Last Wednesday, I took a short walk from my car to stand on the corner outside the old red prison walls of the Huntsville Unit as Texas killed Richard Masterson. Having led the nation for many decades, executions are a fairly routine event for Texans. Only the most ardent abolitionists show up to voice opposition. In those difficult hours as the sun started to set, I joined about a dozen others standing in defiance.
While there was really nothing I could do, I’ve never grown comfortable just standing there. The closer the moment gets the more restless I always become. I thought about charging the building. I knew that was just a fantasy. I was stuck. I started to pray. I couldn’t even understand my own prayers. I knew I couldn’t stop them. What good was I to Masterson now? Seeing me physically struggling, an old friend leaned over and said, “Your presence is enough.” The words of an old nun I heard long ago ruminated in my ears, “Presence is the antidote to killing.”
I don’t believe in killing people. When I was a child, I learned about God killing a bunch of people in a flood. Before I could give it a second thought, I decided I didn’t believe in that right then and there. God doesn’t kill people. We do. Over the years, I’ve clung to Jesus for guidance in the midst of the killing. While loving your neighbor as yourself has never been vogue, I’ve tried to spread the message as best as I can. Repeatedly in the midst of crisis, I’ve had to remind people that loving and killing don’t go together. There is no way to lovingly kill your neighbor. I figured that this was an exceedingly logical conclusion. Then, I moved to Texas.
While killing is terrible, it’s even worse to be around it and not do anything about it. When I moved here almost four years ago, I knew had to do something about the constant executions Texas was carrying out. Unfortunately, I didn’t know how to make a difference. From the shower to the car to the church to everywhere I went, I couldn’t think of anything else.
Then, the Spirit of God snuck up on me. At an interfaith breakfast in Dallas almost three years ago, a Buddhist monk named Tashi Nyima stood up and relayed a story about giving our bodies to conversations for justice. I knew what I needed to do. I needed to start walking. Since then, I’ve trekked and hosted events on a small group 35-mile journey from Dallas to Fort Worth, a solo 200-mile journey from Livingston (home of death row) to Austin and a solo 43-mile journey from Livingston to Huntsville (execution chamber). Just last year, I even got invited to help lead a couple of dozen walkers on an 80-mile journey for abolition in Ohio — from Lucasville (death row) to Columbus (execution chamber).
In moment after moment along the way, people have joined me and discovered their passion for abolition. Here in Texas, we have seen a steady increase in participation in abolition groups and a decline in new death sentences. Though the work is slow, I believe the death penalty is on the way out. I’m praying for a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court that the death penalty is unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment. Until then, I just try to be present. Truthfully, all of my journeys have led to moments where I wondered if I was doing anything productive. In those hours of struggle, the words of the old nun always come back, “Presence is the antidote to killing.”