Charles Shelby Rooks reading names of persons who had died from AIDS. The reading took place in October 1989 at a Washington, D.C., display of the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. Bill Johnson photo.
The Rev. Charles Shelby Rooks, an influential leader in the United Church of Christ and in the African-American religious community, died Saturday, May 19, 2001, at Sentara General Hospital in Norfolk, Va., from complications following heart surgery. He was 76.
A memorial service will be held July 28 at 2 p.m. in the Amistad Chapel of the United Church of Christ's Church House in Cleveland. In lieu of flowers, the Rooks family has asked that donations be made to the Rooks Scholarship Fund, UCC Local Church Ministries, 700 Prospect Avenue, Cleveland, OH 44115-1100.
Headed Homeland Board
Rooks had a long career as pastor, scholar and administrator. He was executive vice president of the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries from 1984 until his retirement in 1992.
As president of Chicago Theological Seminary from 1974 to 1984, he was the first African American to lead a predominantly white theological school.
Earlier, he had headed the Fund for Theological Education, Princeton, N.J., and had been pastor of Lincoln Memorial Temple UCC in Washington, D.C.
"Shelby's commitment to theological education and the public responsibility of the church will be an enduring legacy for a church seeking leaders sensitive to the Gospel's demands of justice," says the Rev. John H. Thomas, General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ.
As the Board for Homeland Ministries' chief executive officer ? based in New York City until 1989, and from 1990 on in Cleveland ? Rooks oversaw programs involving outlays of $20 million a year in health and welfare, higher education, evangelism and church extension, Christian education, publication and social justice ministries.
Major black religious leader Rooks strengthened the UCC's educational ministries and supported a strong AIDS ministry as well as ministries for the homeless and for community action. Throughout his career, he advocated the training of African-American church leaders. He was founding president of the Society for the Study of Black Religion and served for 14 years with the Fund for Theological Education in Princeton.
For African Americans, Rooks said, "The truth is this: only religion provides the consistent meaning and value that enables oppressed people not only to survive, but to overcome their problems and difficulties."
Author Henry J. Young lists Rooks as one of 14 major black religious leaders since 1949 along with the likes of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
Rooks himself was a frequent writer and lecturer. His articles appeared in more than 30 journals. He wrote three books: "Revolution in Zion: Reshaping African-American Ministry" (New York City: The Pilgrim Press, 1989); "The Hopeful Spirit" (New York City: The Pilgrim Press, 1987), and "Rainbows and Reality" (Atlanta: The ITC Press, 1985).
Beyond the Homeland Board, Rooks had a long record of service to denominational and ecumenical boards and councils. For many years, he chaired the board of directors of the UCC's Office of Communication, helping to shape a program to combat discrimination in broadcasting.
He also chaired the seminary section of the denomination's Council on Higher Education and served the National Council of Churches on the boards of its Department of Ministry, Division of Church and Society, and Commission for Higher Education.
Rooks was born Oct. 19, 1924, in Beaufort, N.C. His family's roots in the UCC tradition extend as far back as 1879, when his great-great granduncle, Michael P. Jenkins, organized a Congregational church in Beaufort. He subsequently lived in Harlem and Brooklyn, N.Y., and in Norfolk, Va., where he graduated from Booker T. Washington High School.
Following military service, Rooks earned a B.A. degree from Virginia State University in 1949 and an M. Div. degree in 1953 from Union Theological Seminary in New York. He did additional graduate study at Columbia University Teachers College in New York, England's Mansfield College of Oxford University, The North American College in Rome, Italy, and the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas. He held honorary degrees from nine institutions.
Rooks is survived by his wife of nine months, the former Elaine Hunter Young; sons Laurence G. Rooks of Gilbert, Ariz., and William P. Evers of Mequon, Wis.; stepson Dr. James E. Young of Perrysburg, Ohio, and seven grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his wife of almost 53 years, the former Adrienne Martinez of New Orleans, and his daughter, Carol.
Cards should be sent to Elaine Rooks at 1065 Grand Oak Lane, Virginia Beach, VA 23455.
Hans Holznagel is assistant to the UCC Collegium for community life.
I have been having an e-mail exchange with a friend in another Conference, who is a few years into ministry in his first church. The congregation has just done a pastoral "evaluation" and he doesn't know what to do with some of the responses. They are anonymous and some of the comments, to him, seem to come out of the blue.
One of the most common calls to a Conference office has to do with clergy evaluations. I have been giving the whole issue some thought. Let me share some of those thoughts with you.
Ministry is a dialogue between a pastor and congregation or, in the case of non-parish ministry, the setting for ministry. To evaluate only one part of that dialogue is always going to be insufficient.
There is a need for regular constructive criticism of both clergy and the ministry setting.
When evaluations are focused only on the pastor, or done very irregularly, they too often become tools of destructive criticism cloaked in anonymity. People who are happy are not as likely to respond as people who have "issues" with the pastor.
Pastors cannot be evaluated as "employees" and that is very difficult for congregations to understand.
Every congregation has basic expectations of its pastor. Some of these expectations can be evaluated with precision. Is there an expectation of regular office hours? Do services start on time, or is the pastor always late? Is the pastor available, with some regularity, to parishioners?
Some expectations are very subjective. No one can please everyone. Many people will like sermons that others do not appreciate. Some people want pastoral visits and others do not. Pastors can only visit in the hospital if they are told that people are there. No single instrument can give the kind of helpful feedback that would come from regular and open conversation with the clergy.
