A service of lament

by Jon Tyson, Salford

Service of Lament
Salford congregation hosted a service of lament at Wellspring Church of Skippack, which lies in the shadow of Graterford prison. Photo by Jenifer Eriksen Morales.

On September 28, the state of Pennsylvania granted death-row inmate, Terrance Williams, a stay of execution. Williams, a Graterford (Skippack, Pa.) prisoner, was scheduled to be executed on October 3 at a secret time and location. As the time to execute Williams drew near, calls for a stay of execution became increasingly urgent from religious leaders, law practitioners, and ordinary citizens. The execution of Williams would have been the first non-voluntary exercise of capital punishment performed by Pennsylvania in fifty years. Soon before the scheduled date of execution, however, evidence surfaced that Williams had been perpetually physically and sexually abused by his victim. This development led a Philadelphia judge to charge the prosecutor with concealing vital information from the jury. The prosecutor has vowed to continue efforts to have Williams executed.

In light of plans to execute Terrance Williams and the construction of a $400-500 million prison facility at Graterford, rumored to house eighty more beds for death-row inmates, members of Salford Mennonite Church organized a service of lament beside the sprawling prison. The service of lament was attended by approximately twenty-five people and included hymns, words, scripture passages, and prayers of protest and lament. Each participant shared a statement explaining why they personally chose to protest and lament the execution Terrance Williams, the prison-industrial complex, and the existence of the death penalty. The personal statements were collected and will be sent to Graterford prison.

Graterford

The decision to organize a service of lament became increasingly urgent following an offering of forgiveness from Mamie Norwood, the wife of Williams’ victim: “I have come to forgive Mr. Williams. It has taken me many years. I want his life spared and I do not want him executed. I am at peace with my decision and I hope and pray that my wishes are respected.” Rarely in these kinds of cases do the victim’s beloved offer such unequivocal words of forgiveness. Efforts to forgive transgressions, in our culture of vengeance, deserve embodied support from congregations committed to participating in God’s healing work.

The organizers chose the theme of lament as a means of expressing and confessing our guilt and involvement in this system of perpetual injustice—a system that legal-scholar Michelle Alexander refers to as the “new Jim Crow.” As the prison-industrial complex continues to financially thrive in this age of mass budget cuts, we must confess our complicity in this system of domination and recognize that the gift of living in a democratic society charges us also with the responsibility to work for just and restorative systems.

The service of lament marks only the beginning of our effort to work for prison reform and the abolishment of the death penalty in Pennsylvania. We are followers of an executed God and thus we are called to participate in all efforts that strive for justice and wholeness.

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