Monday, December 31, 2007

A Few Of My Heroes

December 31st, 2007 2:45 AM

Like most people, I tend to get very introspective at this time of the year. It's very easy for me to focus on the negatives of the past year, the abundant disappointments. I know that the neural pathways for pessimism are well-established in my head, and sometimes it's very difficult to be positive. This past year, I have been trying to focus on what my brain is telling me to feel, and why, while maintaining a slight distance from it. In theory, this should allow me a better vantage point to examine the true reasons behind emotions like anger, bitterness, and the nearly ever-present sadness. Sometimes, I am able to see that I have absolutely no business feeling any of these mind-states. It doesn't always work, but I think I am better at self-evaluation now than I ever have been.

I rarely plan out these entries in advance, simply choosing to write about whatever topic comes to mind. I think I had some nebulous ideas for an "end of the year" summary, but when I began to draw out the battle map, I realized that placing artillery positions and envisioning lines of infantry advance were not really an apt analogy for the current state of my life. Yes, I am in a battle to save my life, but this is something deep in the background. Rather than pointing the klieg lights at some dark cesspools, I decided to turn them off, and take a look at a few people that produce their own illumination. This is long, long overdue. I have wanted to discuss a few of these individuals for many months, but trying to paint a picture of something truly beautiful can be a daunting task. Years ago, I remember reading a biography of one of the great Robber Barons of the American industrial revolution. In the prelude, the author, who was a relative nobody, discussed at great length the trepidation he felt in attempting to write an account of such a remarkable man. I didn't get what his problem was at the time. I do now.

This list is by no means comprehensive. There are many, many people who have brought some positive energy my way the past few years. I had to pick a few people out of a very worthy field of candidates - no easy task. In the end, I simply chose a few who were accustomed to a certain amount of public attention, so as to not make anyone feel uncomfortable.

These four selections are very different people. That said, they do bear some resemblances. I consider them to all be true disciples of Christ. I don't use the word "Christians" because I'm currently in the process of evaluating my feelings on that word. I have come to no conclusions yet, but it seems to me that this designator has lost a large portion of its meaning. I know what it is supposed to mean, what it once meant to be called a christian. I just don't think it means the same thing as it used to. I remember seeing a cartoon not too long ago. In the background stood an immense church, all shiny and manicured. Sitting on a bench in front of the church was a man, waiting on a bus. His clothes were slightly rumpled and his face bore a look of dejection and sadness. Next to him sat Jesus Christ, the same look upon his face. Over the man's head hovered one of those little text bubbles, which read, "They wouldn't let me in." Jesus responded with, "Don't feel bad, they wouldn't let me in either." Sometimes I think that the modern church has lost itself. When I think of "christians," I think of Jerry Falwell, telling CNN that the World Trade Center was destroyed because there were homosexuals inside. I think of minister after minister, "in hoc signo vinces" plastered to their chests, claiming from the pulpit that war is justified because it is waged on evil men who believe in something different than you do, and that the scarred and smoking bodies on FoxNews are somehow God's will. I think of the countless letters I receive from "believers" explaining to me that they know so much about the Bible that they can say with zero prevarication that there is no forgiveness for murderers, and I think about the fact that the single largest supporter or the Death Penalty in this country is the Southern Baptist Church (pro-life, huh?). I think of a rich, fat nation that seems to want nothing more than to wall itself off from everyone else, the lesser people. I haven't been able to wrap my mind around why this term, which is supposed to be synonymous with love and compassion, is so laced with poison to me. Certainly there are good, noble christians in the world. Generalizing is a good way to look like a jerk, so why can't I move past the idea that the modern church has become the Pharisees of the modern age? I don't know the answer to that yet, but I realized that I was being hypocritical by judging the church. So, I guess I've been trying to simply focus on the few feet around me, and what I can do inside that range. When I did this, I was able to see things more clearly. I realized that these ministers who carry the GOP battle standards of war were just like Joan of Arc storming the boulevards around Orleans, and we all know what happened to her. I realized that the enemy is pretty gifted at making normal people feel very afraid, and when people are afraid, they don't have to feel empathy for anyone. I realized that some people simply have to push others down, because if they aren't standing over the corpses of other men, they don't have any other barometer of their worth, and therefore no voice telling them that they are ok. So, I shrug it off (or try to) when I see another 1500-dollar-suit-wearing preacher trying to convince his flock that it's important to the Kingdom of God for him to fly to work in a helicopter. I write back some of these seemingly irate people, with the focus on trying to help them see the real reasons for their anger. The woman who explained to me that I was hell-bound because I was a murderer is now a friend. She admitted to me that she didn't really know why she wrote me, that she was going through a tough time, and that I was a convenient target. Besides, she said, some of her favorite Bible characters were murderers, such as Moses, King David, and Paul. By allowing me to place some form of buffer between me and my thoughts on the church, I was better able to truly appreciate the people in my life. So, I give you a few of my heroes. A votre sante.

