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Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Tom White

Abe spoke of his experience with the 1993 Journey of Hope in Indiana and I know we all hear these stories over and over, but I wanted to add that it was one of the most profound experiences of my life. I was a 21-year old college student just looking to spend the summer with my dad. He told me about a group of people who were congregating in Indiana and were going to travel around the Midwest for 2 weeks in the scorching heat to protest the death penalty and he asked me to go with him. I knew my father was anti-death penalty because of conversations we'd had about his job at the time as a Mitigation Investigator, and I'd even written a paper for a college class looking at "International Views on the Abolition of the Death Penalty"...but this whole Journey thing was a different monster for me. I was 21 and wanted to do what "normal" college kids do on their summer break...go to the beach, play hoops and generally just GOOF OFF. In my mind, all I could envision were a bunch of radical hippies with picket signs getting dragged away by the police as they protested at some prison and that was probably LAST on my list of ways to spend my summer vacation.

I did finally agree to go to Indiana so that I could hang out with my dad, but to tell you the truth, I wasn't looking forward to the trip. That all changed the moment I walked into the door of the campground cafeteria where everyone was meeting. I walked in expecting to see long-haired hippies with tie-dyed shirts on, but instead I was met by a group of people who were just like me. You see, I lost my mother to murder when I was 12 and until the day I walked in that door in Indiana, the only people I knew who had lost a loved one to murder was my own family. My father and I walked into the cafeteria during a portion of the evening that I call "sharing and caring".

At the end of each day of the Journey, the group would all circle up and share what had happened during the day. Well, being the first day of the Journey, instead of sharing what had happened during the day, each person shared information about who he or she was and what brought them to the Journey. To say the least, I sat there fighting every emotion possible as I heard the horrible stories of murder and violence that had affected each person's life. With each story I grew angrier and could not understand myself why these people were here "protesting" the death penalty. Then my father got up to speak...he stated that he was there for my sister and me and for the other survivors who'd been affected by my mother's death. He stated that he'd spent 2 years and 103 days wrongly accused and locked up in an Alabama prison and for many of those days he dreamt of how he'd take vengeance on the person/persons who'd done this to him and his family. But he stated that he no longer felt that need for vengeance...he felt a need to forgive and heal and live again. My father had seen death face-to-face and he wanted no more blood on his hands. As my father stood there in front of these strangers saying these things that I'd never heard or possibly had never chosen to hear, a sense of calm came over my body and a warmth came into my heart. For so long, I too, had been walking with a black cloud surrounding my heart. The hatred I felt had not allowed me to heal and do what God had meant for me to do when he put me on this earth...LIVE! I felt that if my father, even with all the horrendous things that had happened to him, could forgive and attempt to heal then so could I. But it didn't stop there...a few days later I left our campsite on a Journey of my own to either Purdue University or Indiana University. I believe I was with Bill Lucero and Ken Coates. I remember sitting there listening and looking at the reaction of each student as Bill and Ken addressed my peers.

As the presentation drew to a close one of the students asked or rather stated, "I doubt you'd feel that way about the death penalty if someone in your family was murdered." I had been quiet until then but as soon as the statement left the student's mouth I spoke up and stated that it had happened to me and I was against the death penalty. I spoke about my mother's death and the events surrounding it and how I'd come to my decision on the death penalty. The class asked a few questions and with Bill and Ken's help I answered some questions but I was still a little unsure if I should have spoken out. As I was walking out of the classroom, a young woman pulled me aside and as she introduced herself a tear ran down her face. She stated that she'd lost a family member to murder and that she'd been torn apart by where she stood both on the issue of the death penalty and how to go on living. You see, she was like outwardly happy-go-lucky college student carrying around a black cloud inside and struggling just to live each day. Until that day, she said she'd never met anyone who'd had a similar experience, felt the same emotions or even struggled to go on like she had. She handed me her email address and asked if she could write me and then thanked me for being there. We exchanged email messages for a while and unfortunately we lost touch during our many moves during and after college. But during these exchanges she shared with me that by speaking out from my heart that day, that I had really helped her realize that it's okay to mourn, it's okay to be mad, but it's also alright to heal and to go on living. She in turn showed me the power and effect that the Journey has and the good that it can do.

I've had the opportunity to spend time on a couple more Journeys but it will always be that first one that I remember most fondly, because it was there that my life began again. It is also there that I was adopted by one of the greatest extended families one could ever ask for. What brought us all together was a horrible act of violence and a common cause but what makes us all so unique is our ability to love and forgive and our willingness to share our most painful memories in order to help others heal. I can only hope that each time a Journey-member goes out and speaks that they take with them the love that they shared with me that night in Indiana. Because you not only changed a point of view on the death penalty, you saved a life and taught me what it was like to live again.

Thank you to Ernest James Jr., Bill Pelke, Sam Reese Sheppard, Sunny Jacobs, Marietta Jaeger, Bob Gross, SueZann Bosler, Shirley Dicks, Abe Bonowitz, Ken, Bill Lucero, Mike Lawson, Mike Heath (and many others who were on that 1st Journey and others who've become part of my family along the way)...and most of all thank you to Christie White, the best little sister a guy could have and the one who always kept me going, and George White, who is not only my father, my confidant and my friend but also my hero.

Keep fighting the good fight and know that for every 100 people you speak to on the Journey, you may only affect 1 person...but know, that one person could be someone like me.

I love you all,

Tom White,