People may be drawn to a ministry by a pastor's reputation or presence in the community. People choose to stay and become part of a ministry only if the congregation is a welcoming and comfortable space that provides an opportunity for them or their children to find a place. Yet, if congregations do not grow numerically, the blame is most often directed towards the pastor.
A coach cannot win games or score points if the team refuses to leave the bench or expects the same one or two people to play all the positions. It isn't fair then to blame the coach for an ineffective team.
It is important for clergy to do some regular reflective and honest self-evaluation. This is one of the reasons that clergy clusters and ecumenical clergy support groups are important.
While there are some, I know very few pastors who are still in effective and healthy ministries after having been in the same place for more than 15 years.
It is just as essential that congregations or ministry settings evaluate their life and organization as it is that they evaluate their pastor.
Spiritual health is as important for pastors as it is for congregations. It is hard for pastors to maintain spiritual health when destructive dynamics are in place.
Years ago a research team under the leadership of Kenneth Underwood did an evaluation of campus ministries. The report of this committee reflected that an effective ministry functioned well when there was a balance of four areas, pastoral, priestly, prophetic and governance. I have found that to be a helpful way to look at and evaluate the broad scope of ministry.
Is there pastoral work being done with regularity? Is the priestly role being fulfilled by presiding at funerals, weddings, baptisms, communion and public events calling for the presence of clergy? Is this a ministry that addresses the issues of life and the world in prophetic fashion? The prophets of the Old Testament took the issues of the world and lifted them to God in prayer and study of the scripture and then reflected to the people regarding justice, faithfulness and truth. Finally, governance. Does the ministry provide attention to the basic administrative details of the ministry and the institution?
An unevaluated ministry, of an individual or a congregation, easily becomes lopsided after a while. Congregations become spiritually drained when they spend most of their energy on governance issues and committee meetings.
Pastors who are deeply committed to prophetic issues often overlook pastoral presence or governance responsibilities. Pastors who spend all their time in pastoral care often neglect the issues around them that require a prophetic response.
Evaluation of clergy and ministry settings should be based on the common understanding that our call is to be faithful to the teachings of Jesus Christ and the presence of the Holy Spirit. To be effective, an evaluation must be done with openness and honesty and involve the desire for constructive and faithful growth of all parties involved.
The Rev. Lynne M. Simcox is Interim Conference Minister of the UCC's Rocky Mountain Conference and former chair of the Council of Conference Ministers Cabinet.
The UCC's Parish Life and Leadership team in Local Church Ministries is currently evaluating documents produced for clergy evaluation, in preparation for updating them and simplifying them for use in local churches. To join the discussion on this issue click here.
When the latest UCC Statistical Handbook arrived, there were no surprises. Consistent with mainline denominational trends, UCC membership continues to decline. While there are a few hopeful signs, it takes the guidance of experts such as Kirk Hadaway and Sheila Kelly in UCC Research Services to find them.
In 1999 membership declined by 19,406 members (1.37 percent). We lost 77 congregations, 41 of which withdrew from the UCC (6,387 members). We also added 21 congregations (nine new church starts, six pre-existing congregations joined and six former UCC churches were reinstated.)
New church starts are especially encouraging since 39.5 percent of the newer churches grew more than 10 percent. A look at membership growth within UCC congregations as a whole shows that while 15.9 percent are growing, 32 percent are declining and 52.1 percent show no change.
Taken together, these figures show that the greatest opportunities for growth lie in starting new churches and energizing the majority of churches that show no change.
"Mainstream denominations are affected by the culture and demographics, but all the evidence suggests that they would be declining less if they put more emphasis on outreach and new church development," say Hadaway and his colleague, David Roozen, in their book, "Rerouting the Protestant Mainstream."
What about evangelism?
Evangelism has been a dirty word in mainline line circles since the 1950s. In fact, according to one pastor, even in the 1990s our anti-evangelism bias was so strong that a campaign emerged with buttons that said, "Evangelism is not a dirty word."
"[Church] attendance was steered by heritage, habit, and social status," says the noted business guru, Peter Drucker. Gallup polls in the 1950s showed that 49 percent of the U.S. population said they had attended a church or synagogue within the last seven days. The failure to value evangelism is a holdover from the 1950s, when church attendance was downright fashionable.
According to "Rerouting the Protestant Mainstream," large numbers of baby-boomers on church rolls stopped going to church around college age—but failed to return later. The pattern had been that young adults returned with their children. This would have helped stem mainline church membership decline.
Failure to adapt
Instead, boomers became religious consumers, which includes the choice of not going to church and getting religious meaning elsewhere.
"The fading of Christian or other religious tradition as a constraint and guide for choice means that individuals are increasingly on their own in developing what we call a lifestyle," says Hadaway.
A famous Harvard Business Review article showed that the railroad went out of business for one reason: It saw itself in the railroad business instead of the transportation business. Had railroads decided to build networks that included other modes of transportation such as trucks, buses, and airplanes, they would have grown beyond belief. While railroads remained stuck in old ways of doing business, changes all around them moved them into obsolescence.
Similarly, according to Hadaway and Roozen, "a sizable proportion of church members in mainstream denominations don't care whether their churches grow or not...they are uncomfortable with evangelism and they like their church the way it is."
Growing UCC churches are different. Hadaway has analyzed the data and presents some surprising and hopeful correlates for church growth. Churches having one or more of the following qualities are more likely to grow:
Liberal or progressive members,
Use of strings and woodwind instruments in worship,
Use of contemporary music,
Social justice work,
High proportion of new members,
Members who are excited about their church's future,
Congregation that is spiritually vital and alive,
Exciting worship services,
Lack of conflict.
