I was blessed to have two amazing women of faith, Joy Heaton and Pat Henfling, accompany me last night to Greenville Correctional facility to participate in the vigil for the execution of Teresa Lewis. All three of us were participating in this vigil primarily in support of Rev. Lynn Litchfield who has touched each of our lives in different yet powerful ways. As we entered the freeway, I noticed that the moon was a light shade of red amidst a clear dark sky which seemed rather fitting for this ominous occasion.
As we pulled into the field where the vigil was to be held, I was comforted by the large number of cars parked haphazardly between the trees. We took a few minutes to sit in silence in the dark to pray and it was with the same contemplative spirit that we made our way across the field to the site of the vigil. However, that peaceful quite spirit quickly vanished when we reached the crowd who had gathered. Protesters were urging people to take signs as camera crews shined bright lights in our faces and reporters thrust microphones toward us and began peppering us with questions. Something about this whole scene turned my stomach and I attempted to fade into the background. I realized that roughly half of the gathering consisted of media from all over the world.
When my friend Lynn arrived on the scene, I was blessed to receive a warm embrace from her as the media descended upon us. I felt violated as they filmed what I had hoped would be a quiet moment of comfort between friends. As I held Lynn tight, I feared the barrage of questions that awaited her when I released her from that embrace. However, Lynn turned and faced the cameras with such a spirit of grace and peace; it was evident that God was going to use her to bring something good out of the media circus. It was a reporter from France who began the questioning. Lynn fielded each question with such grace and her words were articulated with such confidence, I could not believe this was the same woman who a month prior could not even bear the thought of this night.
A call to gather ended the interviews as we were invited to participate in the vigil service. We all moved toward the representative from Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, who had organized the vigil with the media cameras still rolling. Our time together began with a litany in remembrance of all victims of violence including those who lost their lives because of the actions of Teresa Lewis. We prayed for those participating in the execution, for our leaders, but the portion of the prayer that most resonated with me were the words, “Help the community that produced all of the victims. Let love, justice and equality be available to all.”
Lynn then took the bull horn and shared with us what Teresa had requested be shared; it was the words of the Apostle Paul from Philippians 1 that echoed in the still night air. “12Now I want you to know, brothers that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. 13As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. 14Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly.” I reflected on the testimonies of Teresa’s fellow inmates who found Christ presence through Teresa’s singing to them from her jail cell and who were now proclaiming Christ as they protested her death. However, the truth of Paul’s words was nowhere more evident than in my friend Lynn, who had dedicated herself to fighting for justice in the name of Christ on behalf of Teresa.
Lynn continued reading Paul’s words for Teresa, “Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, 19for I know that through your prayers and the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance. 20I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. 21For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! 23I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far.” We later learned from Teresa’s attorney that these words were lived out in Teresa’s final moments as she entered the execution chamber with a peace that passes all understanding and that she never wavered in her conviction that she was going to be with Jesus.
As Lynn concluded with these words, “27Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel 28without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved—and that by God. 29For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him, 30since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.”
It was 9:00, the scheduled hour of the execution, when the organizer then invited us to take a sledge hammer and ring a large iron bell. Lynn was the first to participate. She put her full weight into the act and a loud ringing filled the air. Lynn repeated the tolling of the bell seven times, for the seven years she had walked with Teresa. She then collapsed heaving tears of grief into her husband’s arms. The rest of the mourners and protesters continued to ring the bell, a sound I doubt I will ever forget. After the last of the sound dissipated, we stood in silence. The media had all trickled out during the service. All we could hear was crickets singing and the sound of a train lowing in the distance. I heard a bird chirping and looked around to find the source. I noticed that the moon was now a bright white beacon of light. A strange sense of peace fell upon us. We all knew Teresa was now with Christ.
The silence was broken by a harsh sound. It was the sound of the screeching prison gate confirming it was over. As the cars began to leave the prison, Lynn asked if the hearse would exit through the same gate. We were told the body would be removed through a back entrance, which I was thankful for.
Lynn turned and called us to her, and the five of us who had come in support of her formed a tight huddle and all the world disappeared as Lynn shared how Teresa had ministered to her the day before. She shared how Teresa confessed that she had spent most of her life with one foot in God’s kingdom and one foot firmly planted in this world. She shared how God had helped her move both feet into his presence and that the only task that remained for her on this earth was to insure that Lynn and her attorney and others who had ministered to her could find peace. Teresa then sang songs to Lynn about the freedom she had in Christ and the joy and grace that she had found. At one point Teresa even reached through the jail bars to wipe the tears from Lynn’s face. Teresa now ministered to her minister and as we huddled together, Teresa ministered to us all through Lynn.
The words of Amazing Grace, which we sang at the conclusion of the vigil, were the words that echoed in my mind the whole hour drive back to Richmond. I expected to be the one doing the ministering last night, yet Christ spirit working through a convicted murderer facing death by execution reached out and wiped my tears away. It truly was an amazing experience of Grace.