All posts by Rev Cari Rush Willis


The author, Rev. Cari Rush Willis, ministers to men on Death Row in Virginia and North Carolina.

Isaiah 53:5: “He was wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities.” (NIV)

Over the last six months or so, I have become friends with a Franciscan friar, Fr. Steve Patti, O.F.M., who also visits with people on death row. I read an op-ed essay that he had written, and I noticed that he used a lot of the same terminology that I use when I talk about my visits with my friends on the row.  Right away, I wanted to get to know him.  Over these months, he has become a confidant like no other person because he has been there – he gets it – he understands what I have seen, heard, and felt.

During our last visit, I shared the horrific details, insane nuances, and bits of grace when walking with my beloved friend before, during, and after his execution.  I gave him dribs and drabs, not being able to connect any of the dots as I usually do. This time it was a dot here – a dot there – a dot way out yonder.  At the end of it all he said, “It sounds like everyone involved in the execution was wounded.”  I have to say that one of my favorite things about hanging out with him is his uncanny ability to name things.  He identifies things so succinctly, but also profoundly deep, that it lingers on my lips and in my heart.  “Wow. Wounded.  Yes.  I will have to think about that.  I think there is something there.  Wow. Wounded.”

The Scripture that kept coming back to me again and again was the text in Isaiah that foretells of the Messiah: “He was wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities.”  I had to look up the Hebrew to see what the term “wounded” meant.  I found out that it means “pierced or bore through” as well as “to profane oneself, defile oneself, and pollute oneself.”  What struck me the most about those definitions is that woundedness includes profaning, defiling, and polluting oneself.  I had never heard, and actually never expected, those definitions.

As the state officials and correctional officers were each taking part in my beloved friend’s execution, they were indeed profaning, defiling, and polluting themselves as they slyly looked on at all that was happening. No one was staring at the proceedings. Every one of them was looking down, looking away, and then peeking over to see what was going on with my beloved friend.

Those of us who were watching from the observation room were indeed profaning, defiling, and polluting ourselves. A sign over the two large windows in front of us said “Stay Seated. Stay Silent.”  We were to show no emotion, and we were to sit in our seat and act as well behaved participants in a sweltering room in order to watch this dreadful drama unfold before us.

Even those who were standing outside the prison, whether they were standing in support of the death penalty or were standing against the death penalty, were being profaned, defiled, and polluted. They could not escape the horror of the evening as they waited and waited and waited for some word from anyone as to what was happening inside the prison. Some of them stood in a circle praying for a Holy God to be ever present to everyone who was being caught up in this appalling evening. Some just stood by themselves and stared at the prison in the distance.

And finally, my friend certainly was being defiled and polluted as he was pumped full of drugs that were never meant to kill someone. He was wounded in the worst possible way. As a society, we want to forget how Jesus totally reframed an “eye for an eye” when he said, “Here’s another old saying that deserves a second look: ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’ Is that going to get us anywhere? No more tit-for-tat stuff.” (Matthew 5:38, 42, The Message Bible)

No one cared to get to know the man that they were killing in this macabre process.  The judges and governor had made up their mind on who he was based upon the media headlines.  No one saw any need to sit with the man that was on that execution table to find out if his life had changed and whether or not he was having a positive influence on those around him.  They defined him by his crime that he committed years ago.  And yet, my beloved friend was not his crime. None of us are defined by our worst acts. My friend was one of the most loving people I had ever met.  He was also my theological partner who opened my eyes to see God’s irrational and unbounded love and mercy towards us all.  He showed me facets of God that I would have never seen without his unique set of eyes.  He loved me with a big love – a really Big Love! He lived his life based upon Jesus’ words to love God and to love one’s enemy as well (Matthew 5:44). It was love that he spoke of at the very end of his life – grateful for the overwhelming love that he had received and telling all of us who were around him that he loved us with an enormous love.

I have thought often of Mary under the cross. I simply cannot understand the weight of her grief. Part of her soul must have died as she watched her beloved son being killed by those bent on hate screaming, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” In seminary, we were taught to “listen” to Scripture both for what is written there, but also what isn’t written. In other words, we were taught to listen to the muteness – the silence – of the text. We never hear a single word from Mary or any of the women who were under the cross with her. There is a voicelessness – a muteness – to grief. How do you put the enormity of that kind of grief, pain, and trauma into words?

And Jesus was mostly silent while he hung from the cross that held him. One of the few words that he spoke was a question that he screamed at the top of his lungs, “Why!?!?!”  The scream happened as the darkness descended on the land.  And yet, when Jesus bellowed out, “Why?!?!” from the cross, he surely looked down and saw Mary, John, and the other women. Their presence reminded him that God had not left him, God was with him.

