Monday, May 27, 2024

Through the eyes of a death row minister


The Rev. Joseph B. IngleThe Rev. Joseph B. Ingle 

A minister finds Christ in "the least of these" on death row

In an interview with Vatican News, the Rev. Joseph B. Ingle, author of a new memoir, reflects on his pastoral work and advocacy and talks about the time he was part of an effort to gain pardon for Robert Sullivan, a death row inmate in the 1980s, that involved Pope John Paul II who personally pleaded for clemency to save Sullivan's life.

By Dawn Eden Goldstein

For nearly fifty years, the Rev. Joseph B. Ingle has spiritually accompanied prisoners awaiting capital punishment in the southern United States, but he is quick to explain that he is not a death-row chaplain.

“Death-row chaplains are usually paid by the state and beholden to the warden,” Ingle, author of the new memoir Too Close to the Flame: With the Condemned inside the Southern Killing Machine (Forefront Books), explained to Vatican News. “I am a United Church of Christ minister and my church has been the congregation of the condemned.”

Vatican News spoke with Ingle, a co-founder of the Southern Center for Human Rights, about his pastoral work and advocacy, including his friendship with Bob Sullivan, a Catholic inmate for whom Pope John Paul II sought clemency.

How did you come to discover your vocation in providing pastoral accompaniment and advocacy for condemned inmates?

My friend the Rev. Jim Lawson says he finds his inspiration in Jesus and the Bible. I would echo that, except that I would include prisoners as the third leg of that stool. From my initial visit with prisoners at the Bronx House of Detention in 1971, through my subsequent visits to Southern death rows from 1975 to the present, I have come to find a call to discipleship through reading the Bible, seeking to follow the teachings of Jesus, and learning from prisoners about who Jesus is today. It is not a calling that I learned in Sunday School or church. It comes from the experience of working with the condemned, reading what the Bible says about who God dwells with and who leads in following the Way—all of it has come together in living what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called in his book of the same name The Cost of Discipleship. Jesus’s call is not to cheap grace but the radical following of his teaching and way of life. It is “the least of these my brothers and sisters” who show me the way.

In 1983, you traveled to Florida to befriend and support Bob Sullivan, who was set to be executed for the 1973 murder of a Florida restaurant manager. At that time, Sullivan had been on death row longer than any other prisoner in the United States. How did you come to be part of his deathwatch?

I began visiting Bob in 1978 along with others on Florida’s death row. I visited all Southern death rows. Bob and I were friends. We were brothers in the Christian faith. I was a key person in his life and he in mine. It never dawned on either of us that I would not be with him on death watch.

What were your impressions of Bob Sullivan’s faith?

Bob was a deeply committed Catholic Christian. His relationship with James Hill, a mentally disabled death-row prisoner, was a great example of that. He did all he could to help James, and James regarded him as an older brother. When Bob realized the extent to which James—a twenty-five-year-old man with the mental capacity of an eleven-year-old—was dependent upon him, he worried that James needed to learn how to navigate death row without him. So, as the date of Bob’s execution neared, Bob intentionally committed a minor infraction — stealing a handcuff key and making sure he was caught with it — so that he could be sent to a punishment cell. That was typical of Bob; he was concerned about the others on death row, and he wanted others to be concerned for them as well.  

In your book, you describe asking Bishop René Henry Gracida of the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee and Bishop John Joseph Snyder of the Diocese of St. Augustine to ask Pope John Paul II to intervene in the Sullivan case. What inspired you to take that approach?

I was not inspired. I was desperate. I knew Bob was going to be killed barring papal intervention or a surprise from the Courts. My mantra in this work has always been “Don’t be afraid to ask. The worst they can say is no.” Because Bob was devoutly Catholic, I began discussing his situation with Bishop Gracida and then on to Bishop Snyder. All the bishops of Florida, including Miami Archbishop Edward Anthony McCarthy, wrote a letter to Florida Governor Bob Graham in the spring of 1983 asking him to commute Bob Sullivan’s sentence. I cannot stress enough how much I appreciated the Florida bishops’ involvement in Bob’s case. Governor Graham responded to the bishops’ plea with a pro forma letter rejecting it. Once we realized what we were up against, I suggested to the bishops that we make an overture to the papal nuncio on Bob’s behalf. That is all I did. The bishops and the priests who had come together to advocate for Bob did all the work.

How did you feel when you heard that John Paul responded?

When I received the news about John Paul II’s response, I was exhausted, physically and mentally. I was too worn out to be elated or surprised. I just wanted to learn the gist of it from my associate who received it, so that I could share it with Bob when I went back in the prison. I do not have a copy of the pope’s statement but wish I did. In my final conversation with Bob, on the eve of his execution, I told him, “I think you are dying the death of a Christian martyr.” I wanted him to know how much his witness meant, not only to me but to Father Dan Berrigan and the other two priests with him on death watch, and to all those who gathered around him over the years.

Who are some other Catholics who have inspired you in your activism? 

Every year since the mid-1970s, I have taken a spiritual retreat at the motherhouse of the Sisters of Loretto in Nerinx, KY.  I have been taking spiritual retreats there since the mid 1970s. Sister Elaine Prevallet was my spiritual mentor there until her illness. On Saturday evenings I go to Compline at Gethsemani Abbey, which is eight miles down the road from Nerinx. I also visit Thomas Merton’s grave. Simone Weil, Flannery O’Connor, and Dorothy Day are important to me as well. 

In your book, you describe how, early in your ministry to inmates, you entered into a deep study of the Bible's teachings on judgment and punishment. What would you like Christians to understand when they read the teachings and actions of Jesus in John 8 regarding the woman caught in adultery?

John 8 is not about the guilt of the woman caught in adultery, a capital crime of the day but only for women. Jesus is teaching us about our attitude of moral superiority because we have not committed such a crime. Give those Jewish leaders their due. When Jesus says, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” they all walk away because they have realized none of them are without sin.  This is what I learned from prisoners. John 8 is about judgement, and we are in no position to decide who lives or dies nor locking someone up and throwing away the key.

Pope Francis has had the Catechism changed to state that the death penalty is "inadmissible," and the Holy See has affirmed the inadmissibility of the death penalty in its recent document Dignitas infinita. How do you feel when you see the trajectory of Catholic teaching on capital punishment from John Paul II to Francis? Do you believe that what the Catholic Church teaches on the issue has the potential to affect the wider conversation?

I would love to take Pope Francis to death row here in Tennessee.  We can visit with the guys around the Table of Reconciliation in Riverbend Maximum Security Institution’s Unit Two.  It would give him an opportunity to witness the import of his action in getting the Catechism changed. The men in Unit Two are completing a year’s study of the Old Testament and next year will do the New Testament. As Francis knows, they may be “the least of these” but they are our brothers in Christ. Although Francis did not know Bob Sullivan but I can tell you with a full heart, what he has done to move the Catholic Church to a position firmly against the death penalty, resonates through my being and Bob’s soul.  Bob was all about his Church being right on this issue, regardless of what happened to him.

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