There are 10 UCC churches and three Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) congregations among writer-professor Paul Wilkes' recently released list of "The Best Christian Churches." (click here for article.) "It's not a matter of location, and it's not a matter of denomination or lack of it," says Wilkes. "These churches have found out that doing church like they've always done doesn't always work...Churches need to take risks, to be open to change, to make mistakes and bounce back."
These are not the only churches within the UCC taking risks and doing great things. There are others. Wilkes' list, for example, does not include any congregations from our Evangelical and Reformed tradition, says the Rev. John H. Thomas, UCC General Minister and President. "Churches like Old First Reformed in Philadelphia belong on this list as well," he says.
Ron Buford, the UCC's public relations and marketing manager, takes a keen interest in statistics.
Please send copies of brochures, ads, welcoming programs, or other materials that have worked especially well in your local setting to Ron Buford, UCC PIC, 700 Prospect Ave., Cleveland OH 44115-1100.
Dr. Robin Meyers argued a petition for clemency for Wanda Jean Allen on Friday, Dec.15, 2000, at 1 p.m. at the Lexington Penitentiary in Lexington, Okla. The following is the sermon Meyers delivered to his congregation on Dec.10, 2000.
When I say from this pulpit, as I often have, that the only thing anyone knows for certain, is that not a single one of us knows anything for certain, I am speaking from experience—and that's what makes for real preaching. If the maxim in writing is to "write what you know," then it should be true of preaching as well—it ought to be about the world as it really is, not just about the world as we hope it might be someday.
Months ago, the phone rang, and the voice on the other end of the line extended an invitation to me that has changed my life in ways I would never have expected, and put me at the center of something bigger than all of us put together. The voice belonged to Steve Presson, whose Norman, Okla., law firm, Jackson and Presson, handles many of Oklahoma's death row cases. He is, I was soon to learn, a regular listener to the weekly Mayflower Congregational UCC radio program—and as a result of listening to those sermons on the radio, had decided to approach the clemency process for a pending execution in a completely new way.
We decided to meet at my favorite, funky little coffee house, The Red Cup, and when we pulled up our chairs, stirred in our steaming cups of Java, and started talking, I quickly realized I was about to take the first step down the road less traveled—and as Robert Frost said in that magnificent poem, it really does make all the difference—because once the first step is taken, there is no turning back.
What Mr. Presson explained to me was, that in his years of defending death-row inmates, nothing had ever convinced a pardon and parole board to grant clemency, even though in Oklahoma we have the option to commute sentences to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He said there have been the usual approaches to clemency hearings—weeping relatives, emotional expressions of remorse, pleas for forgiveness and whatever other evidence could be presented which sought to show that the offender was short-changed in the legal process, which so often happens in our criminal justice system these days because it is certifiably broken. But nothing works.
Of the five members of Oklahoma's pardon and parole board, three were appointed by Governor Frank Keating who, together with [then] Texas Governor George W. Bush, is the most pro-death penalty governor in America. A Roman Catholic, Keating's pro-death penalty statements are in direct conflict which his church's official teaching. But this has not deterred him from making public statements, including his belief that the death penalty actually upholds the sacredness of human life, and the Pope himself, while an admirable man, is simply mistaken when it comes to the death penalty.
And so Oklahoma, which seems to me to be in a kind of undeclared race with Texas to see who can kill the most people as a way of proving how wrong it is to kill people, has proven to be an almost hopeless place for death row inmates. And Mr. Presson said that he and his legal team had decided to try something that had never been tried before: to ask a minister to make an appeal for clemency based not just on legal issues, but on moral and ethical ones as well.
"I have come to believe," Mr. Presson explained, "that lawyers do not have the moral authority to make the kind of arguments that often need to be made in death penalty cases. That takes someone who knows the Bible and is able to offer a second opinion when it comes to the prevailing religious assumptions of this state, which is that God is in favor of what we are doing—after all, 'an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth'—take a life, forfeit your life."
But then, of course, we know that it really doesn't work that way. You can kill people these days, sometimes a whole bunch of people, and if you have the right defense, the right skin color, the right connections, you will not get the death penalty. There are no rich people on death row. And if you are O.J. Simpson, of course, you can get away with murder, because you can afford the Dream Team.
Not so with Wanda Jean Allen, who shot and killed her lesbian lover, Gloria Leathers, in front of the Village Police Department 12 years ago, after an extended argument escalated into a tragedy. Exactly what happened that day we'll never know for sure, but this much is certain—the crucial element of pre-meditation, which Oklahoma law requires for the death penalty, was alleged, but could never be proved. It was a crime of passion and, paradoxically, we know that it is easier to kill someone we love, especially when we are about to lose them, than it is to kill a stranger.
Nevertheless, Wanda Jean had indeed done the killing and confessed to the crime. And because she had met Gloria Leathers in prison, where she was serving time on a previous manslaughter conviction, she was viewed as a woman who could not control her violent impulses and could not function in society. Prison, it seemed, was where Wanda Jean Allen would have to spend the rest of her life.
She secured an attorney, and he agreed to take the fee for what he assumed would be a second manslaughter charge, $5,000. But the family had almost nothing to pay him and scraped together $800—agreeing to take a second mortgage on the house to pay the rest.
At the pre-trial hearing, the attorney was shocked to learn that the prosecution would seek the death penalty, and because he had never tried a capital case and felt unqualified to do so, begged the judge to be released from the case. The judge refused. He asked the judge to provide a public defender for Wanda Jean, and he would agree to act as counsel for no additional fee. The judge refused. No investigator was provided. Critical evidence about her mental condition (she has an IQ of 69, which borders on mental retardation) was never introduced at the trial—and so, for $800, and with the help of an attorney who didn't want the case and wasn't qualified to try it, Wanda Jean Allen was given the death sentence.