As I sat there looking on to see a man I greatly loved being killed by the state, I was not only told to be silent by the same system that was killing him, but I also lost any voice because there simply are no words for such a barbaric act.  As I exited the prison and made my way to my clergy friends, family members, and others, all I had were hugs and tears.  All I could do was speak of our beloved friend’s overwhelming love for each of us.  But even those words were quick statements, “He loved you so… he loved you so!”  I didn’t have any great words of comfort.  I just had my presence.

As my beloved friend was brought into the execution chamber, he strained to see those of us who were there to just pour out all of our love on him.  By our presence, he knew that God had not abandoned him during this most difficult hour of his life.  God’s love was present because we were present.  I even took my shoes off because, even if I was the only person who knew it, I knew that I was walking on holy ground even if the state was using the space for evil intent.  Those of us who loved our friend were willing to be wounded by the prison system in order to “be Christ” in the midst of the horrific and the profane.

On the day that I first met my beloved friend almost two years ago, I wrote in my journal the following: “I still don’t understand why people don’t get that we become people who kill when we say the death penalty is okay.  We are all murderers.  We all should get life behind bars.”  Each of us took part in a premeditated murder.  None of us are exempt.  All of us are profaned, defiled, and polluted because we executed another human being.

And just like Christ, I will forever be known by the wounds I carry in my heart.

May God’s mercy be poured out on us all.


John 19:16b “So the soldiers took charge of Jesus.”

On the 18th of January this year, I watched as my beloved friend of two years handed himself over to the squad of correctional officers in order that he might be executed.  Before the officers came to get my friend, we celebrated Holy Communion together.  He was grateful to celebrate communion one more time and hear the words that he was God’s beloved.

We knew our time was drawing to an end, so I asked my friend, “If people ask me about you, what should I say?” With a quick laugh and broad smile he said, “Tell them I know Jesus.” Ahhh yes, my friend knew Jesus and Jesus knew him.  I called him my “theological partner” as he uniquely was able to show me facets of God and Scripture that I just could not see. His life had been redeemed and transformed by our all-loving and all-merciful God.  His smile beamed God’s unconditional and immeasurable love every single time I was with him.

Then I asked him one last question, “When you look back over your life, what are you most grateful for?” Without hesitation he said, “For the unconditional love of God, of friends, and especially of family. I feel everyone’s love right now, and it is overwhelming to me. I can’t be grateful enough.” I then told him, “I am grateful for your friendship, your unbounded love for me, and your laughter. I love you so much.” To which he replied, “I love you more.” And I ended, as I always did, with a forthright, “Impossible!”

I was then got escorted out of the cell area and around to the observation room by one of the correctional officers. The observation room was already packed with people.  On the back row there was a seat left just for me. Everyone stared as I sat down. The room was closed and hot; it was like sitting in an oven. There were windows along the right hand side and in front of us. Everyone just sat and stared at an empty gurney; sweat rolled down my back.

After a few minutes, my friend walked into the execution chamber with his head bowed and with his shoulders slumped. There was nothing about him that made him look like a threat to the six or so officers in charge of him. Nonetheless, the officers moved as if he was challenging them. They quickly and forcefully pinned him to the table and strapped him down, each officer assigned a strap, as strap after strap after strap was fastened on top of his body. Maybe they were afraid of some last minute recoil to the macabre proceedings, but he did not do anything to warrant their fear-filled and anxiety ridden actions. They also were all wearing safety glasses, as if waiting for my beloved friend to spit on them – something he would never do.

Once my friend was lying on the table, arms outstretched and completely restrained, a curtain was closed between the witness room window and the execution chamber. We then sat in that sweltering room for the longest 35 minutes of my life. For those 35 minutes all we did was stare at the curtain before us without any idea what was happening on the other side. Whispered requests were made to find out what was going on behind that awful curtain, but it was clear that no one was going to be allowed out of the room.

I slipped my shoes off as I knew that it was holy ground that I was standing on and wanted to treat it as such. I opened my Bible, but I was having a hard time reading it. I flipped to Psalm 46 and read, “Be still and know that I am God.” I repeated it over and over again as a prayer for my friend and as a prayer for me as I stared at the evil curtain in front of me.

Finally the curtain was pulled back and my friend was asked if he had any final words. He said a simple, “Nope.” He had told me earlier that he felt like his words of regret, respect, and apology in a much publicized video before this dreadful hour best conveyed his feelings. I let him know that those words of sorrow were indeed enough. My friend tried to lift his head from the table.

Unfortunately, because the table was parallel to the ground and his body was so tied down, he could only lift his head up an inch or maybe two. Despite the sign that stated “Stay silent. Stay seated” which was prominently displayed above all of us in the observation room, I stood because I had promised to beam love on him until the very end. I had assumed that he was trying to find my face amongst the crowd gathered in the tiny observation room. However, he was only able to hold his head up for a second or two and therefore, I assumed that, sadly, he was unable to see me. Tears were forming in my eyes that I doggedly refused to let fall. And yet there was also a determination in my heart that I would do all I could to let him know that I loved him.

