By Rev. James Lewis
In 1987, when I arrived in North Carolina to work as director of Christian Social Ministries for the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina, Rev. Collins Kilburn and Sister Evelyn Mattern greeted me on behalf of the North Carolina Council of Churches. Over lunch they asked me to serve on the Council's Criminal Justice Committee.
Having worked successfully in West Virginia and Michigan to keep the death penalty out, the Council proved to be the ideal place to work on abolishing capital punishment in North Carolina. A long line of distinguished religious leaders, like the Rev. W.W. Finlator, had been working for years to abolish the death penalty in North Carolina, but it wasn't until 1994 that People of Faith Against the Death Penalty was accepted as an official project of the Council.
During the years prior to 1994, a handful of dedicated people came to the realization that it would take an abolition movement, based in the religious community, to rid the state of capital punishment. They recognized the fact that churchgoing people, by and large, mirrored public opinion in their support of the death penalty. If the law was to be overturned, hearts needed to be changed in pews all over the state.
Prior to 1994, people like Marshall Dayan, Jimmy Creech, the Rev. David Forbes, Father Charlie Mulholland, Lao Rubert, Rev. Mahan Siler, Bishop Bob Estill, Tye Hunter, Sister Joan Jurski, Julia Elsee, Ann Thompson, and Rev. Bob Seymour worked hard to shape what would eventually become PFADP. With the help of the Episcopal Diocese, money was found and office space provided to hire the Rev. Bobbie Armstrong as the director of this fledgling organization.
During those early years, PFADP organized vigils outside of Central Prison whenever there was an execution, did educational events and sought funds to undertake the organizational demands required if it was to build membership and be successful in its mission.
At one point, we entertained the idea of getting a house near Central Prison and turning it into a hospitality house for relatives of people on death row, and to serve as an organizational center to recruit people of faith from across the state in this abolition effort. Unfortunately, the money just wasn't there to pull it off.
When it came to raising money, we seemed unable even to get the support of prominent local lawyers who opposed the death penalty. And when it came time to get foundation support to put the organization into high gear, I can tell you that Bobbie and I, along with Mike Roark, made more than one appeal to foundation directors without ever getting a grant. Abolishing the death penalty was too political and too controversial for them. That, of course, has now changed, thanks to the persistent leadership of PFADP stalwarts.
When Sister Helen Prejean was invited to speak and meet with the editorial board of The News and Observer, new energy was attracted to the movement. Her appearance, coupled with her newly released book, Dead Man Walking, proved to be a critical moment in bringing PFADP into prominence around the state. I still remember carrying boxes full of her books which had come fresh from the publisher and weren't yet in bookstores.
Throughout the early history of PFADP, and into today, there has been a deep and abiding moral and religious commitment among the organizers that understands God's displeasure with capital punishment. There has been, as well, perseverance present among PFADP folks, guided by God's spirit, that will not allow for rest until North Carolina and the nation closes down the death chambers, once and for all.
As is said in many a church, "Let the people say, Amen!"
The Rev. Jim Lewis, a co-founder and former president of PFADP, is an Episcopal priest in retirement in West Virginia.