The prosecution characterized Wanda Jean Allen as a monster who hunted down and killed her victims, and because of her sexual orientation, referred to her repeatedly as the "man" in the relationship. Come to think of it, given what I know about homophobia in this state, many people may not even consider that we are about to execute the first woman ever in Oklahoma—because they really think of her as a man.
As for being a monster, I can tell you, after having spent hours with Wanda Jean, there is absolutely nothing monstrous about her. To the contrary, she has become a deeply religious woman—and not at the last moment, either—not as a last-minute, born-again strategy in hopes of gaining some religious advantage, but as a person who is demonstrably religious.
The first time I ever visited Wanda Jean, we all walked into a room together, and she said, "Let's begin with prayer." Well, I'm used to that, so I was all set to begin, and suddenly, it was Wanda Jean who started praying! Now, I get handwritten notes in the mail from Wanda Jean about once a week, telling me what scriptures to read so I will not be discouraged. "Don't you worry," she said to me recently. "This is all in God's hands now, and we are all being used for a greater purpose. We can't only trust in ourselves, but we have to give it all over to Him." Sometimes I'm not sure who the minister is, and who is being ministered unto.
What's more, she has been a model prisoner at Mabel Bassett, and is one of the most popular inmates ever incarcerated there. She often leads other inmates in worship, quotes more scripture than most church folk even know, and found out recently just how much she means to the rest of the prison population there.
When her final appeal was denied, over 200 inmates circled her lock-down unit, her "condo" as she calls it, and sang and prayed for her. All of them signed a letter asking that she not be executed, because she has become someone who means something to them, who is doing what good she can—despite the fact she is in lock-down 23 hours a day.
Her execution date is scheduled for Thursday, January 11, by lethal injection at McAlester. If she is not granted clemency [this coming Friday], I will accompany her to the death house, spend her last hours with her, and then witness her execution. And although I have seen many people die in my ministry, I have never seen anyone killed—in this case a strong, handsome, 41-year-old woman who will be given a final meal, strapped down to a large metal gurney, and injected with poison.
The state of Oklahoma is killing her for you, and for me—the citizens and taxpayers of Oklahoma. They do it assuming that most of us want this, and sadly, the majority of Oklahomans still do. But what politicians don't realize is that Americans are in the midst of rethinking the death penalty, and even changing their minds about it—but the people in power don't have the message yet.
What's more, this national queasiness cuts across traditional, political and even religious traditions. Republican governor George H. Ryan of Ill., called for a moratorium on the death penalty, citing a corrupt, even inept, criminal justice system. And more remarkable yet, Pat Robertson has publicly shared his misgivings about the death penalty—claiming that Christians ought to be more about mercy than about vengeance.
I don't know if people even understand how remarkable that is, and I can only attribute the silence and lack of publicity about his remarks to the fact that this prominent leader of the Religious Right was not saying what his people wanted to hear—which by the way, means that for the first time in his life, he may have been preaching the gospel!
Because the truth is, we don't want to hear it. We would much prefer to stay with the God of vengeance and wrath when it comes to the death penalty—the God whom, it was assumed, had authorized the death penalty for 38 offenses in the Old Testament, from adultery (which nobody seems anxious to bring back as a capital offense), to a woman who married but wasn't a virgin (she could be stoned to death), to a young boy who talked back to his father (he could be executed also—talk about tough love).
What I will be trying to do at the state penitentiary in Lexington is ask that the pardon and parole board members, all of whom are Christians, consider the New Testament for a change. Especially the passage in the Sermon on the Mount, the most important sermon ever preached in the history of the world, the Constitution of the Christian faith, where Jesus directly cites the "eye for an eye" passage for reinterpretation.
"You have heard it said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth (past tense...that is the old way), but I say to you (present tense...this is the new way, the New Covenant), if a man strikes you on one cheek, turn also to him the other...pray for your enemies...never return evil for evil." When you come right down to it, clemency is about forgiveness, and forgiveness is the hardest lesson of the faith. It's easy to talk about, but almost impossible to practice. And how many times are we commanded to forgive? Seven times? No, 70 times seven, which as Wanda Jean herself has pointed out to me on a number of occasions, is 490 times.
When Cain kills his brother Abel, in the Bible's very first homicide, God is said to have put a mark on Cain and sent him wandering. To this day, death-row inmates are said to have the "mark of Cain," as if this was a mark of disgrace, of shame, as if they have been marked by God for death. But the mark of Cain was a mark of protection, put there by God so Cain "would not also be killed." One dead brother was enough.
But perhaps most telling of all is the story of the woman caught in adultery, who was about to be stoned to death. She had been caught, there was no presumption of innocence, and she was about to be killed as the law allowed. We tend to remember it as a story about hypocrisy, "Let the one among you who is without sin cast the first stone," but we forget it also is about Jesus stopping an execution. He sent home those who were suddenly ashamed to presume to take a human life, especially one with whom they could never truly identify, and then he said to the offender, "Go and sin no more."
One of the most remarkable facts of this case is that the mother of Gloria Leather, the victim's mother, Ruby Wilson, has forgiven Wanda Jean, and has told me she is not in favor of the death penalty. Given this remarkable fact, I plan to ask the pardon and parole board , "If you are not killing Wanda Jean for the mother of her victim, then who are you killing her for?" What's more, if the mother of the victim can forgive someone else's child for taking the life of her own child, then why can't the rest of us?
