[First posted in November 2013 on]

I walk through the opening as the steel door clangs open and head toward the vending machines with my fistfuls of quarters. Nothing new, unfortunately. The same sugary, neon-colored sodas, salt-laden chips, and dry, mystery-meat sandwiches on bread as thin and tasteless as cardboard, wrapped in cellophane. But these will be my friend Wiley’s only chance at lunch. The prison doesn’t serve lunch on Saturdays.

Vending machine

I’ve been visiting Wiley for 16 years. He’s been on death row for 41. I have a hard time sometimes getting my head around that. He went to prison the year I graduated from high school. That was long before email and the Internet, when TV came in three channels and phones were the size of a bread box. Wiley has lived in a very small cell for a very long time.

He has, in his words, “been on death row longer than anyone in the world.” I believe him. The U.S. Supreme Court threw out his death sentence a decade ago when they uncovered the racism and incompetence of the public defender who had been assigned to his case. Despite multiple efforts by his friends and legal advocates to move things along, Wiley has never been resentenced. So he languishes on death row, caught in an unending legal morass. Continue reading

A Mighty Torrent

[First posted in November 2015 on]

blog2Once again…still…our eyes and hearts are riveted on tragedies afar and close at hand: terrorized families in flimsy boats on the other side of the globe fleeing desperately toward what they hope is safety; a tide of killings at home brought into sharp focus by young people demanding that black lives matter. We hunger and thirst for a world in which peace, dignity, and justice prevail.

When I’m tempted to despair, I remember the spring of 1991. It was a time that seemed hopeless to me. Three teenagers I knew were senselessly killed—one stabbed, two shot—on the deadly streets of the Washington, DC neighborhood where I lived. Hundreds of women and children died when U.S. forces bombed the Amariya shelter in Iraq on Ash Wednesday.

That night, while we at Sojourners Community were gathered for a service to begin the journey into Lent, a civil defense siren malfunctioned, causing many of our neighbors to fear that we were being attacked and to flood the local police station with calls. I went to sleep thinking of the children in Iraq for whom the attacks are real, and hearing other sirens, from another shooting or stabbing or drug bust in the neighborhood. The world was not at all the way I wanted it to be. Too many children were dying—in Washington as well as Baghdad. Continue reading

Bear Essentials

bearMy dogs barked from somewhere deep—a throaty, primal sound I’d never heard from them before—and bolted off the bed. I could feel the bristling of their fur as the two of them leapt down and lunged toward the door. Whatever was outside was no ordinary night visitor, no standard-fare raccoon or opossum. I checked the clock. It was just shy of 4 a.m.

I had been asleep for only two hours, having driven home that April night in 2006 from Birmingham, Alabama, where I was the storyteller at a national church conference. I’m often invited to preach and teach and lead retreats—but this had been my first request to tell stories. I was working on embracing this new vocation. I was just weeks away from leaving nine years of regional ministry, feeling some anxiety about giving up a regular salary with health benefits, but knowing that I needed to take this leap of faith to write the stories and the novel that had been marinating in me for some time.

I opened the sliding-glass door and walked out onto my upper deck, where I came face to face with the source of the dogs’ agitation. The black bear was medium-sized, clinging to a tree trunk and staring me in the eyes. I was close enough to feel the musky heaviness of its smell and to hear its breathing. After a while, it began snorting at me, blowing air in sustained puffs that made its lips flap in and out. Continue reading