“I take comfort knowing today my pain stops, and I said a prayer that on this or any other day you may find peace in all of your hearts and may God forgive you all.”
These were the last words of death row inmate Joe Wood. The State of Arizona killed him July 23. I read several of the news accounts describing the spectacle. The story of finding forgiveness and peace doesn’t relate so much to the controversy of using experimental drugs. Rather it has to do with what rests in the hearts of people.
I prayed the rosary seven times as I sat in a small cinderblock room watching Joe gasp for air. He finally died one hour and 58 minutes later. In that time of prayer came oneness with Mary in my heart. I realized that no amount of screaming or pleading by me was going to stop what was unfolding. I, too, had to trust in God: “The ransomed of the Lord shall return, and enter Zion singing, crowned with everlasting joy; they meet with joy and gladness, sorrow and mourning flee away” (Isaiah 36:10).
After 12 years of death row ministry, I have developed some healthy relationships with several of the men and women who do the difficult work associated with the Arizona Department of Corrections. I have witnessed some great compassion by more than a few of them. This day I felt heavyhearted for them. Although they had a job to do and an institution to protect, their faces in the death chamber area told a story. The extreme amount of time it took for Joe to die was evidently troubling them as well.
A news reporter’s job is to gather news and information to keep the public informed about important events happening. Some go out into the field to get the story. The field these reporters arrived at proved to be unfamiliar to even the most seasoned. Although it was not my sister or father who was killed at the hands of Joe, I genuinely do suffer with the family members who were victimized. It was clear that after 25 years the pain remains in a wrathful state.
I am also saddened by the promise given so many years ago that the “elimination” of Joe will one day bring closure to the nightmare. He is dead now, but the agony remains and there is no healing yet. I shared the same physical space in the viewing area with those who fought to preserve Joe’s life. They scrambled to do whatever they could, but when it was all said and done it was impossible to miss the horror in their eyes.
What was truly in the heart of Joe Wood though? We spent a little over an hour together that morning. We spoke about the two-plus year journey we had together in Christ. Our discussion turned to the reality of what the day would offer: fear or love.
Joe asked if I could read some Scripture. I shared Psalm 23, Wisdom 3:1-9, Romans chapter 5, Romans 6:3-9, Romans 8:15-28, Romans 8:36-39, 1 Corinthians 15:50, 53-58, 2 Corinthians 4:14-5:1, Colossians 1:24, James 1:2-4, 1 John 3:1-3,11,13-15a,16-18, 1 John 4:7-21, 1 John 5:11-12, Revelation 21:1-5a, 6b-7, and Matthew 27-32. There was meaningful conversation over each of these.
After reading from 1 John, I asked Joe who his master was, fear or God’s love. He got the message. He was assured his death this day would not get the last word, love would. Then we talked about giving his life up as an offering, that what sometimes seems to be a curse holds the potential to be a great blessing, a blessing because of the cross. This day the blessing would be eternal life — supernatural life with God.
I asked him if he believed it was possible for God to make something good out of what was bad or seemed lost. I pointed to who he was many years ago and who he had become after encountering Christ. I assured him that God could use the darkness of this day, too, to end in good as well. He smiled and understood what I was saying. I told him fear was beneath him at this point in his journey, he belonged to Christ.
I told him that, as it is with all Jesus’ disciples, he was a little Christ and this day held some suffering in it that would end in glory, oneness with Christ. I also stated that this day was his day to be Simon of Cyrene. This day was his day to help carry the cross, to help Jesus in his own way for what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ (Col. 1:24).
I then described the irony of the day. This day which is meant to be a punishment will be filled with grace, if only you surrender your entire self to God, offering up all of the good and bad of your life to God, to lay every bit of it at the cross. I explained that it was a very useful day, a day that could bring peace unlike any other day in his life. A peace so powerful there would be no fear in the moment of truth. If he trusted perfect love and let it consume him, it would cast out all fear. We spoke about when Jesus appeared in the upper room and the very first thing He said and offered was shalom — peace be with you. Jesus was saying you are one with God, you are one with Me. I have reconciled you to Myself.
Three weeks ago, I had the privilege of baptizing Joe. That day was one of the most powerful physical experiences of the Holy Spirit. On the last day of his life on earth, I proclaimed the Gospel of John 6: 22-69 and met the power of the Holy Spirit again. Joe fell to his knees, he had perfect love for all that Christ did for him and he received the Body and Blood of his Savior for the first time in his life.
Today is a day for us to love without fear too. It is a day to pray: May we find peace and may God forgive us all! Ed Sheffer is a deacon of the Diocese of Tucson who has ministered for the past 10 years to inmates at Arizona State Prison in Florence in the death row unit.