Why do we, under these circumstances, go ahead and play God? What gives us the right? And if life is really precious (and I sincerely believe that religious people everywhere can agree on this fact—that it is indeed precious), then how has the life of someone who made a terrible mistake suddenly lost that designation?
If you ask someone, especially someone who calls themselves pro-life, "How do you know the life of the unborn is precious?" they will always say, "God has deemed it so—God gives all life, and calls it good, and asks that we protect more and more of it."
Then I am very confused. Because if we don't do the designating, how can we do the revoking? If we don't bestow preciousness then how can we presume to take it back in the barbaric act of execution? I know, I know—the unborn life is innocence (but then of course, it can't make any mistakes before it's born)—and so either all life is precious because God decides it is, or we pick and choose—when, and under which circumstances life is precious—and that sounds like idolatry to me.
I don't know why this is happening, or why I have been given such a remarkable opportunity to practice what I preach, but I have asked for your prayers, and I need them.
I have asked you to write to the attorney general, the governor, and I hope you will. I have invited everyone within reach of my voice, and that includes everyone who listens to me on the radio, to come to Lexington on Friday, Dec. 15, at 1 p.m. for the hearing, and to know that the building only holds 150 people—but don't let that stop you.
The truth is, we keep killing more and more people, and it's becoming easier and easier. Once we wouldn't think of killing someone who committed their crime as a juvenile, but we're past that now. Once we wouldn't think of killing someone who was mentally retarded, but we're past that now. And here we are, ready to kill our first woman, and yet we say, "Women and children into the lifeboats first." Why? So we can get past this, too?
What has become of us? What are we going to have to do to stop this madness? If it's a long, long journey, then of course it must begin with a single step. That first step is now before us. The most important question anyone of us who claims the Christian faith can ask about the death penalty is this: What Would Jesus Do?
If that's going to be anything more than a slogan on a T-shirt (WWJD), then we are going to quit asking the question rhetorically, and ask it like we mean it—because we do—don't we?
If Jesus just happens to show up at Lexington next Friday—and whatever you do, don't rule out that possibility—then what do you think He would do? Tell us to go ahead and kill Wanda Jean? Or would He walk over, put one arm around Ruby Wilson, Gloria's mother, and weep with her over the loss of her child...and then put the other arm around Wanda Jean Allen and say, "Go and sin no more"?
You know the answer...and so do the pardon and parole board members, if it will but listen to its heart for once—for the heart is a better teacher than the head.
Next Friday, I invite every able-bodied person who is so moved to come to the state penitentiary in Lexington, Okla., where they will begin to "process in" as they call it, a crowd that is going to be much larger than they can possibly imagine. People are coming here from all over the country. Sister Helen Prejean is coming.
If you do not get in and have to stand outside the prison gate, there will be many people there to keep you company. It might just take you back to a by-gone day, before we made state-sponsored killing legal again—a day when we had a saying that went like this: What if they gave a war and nobody came?
Only this time, we will march under the banner of the Lord—the one who stops executions in progress. And our motto will be: What if they gave another execution, assuming nobody would notice...and everybody came?
Wanda Jean Allen was executed Jan. 11 at the Mabel Bassett Corection Center in Oklahoma City. Dr. Robin Meyers delivered this sermon to his congregation on Jan. 14, 2001.
Last Thursday night, at the state penitentiary in McAlester, Okla., I watched with my own eyes as the state of Oklahoma committed premeditated, first-degree murder. They killed my friend, Wanda Jean Allen, with whom I had spent hours and hours, talking, praying, laughing and crying—and they did it because we could not stop them from doing it. They did it for the sake of justice and to make things right with the universe again.
I'm here to tell you that it doesn't feel to me like anything has been made right with the universe. In fact, to the contrary, the whole experience has opened my eyes and made me feel more than just an intellectual aversion to the death penalty. I am now opposed to it viscerally and believe, whatever else may be said about this sad chapter in both Oklahoma and American history, God has neither abandoned us nor given us reason to believe that we should abandon each other.
Little did I know almost a year ago, when I agreed to plea for mercy for Wanda Jean, that the decision made by her attorneys to shift from a purely legal approach to a moral and spiritual one would have such powerful, and yet undiminished consequences. It's as if we opened the lid and let more people than ever before peer inside both the criminal justice system and the process by which we decide which tiny fraction of the people who commit murder in this country deserve to be murdered themselves.
It can hardly be a surprise to any of you that the first woman killed by Oklahoma would be a black lesbian. Nor should it come as any surprise that religious appeals were dismissed as irrelevant when pleading for that woman's life—because when we say WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?), it's a purely rhetorical question in Oklahoma. It should be changed to WCJDFM (What Can Jesus Do For Me?).
We have a saying in our culture when we don't really want to know too much about something. We say, "That's more than I want to know." Well, I now know more than I ever wanted to know about how death row works, about how the attorney general's office works, about how the Department of Corrections works and about how their power is protected and preserved no matter how many lies need to be told or how many reputations are destroyed in the process. I have gotten a lesson these last few months in ruthlessness.
I also have discovered more than I ever wanted to know about criminal defense work. You have to be something of a masochist to want to do it, especially the part that so few attorneys are willing to do: defend death row inmates. Think about it and you will understand how difficult it can be for our own Vicki Werneke. They not only lose cases, they lose their clients, almost all of them.
They are the ones who get to know death row inmates as real human beings. Seldom are they the monsters the media would have us believe, because if they were seen, known and understood better, we could not kill them. To kill them we must be afraid of them and do it from a distance.