Everyone who was in the execution room with my friend was staring down at their shoes, only glancing over to see him every once in a while. There were two people manning two different phones that were speaking to whoever was on the other end. They were speaking in short phrases, with their silence making up the majority of their conversation. I was so angry that everyone was just standing there – expressionless – and yet witnessing the killing of my beloved friend. I could sense their humanity being drained.

As we all looked on, we had no idea when they started administering the lethal chemicals, as that was controlled from behind yet another curtain. The person pushing the drugs through my friend’s IV could do so behind that curtain of secrecy and shame. My friend started to sob, and I once again forced my tears to stay within my body. I heard a snore, and I saw my friend’s chest move up and down. After a few minutes, an officer pinched my friend’s toes and then took his slippers off of his feet. I am still clueless as to why this officer thought that these two things were so important to do.

I was repeating, in my mind, “Go in God’s love. Go in God’s love. Go in God’s love.” And yet in my heart, I felt like all of us were being tortured and wounded as we looked on at this killing of another human being.

The prison staff members around my beloved friend continued to look on with blank and unaffected stares. The officer who took off his slippers just stared straight ahead. The whole scene was absurd and devoid of any semblance of humanity.

We continued to hear snores and then watched as his chest no longer moved. It seemed like a very long time before the “doctor” came around the back curtain with his stethoscope in order to pronounce my friend dead. At 9:42 p.m. they finally told us that he was deceased. They pulled the curtain closed once again so I could no longer see my beloved friend. The proceedings were over. We all could stand up and make our way out of the prison.

It was then that several of the staff members left the witness room and walked behind the curtain into the execution chamber. Earlier that night, just after I arrived at the prison, I had asked for permission to say a few words over my friend’s body to commend his spirit to God’s all loving hands. My request was denied. So when these staff members walked into the execution chamber, I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs, “THEY CAN GO IN THERE AND SEE HIS BODY, BUT I CAN’T COMMEND HIS SPIRIT TO GOD?! Are you freakin’ kidding me?!?!?” I was seething. I wanted to find a space to break down and sob the tears that were welling up inside of me, but I knew that I would have to hold them in and wait until I was finally alone.

Jesus, too, had to hand himself over to the soldiers and let them take charge of him. The truth of executions are that your body is no longer your own. Your body becomes the property of the state. Those in charge can do with your body what they will. The one being executed is told to comply with all of the orders of those in charge. And as onlookers you are told to stay in your place and just look on as the horrific happens in front of you. Only the state is in control, and they will maintain that control at all costs. Sadly, I can only imagine that this prison looked just like other prisons, and I assume that those who took part behaved just like other correctional officers and prison staff in this country who are given the task of killing another human being.

Those who watched this appalling drama play out in front of us did a lot of “cross watching.” And, by the way, I don’t think it is an accident that we execute men and women on a gurney that is in the shape of a cross. Just as Jesus experienced, some of us are sitting under the cross begging for a gracious God to end the suffering of one we love so much. And then, somehow, we try to deal with the fact that we are willing our beloved friend to die. How does one do that? Shouldn’t you be praying for them to somehow live?

And there were others who were “cross watching” in the room who were surely praying that my dear friend go straight to hell.  About a month prior to my friend’s execution, he asked for me to do the following: “Please pray for those who hate me and want me to die.” “Yes, I will, but what makes you think of that?” I asked. He simply said, “Well, Jesus tells us to love our enemies. I am afraid they are going to sin if they want me dead. I don’t want my execution to cause anyone to sin.” With tears welling in my eyes, I put my hand on my beloved friend’s arm and said, “Yes, I will do that. Of course I will.”

When we are a society that kills, we make even the most loving person who is opposed to the death penalty complicit with murder. We only inflict more harm on those gathered around the cross – those gathered around the prison – no matter which side of the death penalty debate they are on. We continue the victimization instead of putting an end to the victimization that has already occurred. Killing another human being solves absolutely nothing. Nothing. It only inflicts more harm on those of us who have looked on or who have stood vigil outside of the prison.

It also says that we do not believe in transformation. It says that your life stopped when you committed your crime. No hope for redemption. No chance for renewal. None. You are your crime and that is that. As a Christ follower, however, I staunchly believe that, in Christ, ALL can be made new – the old has passed away and behold the new creation is sitting right in front of me. I can easily believe this because I continue to have a front row seat at what transformation looks like – I see their faces – I know their names.

Forever, the tape will be playing in my mind of that horrendous scene of my friends’ execution. Forever, I will see and hear my friend on that dreadful gurney. Forever, I am inwardly marked by enormous grief. And yet, if you asked me to do it all over again, I would be there in a heartbeat. I was determined that, although the courts condemned my friend, he would know that he was loved unconditionally, not only by me, but more importantly, by an all-gracious and all-merciful God who claimed him and called him “my beloved son.”