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Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Tennessee Journey

By Kathy Harris
The Tennessee Journey opened with a sold out benefit concert in Ryman Auditorium featuring Steve Earle, the Indigo Girls, Jackson Browne and Emmy Lou Harris. In the middle of the concert, Sister Helen Prejean talked about the Journey. She asked each member of the Journey who was a murder victims family member, or who had a loved one on Death Row, to come to the microphone and state their name and the name of their loved one. One after another they came onstage.
"My name is Lois Robison, and I have a mentally ill son, Larry, on death row in Texas."
"My name is Renny Cushing and my father, Robert Cushing, was shot to death in his home."
"My name is Sally Peck." "My name is Carol Duncanson. We are sisters, and our 82 year old mother, Bernice O’Connor, was raped and murdered."
My name is SueZann Bosler. My father, Reverend Billy Bosler, was stabbed to death in front of me. I was stabbed six times, but I survived."
"My name is Marietta Jaeger, and my 7 year old daughter, Susie, was kidnapped and killed."
"My name is Bill Pelke, my grandmother, Ruth Pelke, was murdered in Indiana."
"My name is Sam Reese Sheppard. My mother Marilyn, was murdered when I was seven years old and my father, Dr. Sam Sheppard was wrongfully convicted of her murder."
"My name is George White. My beloved wife Char was shot to death in front of me. Sixteen months later, I was charged with her murder."
"My name is Bud Welch. My daughter, Julie, was killed in the Oklahoma City bombing."
The audience was visibly moved by this group willing to stand up, share their painful experiences and say, "Don’t kill for me." Sister Helen led the applause. "These are some of the people who will be travelling in Tennessee for the next two weeks, sharing the testimony of their personal journeys from violence to healing, talking about how the death penalty does not help victims’ families heal."
As they walked offstage, Steve came out applauding and announced "Those guys are my heroes."
The morning following the concert, the group drove to Memphis, enjoying the sight of wild dogwoods and redbud trees in full bloom along the highway. A large crowd, along with the media, turned out for a tree planting at His Way Spiritual Growth Center. The victims family members dedicated the dogwood tree to their lost loved ones with each shovelful of dirt in a solemn ceremony. After a short lecture on the facts about the death penalty and dinner, members of the Journey spoke.
Renny Cushing, the executive director of Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation, moved many in the audience to tears with his story of how his father, Robert, was killed by a shotgun blast to the chest, in the front door of his home. He spoke of operating in the "dead zone", going through the motions of making funeral arrangements, listening to the painful details during the criminal trial, of the pain he felt when people tried to comfort him with "I hope they fry those people". Even the people who knew he opposed the death penalty assumed his father’s murder would change his mind. But Renny felt letting the man who murdered his father change the principals his father had instilled in him would be giving the killer too much power. He spoke of running into the son of the man who killed his father, also a Robert, Jr., in the parking lot at the courthouse. He found the compassion to tell him "We both lost our fathers that day."
As Bud Welch speaks, one gets to know his daughter, Julie, personally. He paints a beautiful picture of her as he shares how she discovered her love of language, lived as an exchange student in South America to improve her Spanish, worked as an interpreter for the social security office in Oklahoma City, and was on the verge of realizing her dream of becoming a school teacher, when the bomb went off. Although Bud wanted to kill Timothy McVeigh himself, he did not let this act of violence change his long held belief that the death penalty was wrong. While there was a public outpouring of sympathy for the families of the victims of the Oklahoma bombing, there was no one to offer sympathy for Timothy McVeigh’s father, who also lost a son that day. Bud Welch, was able to reach beyond his own grief and loss to go visit Timothy’s father and to tell him he didn’t blame him for his son’s actions.
The next day a small group spoke at Christian Brothers High School in Memphis. Felicia Draughon was the youngest of the group and spoke the language of the students. "Do you know what it’s like to have a brother on Death Row? It sucks!" Felecia told how her older brother had been raised in an abusive home, gotten involved in drugs, started robbing stores for drug money, shot a clerk in the course of the robbery, and was now on Death Row in Texas. One of the students asks how she explains her brother going so bad and her turning out okay, when they were both raised in the same abusive environment. "I was lucky, someone reached me. Kids need mentors, someone to reach out to them, like in Big Brothers Big Sisters. But some kids just get skipped over, like my brother. If you really want to make a difference in this world, reach out to a kid who needs attention, whether through an organization like Big Brothers Big Sisters or on your own."
Later that evening Steve Earle told a large group of college students about witnessing the execution of his pen pal of eleven years, Jonathan Nobles, in Texas. "In Jonathan’s final phone call to his mother she had asked him to sing for her, so as the poison flowed into his veins, he sang "Silent Night". When he got to the words ‘mother and child’, the breath rushed out of him like a cinderblock had been dropped on his chest, and he was gone. The death certificate said ‘homicide’. What else could they call it?"
Steve explains why he is spending two weeks with people from all over the country and all walks of life, sleeping in church basements and traveling by bus with the rest of the group. "Tennessee is my home state, and it’s too pretty of a state to start something as ugly as executing people."
The group traveled to Chattanooga and Knoxville and back to Nashville to deliver their message that the death penalty does not help victims families heal in the aftermath of murder, instead it creates more victim family members. In sharing their stories, they testify to the healing power of forgiveness. They offer themselves as living examples of rebuilding shattered lives in the aftermath of murder. SueZann Bosler, who barely survived an attacker who broke into their home and killed her father, explains "Sharing my story helps me in my healing process."
In Chattanooga, a woman approached one of the members of the Journey. "My brother was murdered a few years ago. A lot of energy went into finding and prosecuting the person who did it, but there was no one there to tell me how to heal, how to get on with my own life. I didn’t know there were people like you, and I’m so glad you’re here."
In a church in Chattanooga, Lois Robison told how she tried so hard to get her paranoid-schizophrenic son Larry the mental heath care he needed, only to be told he could not be institutionalized until he became violent. In his first and only act of violence, five people died horribly and Larry was sentenced to death. She has spent the last sixteen years trying to save her son’s life. After she spoke, a woman approached Lois and told her "I am an attorney in the federal prosecutor’s office. As attorneys we are discouraged from taking circumstances like yours into consideration, instead we are rated on how many cases we win. After listening to you today, I’m going to have to tell my boss I cannot prosecute capital cases any more."
With the grueling schedules and often spartan accommodations, one wonders why these people volunteer year after year for the Journey. But occasionally someone says, "I’ve always believed in the death penalty, but you’ve given me something to think about." For members of the Journey of Hope...from Violence to Healing, those are the responses that make the hardships of the journey worthwhile. As one local volunteer put it when the Journey left Memphis, "my body was exhausted, but my spirit was soaring!"