The same thing is true in warfare. Soldiers must be trained to kill an abstraction. They are not killing other human beings with names and family. Soldiers are gunning down a "goon," a "kraut" or a "Jerry," if the other person is German, and a "gook," a "slant-eye" or a "jap," if the other is Asian. And the other side does the same thing—killing not American boys with names and families, but Yankee pigs and the like.
Every once in a while they would discover, after they had done the killing they were required to do, that upon removing personal affects from the enemy dead, a wallet would contain a picture of, not a kraut or a Jerry, but of Hans Kurler and his young wife Hilde. And standing beside them, in a photo soaked in blood, were their two small children, Peter and Germaine. And it dawns upon soldiers at that moment—they had not just killed an object, the "enemy," but a human being just like them, with hopes and dreams and families—conscripted into military service just like they had been—eager to do what they believed was right, and certain God was on their side.
Had I never gotten to know Wanda Jean Allen (I mean, really gotten to know her), I would still have been outraged at her execution. But getting to know her like I did means not only am I outraged, I feel diminished. Because in a way I never expected, part of my own life is gone, part of my innocence and part of my heart.
The first time I ever met her, I thought she was a attractive woman and, indeed, everyone who interviewed her remarked how "pretty" they thought she was. Wanda Jean had only one outfit, the steel grey shirt with the word INMATE stenciled on the back of it, and a small white tag in the front that had her name and her inmate number. Grey dungarees and black tennis shoes completed the outfit, but she had done something special for the holidays. She had tied two small bells on top of each shoe so when she walked, the bells tinkled.
These appeared around Christmas and I asked her about it. She looked at me a bit incredulously and said, "Robin...uh...haven't you heard people say, ‘I'll be there with bells on?'...well, these are my bells. At my clemency hearing I want to put everyone in the holiday spirit...so I'm gonna come jingling in."
That's pure Wanda Jean. She never finished high school and never went to college, but she was street smart and funny. I can't tell you how many times she made me laugh. Or how many pep talks I got from her. She was constantly cheering all of us up, constantly telling us to have more faith, and to put more trust in God, and then she'd quote scripture or ask us to pray. She'd pray for us...long, evangelical prayers which always revolved around the same theme: All things are possible with you, Lord, because you've told us to trust you, and you will never forsake us.
Wanda Jean always remembered to ask about everyone's kids and she remembered their names. She wrote many notes to me and when I told her about Cass, she wrote a note to him saying she understood how important it is, when you are a kid, to get your own car.
There was a prison guard at Mabel Basset who was pregnant. Whenever she appeared, Wanda Jean would exclaim, "How's that baby?...you take care of that baby!"
And Wanda Jean knew something about taking care of babies. In a family that was mired in poverty, abuse and mental illness, it was also dysfunctional in the most common, yet most tragic, of ways—an absentee father. She was the second oldest child —the oldest is her brother, Bill. She had to help her mother take care of everybody. She was the big sister and so she hustled, in the truest sense of the word, to put food on the table and to keep track of her seven siblings—and there was never any money.
At 15 her IQ was measured at 69. A doctor first surmised she had frontal lobe brain damage either from birth, from being knocked unconscious as a child by a car, or from having been stabbed in the temple where she had a very visible scar. She must have known that finishing high school would be an impossibility. Look at her transcript, something the attorney general's office could have easily done instead of passing on a lie. It was almost all Fs—she flunked arts and crafts. She had only one good grade, among all these Fs, and it was in English II. And when the Rev. Burris, the man who baptized her in prison, asked her about it, she said it was because of the teacher. She really liked that teacher. And that teacher, she said, had taken a special interest in her work and pushed her to do better and believed in her. "I worked hard for that teacher," she said. "And that teacher worked hard for me." But there were not enough such teachers, and one day Wanda Jean got up and decided not to go to school again, and her transcript ends after the ninth grade. When I asked her if she graduated from high school, she was still confused about what that meant. "I graduated from the ninth grade," she said. She had no GED and not much self-concept either—except that somewhere in there, as if her life weren't hard enough, she was beginning to understand that her sexual orientation was different, and believe me, that's nothing she could talk about either.
Homosexuality is taboo in the black community, even more so than in the white community, and a source of both family and community shame. You just didn't talk about it. You kept it hidden away. And so in this family, where she was all but invisible to most of the world to begin with, she was almost invisible to herself. A high school dropout, a lesbian and a woman on her way to self-destructing. She had difficulty holding down a job and no one to talk to about who she was. Remember, to be a human being requires two things: to do and to be. Wanda Jean Allen could neither do, nor could she be. And since you and I are not there, and have never been there, we don't know what we would have done to become somebody. Wanda Jean Allen decided that an important accessory, however, was a gun. And she lived in a world full of guns: pimps, prostitutes, drug dealers—they all had guns. They were somebody. Maybe she could be somebody.
Guns were a lot easier to get than a high school diploma. So easy to get then and still so easy to get now. I have often thought during this whole tragedy, if a gun had been just a little harder to come by, three women might still be alive today (the two women she killed and Wanda Jean herself, whom we killed on Thursday, albeit it with the latest and most humane technology).
The murder of Dedra Pettis happened in the midst of an altercation involving a pimp and a prostitute, and more than one person was shooting. It was a shootout. It is so mired in confusion, and the only witnesses to it were considered so untrustworthy that the court gave a very light sentence—four years for manslaughter. In prison Wanda Jean met Gloria Leathers, who had a violent past of her own, and they fell in love.
