When it happens where you live

By Cheryl Smith, Special Contributor…

As any realtor will tell you, the most important factors in buying property are location, location, location. Where you are really does make a difference.

Cheryl Smith

Before June 2011, by virtue of my distance from it, I could ignore the state-imposed death penalty in Texas. Sure, I might have known that Texas executes more people than any other state; but I did not have to think about it or see it. Then the bishop appointed me to Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church in Huntsville. The Walls Unit, final destination of every inmate killed by the state of Texas, is on the path I drive from the parsonage to church every day.

Location. It really does make a difference.

Still, it took me a few months before I put foot on the prison property during an execution. I had been busy. I was getting to know my parish. The executions take place in the evening; and I have a lot of meetings. And yet, there was another reason I did not go. Who wants to face the fact that they kill people here . . . legally? To this day, it still seems some kind of bad dream, but no.

And what became horrifyingly apparent as I stood on that street corner during my first vigil is that they kill people on my behalf. As much as I hate to break the news to you, they kill people on your behalf too. They kill people as punishment for their behaviors against society. They . . . kill . . . people . . . here.

Does anybody know? Well, yes. It is a legally protected practice. And people fight, sometimes in angry voices, for the right to kill people on my behalf, and yours, and on the behalf of the families who think they sleep safer because we punish killing by killing back.

What if we spent the same time, effort and money fighting for the right to redeem, restore and rehabilitate? Those sound like good, religious terms. Those sound like words Jesus might have used to talk about why he came and what we should be doing in his absence. But that would have been before they killed him—on behalf of the people for his behaviors against society.

I stand on the street corner in prayerful vigil during every execution now, having gotten over my excuses. I sometimes feel like screaming; but mostly I just swallow the lump in my throat.

I feel like screaming, “Don’t do it! You don’t need to do this for me! You don’t need to kill someone on my behalf. It’s not necessary. Stop! I don’t need it!” I walk away every time with a new understanding of original sin. I have not personally killed anyone; but the killing goes on in my name. There is the scent of blood on my hands that lingers around me and perhaps around you if you live in one of the 33 states that still executes people.

There are a lot of statistics that float around in anti-death penalty circles. About how many people have been wrongly executed due to faulty trials or false witnesses. About how it is usually only those too poor to afford adequate representation who get put to death. About how it costs nearly three times as much to execute someone as it would cost to incarcerate them for life. All those statistics either make a compelling argument to you or they don’t.

But statistics aside, did I mention they are killing people in my town and they do it in my name?

Think about it for just a few moments if you can. Pretend it is you who are driving by the death house every day. What might you “know” differently if you saw them escort the family into the death chamber and then 35-45 minutes later escort them back across the street after they have watched their loved one die at the hands of people who act as your representatives?

Think about how you might be touched if you saw the hearse pull away quickly to get the body to the family so they might touch it before it grows cold.

And think about the fact that they do all that on your behalf . . . and mine.


Mea culpa, mea culpa, maxima mea culpa.

The Rev. Smith is pastor of Wesley Memorial UMC in Hunstville, Texas.

Special Contributor to UMR

Special Contributor

This story was written by a special contributor to The United Methodist Reporter. You may send your article submissions to

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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