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Monday, July 22, 2019

The Catholic Free Press

An incredible journey of hope

I received a phone call recently from a stranger, Joe Aranha, who became a friend within minutes.  A worker for New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty, he told me that in late April they were hosting a gathering called “Journey of Hope…from Violence to Healing” in the New York City area.  Having read my book, “Choosing Mercy” (Orbis), he asked if I would join them.

I am no stranger to NYADP.  The president of its board is Bishop Howard Hubbard of the Diocese of Albany, N.Y., an outstanding leader in both church and community.  The executive director is a close and dear friend, David Kaczynski, who opposes capital punishment because “it asks us to deny our human kinship.” I respect him for his tremendous courage, first when he had to face the truth that the killer known as the Unabomber was his brother Ted, and then when he found the strength to turn his brother in to the authorities so that no more people would be killed by him.

 I was also familiar with the Journey of Hope, which is an anti-death penalty movement started by Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation and a man named Bill Pelke to communicate the crucial importance of love and compassion and forgiveness to all people.  The leaders and speakers are family members of murder victims who oppose executions, believing these only perpetuate the cycle of violence.

When Aranha told me I would be one of four speakers for this Journey, working with Kaczynski, Pelke and a man I had yet to meet, George White, I said immediately, “Yes!” We would bring our message of life, emphasizing “please, don’t kill in our name,” to Fordham University, St. John’s University, several churches and organization, ending with a rally at Union Square Park in Manhattan.

I knew Pelke’s story which began when his beloved grandmother was murdered by a 15-year-old named Paula Cooper in Indiana in 1985.  This black teen-ager faced the death penalty, and at first Pelke thought “an eye for an eye” response was just.  But one day he suddenly “saw his grandmother crying, telling him he had to pray for “love and compassion for Paula Cooper and her family.”
Through his tears he knew then that he “no longer wanted Paula to die.”  Pelke began a successful international campaign to overturn her death sentence, aided immensely by two Italian priests and ultimately, by Pope John Paul II, who contacted the governor of Indiana.  The miracle came in the summer of 1989 when the Indiana Supreme Court overturned Cooper’s death sentence; instead, she would serve a 60-year prison term.  Now Pelke spends his life getting people to think about the wrongness of the death penalty, while “spreading seeds of love and compassion, forgiveness and reconciliation.”

As for White, in his store in Alabama in 1985 he and his wife were shot by an intruder.  She died in his arms, as he and his two children mourned.  Unbelievably, 16 months later, White was arrested, charged with his wife’s murder.  He spent two and a half years in prison before Alabama authorities acknowledged the trial had been unfair. Since then, putting bitterness aside, White stays on the Journey of Hope, begging others not to kill “in our names. Our hearts have bled enough.”