After getting out of prison, they moved in together. But it was one fight after another and the police were always at their home. On the fateful day, when Gloria moved out and Wanda Jean went after her, the police were called once more to keep the peace. But in the midst of the argument the police got a priority call and left the scene. When Wanda Jean caught up with them in front of the Village Police Department, the argument started again.
Exactly what happened, we will never know. But we do know this: Wanda Jean Allen had a gun. And again she used it to express herself, to have the last word. After shooting a woman she said she loved, she went back home and wandered around as if in a daze until the police came to arrest her. She did not resist and immediately confessed to her crime. But she did not think she had killed Gloria. That happened a few days later, when she died in the hospital.
When Wanda Jean was told the news on the police file tape, she cried as they booked her on first degree murder charges. The rest of the story you know—an attorney was hired to defend her who had never tried a capital case and got $800 to do it. With no knowledge of her mental deficiencies, her attorney tried to portray her as "normal," as an All-American girl. He put her on the stand and asked her, among other things, if she graduated from high school. She lied. "And did you go to college?" Again she lied. Those lies were passed on to the pardon and parole board, tragically, by the attorney general's office as the gospel truth—as a way of persuading the board that she couldn't be mentally retarded.
Although they have now admitted it was a "mistake," they have successfully defended themselves before a federal judge, claiming they simply took Wanda Jean at her word, even though they spent most of their presentation persuading us that nothing Wanda Jean Allen said could be believed. The pardon and parole board members denied clemency to Wanda Jean Allen, believing she was a college graduate.
I also learned, quite to my amazement, that religion should play no part in a clemency hearing, according to the Jesus-loving state of Oklahoma. Even though clemency is not about retrying cases or even necessarily about trying to establish innocence (which is the only cause for clemency, according to Governor Frank Keating), it is, according to Webster's dictionary, a plea for mercy.
Since mercy is a religious concept, and Jesus showed mercy to everyone he met—including a woman about to be executed for what was then a capital offense, it was rather shocking to hear the state claim my contention, that the death penalty is unchristian, was "offensive." It is not offensive, however, to constantly refer to Wanda Jean as the dominant one, the "man" in the relationship, to explain her aggressive and violent behavior.
I have learned a lot. More than I wanted to know. More than I can ever "unlearn." And while the whole world watched, despite a last-minute meeting with the governor, the attorney general and members of the pardon and parole board—who on Thursday afternoon, just hours before we killed Wanda Jean, secured a copy of the clemency video and watched it in the governor's office—not even a stay of execution could be granted so a new hearing could be held and the pardon and parole board could vote again—this time whether to kill not a college graduate, but a mentally and neurologically impaired high school dropout.
When they got us all seated in the tiny room behind a glass wall, where the seven of us who tried to save Wanda Jean Allen's life could witness the execution, we were joined by selected members of the print media (no one has ever been allowed to film an execution). The warden spoke theses oddly formal words aloud: "Let the execution begin." The whole ritual is so scripted, formal and surrealistically evil.
The blinds which kept us from seeing were rolled up. And there, not 10 feet from me, was Wanda Jean—looking even smaller than I remembered her, stretched out on a gurney with her arms extended and tubes running from the needles they had inserted into her veins (Jean told us once she was afraid of needles). The tubing looped around behind her and disappeared behind a small opening in the wall where someone, out of sight, controlled the flow of poison. The tubes were clear—we could see death coming.
Jean was smiling. And all of us who know her knew exactly why. It was a last act of defiance—she could control at least how she looked when she died. They asked her if she had any last words and she raised her head and spoke clearly into the microphone: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."
"Is that all?" they asked. " That's all," she said. Then she added in her customary politeness, "Thank you." I saw the Sodium Pentothal coming through the tubes. Just before it entered her body, she raised her head and turned to look at us—her lawyers and her ministers. And she smiled and stuck out her tongue. It was a comical gesture we understood perfectly. It baffled everyone else. The smile faded quickly, not because Wanda Jean wanted to stop smiling, but because her eyes glazed over and then rolled back in her head. Two minutes later, when her heart monitor stopped its rhythmic beeping and gave the familiar continuous flat-line sound, the coroner walked over and put his stethoscope on her chest. Then he turned to us and said, without a hint of emotion in his voice, "Time of death is 9:21 p.m."
The blinds rolled back down and we were escorted from the room then taken from the prison grounds in a van beyond the reach of the media. The victim's family, on the other hand, was taken straight to the press room, where they could give their reactions to the execution. Outside the gates of the prison, Shawn was waiting for me. This patient, wonderful woman who has kept the home fires burning through all of this, and if she did not have a 7-year-old, would have spent last Wednesday night in jail. She hugged me and introduced me to several people who had been keeping a vigil.
On the long drive back, we hardly said a word to each other. The trees had all been broken down by the Christmas ice storm and the hanging branches made everything look and feel defeated. Back at the prison, they were ordering more poison because they will do this seven more times in just the next three-and-a-half weeks.
I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live...
Stop killing for me, Oklahoma. It's killing me.
Prayer for Sunday, Jan.14, 2001
Lord of Life, you have put before us the ways of life and death and told us to choose life. In so many ways, we ignore your advice; but still seek your blessing. We still choose death. In the violence we do against our children, both physically and psychologically. In the words we say to and about one another. In the games we play and in the making and keeping of an enemies list. In the hunting and killing of animals, for no purpose. In the counsel to strike back when someone strikes us. In the seeds of hatred we plant, when we are afraid. In the glorification of war. In the misuse of religion. In the failure to forgive. In the belief that we are always right, and if we are wrong, it is weakness to admit to it. In the fatal tendency we have to play God, and then ask your blessing upon our idolatry. In the making and selling and worshiping of guns. In the TV programs that play upon our fascination with death. In the jokes we tell. In the food we eat. In the casual conversation we make about who should live and who should die. We are violent people, breeding violent people, and then dealing with them violently. We may not be the children of Israel, wandering the desert, Lord. But we are wandering. We are lost. Come to us, abide with us, and make some trouble in the land. We will join you...non-violently. In the name of the prince of peace we dare to pray, assuming he will not resent it terribly. Amen.