Here on the row, faith is basically left up to you. In more than nine months, I've yet to see a TDC chaplain. There is no church. Freeworld ministers typically will not touch letters from you with a ten-foot pole. Trust me, I know. I've seen many men wither and die inside, from lack of fellowship. Fighting this tide, wielding figurative great swords, are two very unlikely warriors. Both are women, and both are over the age of eighty. I have mentioned in past entries that Level 1 inmates are allowed one 2-hour visit per week. In addition to this, TDC permits visits by accredited ministers, though, for some reason I cannot fathom, they put severe limits on how many total minister visits there can be per week. This means that spiritual advisors must call on the first day of the month early in the morning to try to snatch up these few time slots. Irene Wilcox, wife of the former Death Row chaplain when the Row was housed at the Ellis Unit, comes every single weekday, to be a friend to the men around me. Many of these men get no personal visits, so she is often the only light for them in a very dark world. She brings her own money, enough to buy a sandwich and a coke for the men she sees. Irene has a lot of history battling from within the belly of the beast. Her husband was fired by TDC when he objected to the conditions here at the Polunsky Unit. It seems that having sympathetic chaplains in prison is a no-no. So, she wages an internal battle, trying to moderate her dislike for the system, so that she can still come every day. Her flock, after all, needs her. I'm sure she could come up with some things she would rather be doing every day than walking through metal doors and sitting on hard plastic chairs. And yet, she is still here. Even after having major surgery, she showed up. She does it because she knows the system, and that most of us are not only at death's door, but well inside death's hallway, scrounging through death's frigerator for one of death's cold ones. She does it because she cares.

Major Kathryn Cox, of the Salvation Army, drives down from Dallas every week to visit men on Thursdays and Fridays. She has been a vehement critic of the system, traveling across the state to attend retrials, to console and support men in their last hours. She runs a Bible study program, which is equivalent to the first two years of Seminary, all of which costs nothing to thousands of incarcerated men all over the nation. She has the energy of a 20 year old, and freely admits to being "blessed" with bipolar disorder, as it allows her to better understand the men on the other side of the glass. She possesses perhaps the largest collection of art made by DR inmates, and it is my hope that one day I will be able to display some of this in the art section of this site. I don't know how many executions she has witnessed, but I do know that it has not bowed her down. I think it would take a 20-megaton cluster of MIRVs to bow her down. She seems almost immortal to me.

Tina Hutchison, founder of Holding Out Hope ministries, first wrote me several months ago. Her letter reached me at a very dark time in my life, and she has been a constant friend to me. Holding Out Hope consists of over 60 individuals who go into woman's prisons (primarily in Tennessee, but also in many other states as well) to minister and lead the choir every week. They have a pen-pal program, as well as mentorship programs. They collect pens and paper for the women to use. Tina considers it an honor to go to prisons all over the country, fighting the good fight. I remember she told me once that she likes to go into the "hole" and scream at the top of her lungs, "YOU ARE NOT FORGOTTEN!" You can learn more about Tina and HOH at

The last person I want to talk about is my father. Most of you know the story in general terms, though of course that really doesn't tell the story. Honestly, I don't even feel worthy to talk about the level of love and forgiveness he has displayed the last few years. He's in the final editing phase of his own account of the events centered on December 10th, 2003, to be released in 2008. I'll put the exact details on this site when they become available to me.

He makes the drive up to Livingston nearly every week, and I don't think I could ever explain how these visits are a lifeline, keeping my head above a stormy sea. I always feel better after I talk with him. Though his involvement in this site has ended, his support in other areas of my life is constant. He has been instrumental in my quest to go back to school. I'm not sure that a perfect exemplar of what God wants us to be exists on this planet, be he's as close to it as I have found. He has helped me to move past the image of God that is natural to a lot of novice believers, mainly, a set of religious beliefs that is very formulaic. A view that pins "god" to a series of charts and diagrams. I call this view the "Santa Claus" god. Basically, the idea that God is some guy who sits up north and simply rewards good behavior and punishes bad acts. I now see my connection with God as a relationship, something that would have been impossible if I had not already had the task of reforming my relationship with my earthly father. Seem like a convenient analogy? It does to me, too. What can I say? I needed God to make it obvious to a dummy like me, or I would have missed it. If you don't understand what I meant by that last bit, think about it for a bit. It will come to you.

As I mentioned earlier, I could probably go on for many pages. I write a large number of people, all over the planet. I learn something unique from each of them, whether it is maranasati techniques from R&D in England, or great discussions on the Byzantine ruins from S in Istanbul. For someone who claimed for years that I was, in fact, an island unto myself, I must admit that opening myself up to others has been one of the greatest pleasures of my life. I thank you all.

© Copyright 2007 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker.
All rights reserved.

1 comment:

Lynn said...

"I realized that some people simply have to push others down, because if they aren't standing over the corpses of other men, they don't have any other barometer of their worth, and therefore no voice telling them that they are ok" -- Read your quote over and over a few times Thomas. You might get the gist sooner or later