty verdict - this decided even when the public defender was drunk or sleeping in the courtroom); many overzealous prosecutors, looking for a notch on their gun and notoriety to bolster a run for public office.
So far 124 inmates on Death Row (more since writing this ) have been exonerated and freed from prison. I think this group of exonerees might be in the strongest position to create at least a little uncertainly in the public mind about the savage inequities in our legal system, a system which provides the "best justice money can buy." I have enormous respect for these men and what they're trying to do to help us all wake up. I know I woke up big time by just getting to be around all these incredible people.
Remember -- no saints here -- only real people who have been through enormous suffering and have somehow fought their way through to a bigger love, forgiveness and peace than most of us will ever know. Of course we could get there too if we were willing to pay the price. I haven't found such an enlarged sense of humanity since I was involved with the Civil Rights Movement when I saw people express amazing grace in the face of unbelievable physical violence against them and horrible injustices of all kinds.
During the Journey of Hope I felt my spirit, which had died so low within me (although somehow I had survived physically) come alive again! I felt the best in me start responding and planning a future for me that would be rich with meaning and purpose. I felt that somehow I had been let out of prison!
I reconnected with the possibilities of that magnanimous love so tangibly felt - very real in that group in Houston. What could this love do in action in a desperate world looking for answers? Words fail me. But I hope you get that somehow I got connected again with myself, others and my work in the world through these very special people.
• Mission: Education on the Death Penalty and how to go from violence to healing
• The Journey of Hope is the most powerful tool to change hearts and minds to bring about abolition of the Death Penalty.
•The Journey of Hope is led by murder victim family members conducting educational speaking tours addressing issues of the Death Penalty and alternative sentencing.
Accomplishments for Fiscal Year Ending May 30, 2007:
•17 day speaking tour of Virginia in October 2006
•Participated in Cities for Life in Africa, Italy, and Switzerland November 2006
•Participated in World Coalition Conference in Paris, France in February 2007
Objectives for Fiscal Year Beginning June 1, 2007
•17 day speaking tour of Texas October 12-28
•Major Fundraising events June 28 in conjunction with the 35th anniversary of the Furman
Decision that temporarily abolish the Death Penalty in 1972
•Major participant in the 14th annual fast and vigil at the US Supreme Court June 29-July 2
(Since then, of course, there have been many more events that have involved Journey of Hope participants including a number of speaking engagements for exonerees in the US and in Europe, particularly Italy and Spain . There have also been a number of power point and speaker presentations that have taken place back home put on by various participants.)
Chief Executive Profile for Bill Pelke:
Bill Pelke recently authored a book entitled -Journey of Hope...From Violence to Healing- which details the May 14, 1985 murder of his grandmother Ruth Pelke -- a Bible teacher -- by four teenage girls. Paula Cooper who was deemed to be the ringleader was sentenced to die in the electric chair by the state of Indiana. She was fifteen-years-old at the time of the murder. Pelke originally support the sentence of death for Cooper, but went through a spiritual transformation in 1986 after praying for love and compassion for Paula Cooper and her family.
Pelke became involved in an international crusade on Paula's behalf and in 1989 -- after over two million people from Italy signed petitions and Pope John Paul II’s request for mercy -- Paula was taken off Death Row and her sentence commuted to sixty years.
Bill, a retired steelworker, has dedicated his life to working for abolition of the Death Penalty. He shares his story of forgiveness and healing, and how he came to realize that he did not need to see someone else die in order to heal from his grandmother’s death. He also helps organize Journey tours nationally and abroad. Pelke has traveled to over forty states and ten countries with the Journey of Hope and has told his story over 5000 times!
NOTE: This organization is a 501(c)(3) Public Charity. Contributions are deductible, as provided by law. US Federal EIN #35-2022767Mr. Bill Pelke, President (877) 924-4483 Fax (907) 333-0435 email: bpelke@Journeyofhope.org
More information: http://www.journeyofhope.org
Love, Robin Radford
FINAL NOTE: Robin asked her friend, Terri--also a part of the JOH--for input. Here is her recent short note on forgiveness--so in keeping with Journey of Hope...
The taking of another life does not bring the peace and healing needed to keep going after a terrible loss. Nor does it honor or bring back the life of the loved one taken. Forgiveness is the key that opens your heart to love again, to fill the hole and emptiness left with the loss of the loved one. The death penalty only creates more victims, more grieving families, and adds a continuation in the cycle of violence.
Love, Terri Steinberg
We invite others to blog in response to Robin's heartfelt experience and/or send any other personal story related to forgiveness and transformation in the shadow of the death penalty. Maybe you are only in process--that's A-OK-- forgiveness takes time.
Please send your story or comment to Connie L. Nash firstname.lastname@example.org
or mail to PO Box 1267, Brevard, NC 28712