The Christmas holidays were anything but joyous for seven national staff members of Church Women United (CWU). One by one, on Dec. 11 each was notified in her New York office that her position was terminated. Making the announcements was CWU's national president, the Rev. Jerrye Gray Champion, along with two or three executive committee members of the board of directors. Some staff members acknowledged being taped recorded without their permission while being let go.
Given only an hour's notice to vacate the premises were Kathleen Hurty, CWU's executive director; Jeannie Lee, program manager for ecumenical development and global advocacy; Ascension (Inday) Day, program manager for leadership development; Aaron Agne and Jennifer Peterson, two Union Seminary students serving as part-time staff; and two UCC members, Mary Stamp, program manager for communications, and Jeanette Zaragoza De Leon, program manager for ecumenical celebrations.
Citing financial concerns as the reason for cutting out CWU's staff, Champion is currently handling the executive director's work, operating without a professional staff.
Stamp had just moved last summer to New York from Spokane, Wash., to take the CWU position. Among other positions, she had edited the Washington North Idaho edition of United Church News for 12 years.
According to Stamp, CWU has become a Christian organization divided.
"I'm amazed at how some of the board leaders seemed to function outside of CWU's governance guidelines," she says, "in that they would micro manage the staff. Instead of taking care of their board roles such as fund raising, making decisions and setting policies, they were hands-on with the programming."
Despite the board's action, Stamp feels heartened and encouraged by support that is being displayed by friends and colleagues standing in solidarity with those who lost their jobs.
Deborah Bailey and the Rev. Lois M. Powell, staff members in the UCC's national setting concerned with women's issues, are clearly disturbed by what has occurred. In a letter directed to Champion, they wrote, "We are appalled that anyone would be let go in this manner ... the credibility of the CWU Board of Directors has been seriously compromised and the programmatic work of CWU which evolved in a collaborative manner is jeopardized."
As a result of the professional staff's dismissal, Joyce Sohl, chief executive for the Women's Division, United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, has stated that its 2001 contribution will be held back "until there is a clear direction set for the national organization and the justice issues regarding the firing of seven staff members is resolved."
According to Powell, the UCC is not officially withholding funds but is unlikely to send its contribution until the situation is resolved in a satisfactory way.
On Oct. 7, 2000, the Eastern North Carolina Association (ENCA) of the UCC's Southern Conference denied standing to North Raleigh (N.C.) UCC.
The decision was based solely on that church's status as an open and affirming (ONA) church, i.e., one that welcomes lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender persons into the full life, leadership and ministry of the church.Needing two-thirds of the ENCA's votes, North Raleigh UCC got less than half, with 95 in favor, 105 against.
The UCC is more open than any other denomination in accepting gay and lesbian persons. In 1983, for example, General Synod voted that the sexual orientation of a candidate for ordained ministry "should not be grounds for denying the request for ordination."
On the other hand, UCC polity grants autonomy to the local church in most matters, including the right to accept local churches into a regional Association of local churches.
The Constitution of the UCC, Article 2, paragraph 40, states: "An Association is that body which determines, confers, and certifies to the standing of the Local Churches of the United Church of Christ within its area."
Local church autonomy
This means that the national setting cannot dictate policy to the regional Association. The Association has the right to decide which local churches may be accepted into the UCC.
Traditionally, southern churches are more conservative on matters of sexuality, and the ENCA reflects some of those same views.
"Scripture says that homosexuality is a sin," said the Rev. Lee Evans on the Dec. 30 National Public Radio program "All Things Considered," "and we accept that." Evans, pastor of the United Church of Christ in rural Eagle Rock, N.C., led the vote against accepting the North Raleigh congregation.
The Rev. Doug Long, pastor of the North Raleigh UCC, has a different perspective. He welcomes all people to his church, regardless of race, religious background or sexual orientation.
"When I meet someone who is gay or lesbian," he says, "they are equally an image of God as I am or any straight person... and I can learn about God from them."
Black churches reluctant
According to the Rev. Beth Kennett, Southern Conference Minister for Church Life and Education, 63 percent of the 132 churches in the ENCA are African-American.
The reluctance to welcome homosexuals may speak more to the conservatism among African- American churches and in the black community in general, says the Rev. James Forbes of the Riverside Church in New York City, the UCC's very first Open and Affirming congregation.
"I would say that it is true that many times black people, who themselves have been stigmatized ... tend not to want the added burden of a position that may be considered to be sinful," Forbes said on that same NPR show. Forbes himself is African American and from North Carolina.
The Rev. Raymond Hargrove, Associate Conference Minister with responsibilities in the ENCA, thinks most people would agree that the North Raleigh church will eventually become part of the Association. "How we get to that point," he says, "is what we have to wrestle with."
The congregation currently averages 120 persons at worship and contributes 150 percent of each Sunday's offerings to ministries outside the church.
A follow-up meeting is scheduled for Feb.10. The Rev. John H. Thomas, UCC General Minister and President, and the Rev. Stephen Camp, Associate Executive Minister of Local Church Ministries, will attend as observers.