Faith Put to the Test

Where is God on Death Row? Jane L. and Erica Gibson-Even

First Recorded

May 2, 2019


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Jane L. provided spiritual guidance to the families of death row inmates during her nearly two decades working as a prison chaplain. In this conversation, Jane discusses with colleague Erica Gibson-Even how she experienced and processed the trauma of the executions, which initially left her feeling the absence of God.

This story was produced by StoryCorps.

This story is a part of the American Pilgrimage Project, a conversation series that invites Americans of diverse backgrounds to sit together and talk to each other one-to-one about the role their religious beliefs play at crucial moments in their lives. The interview was recorded by StoryCorps, a national nonprofit whose mission is to preserve and share humanity‚Äôs stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world.

Jane L. and Erica Gibson-Even

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Jane L.: As a child, there was a time when I would have the experience of being one with everything and everybody. I would have that experience when I was on a sidewalk and there were a lot of people around, and that would prompt that experience of being one with them and everybody else. It felt like a gift, and I never told anybody about that until I was maybe in my early 70s. It was foundational, I just didn't know it until I became a deacon. I started connecting the dots of my life.

Erica Gibson-Even: And that was how many years ago?

Jane L.: Four or five. I was a prison chaplain for four years or so as a volunteer, and then I was a full-time staff chaplain for 10-and-a-half years. I was originally on the execution team, and I didn't want anything to do with that. I don't believe in capital punishment; it goes against my entire being, and God and I had ongoing conversations. We wrestled together about whether or not I was going to be on that team.

It was about two weeks away from the day of execution. And they took me off the team, and I thought, "Oh my, thank you, God, you heard my prayers." And then all of a sudden, I was back on the team. And at that point I realized that I wasn't going to win this. I knew if I wanted off the team, I could tell my supervisor, but I felt that God wanted me there.

Erica Gibson-Even: There was a purpose.

Jane L.: Yes. I never witnessed an execution. But that first one, I was one of the chaplains to the family of the man being executed. So, I was with them right up until the point that they actually left the building I was in, which was a multipurpose auditorium, to where they would actually watch the execution. I found that I was left all alone in the auditorium. I looked around for Christian symbols, and I couldn't find anything. And it felt to me like God was absent. I've never had the experience of feeling that. It was as if the evil was so overwhelming that God wasn't there.

It felt that my heart was breaking for that man that was executed. After it was over, I couldn't talk for a good half an hour. There were two more executions after that. Those executions haunted me for years. Finally, I saw a therapist and we worked through it so that it didn't have the impact on me that it had.

Erica Gibson-Even: Which seems like the perfectly human and faithful response, but also you have to be able to put one foot in front of the next. 

Jane L.: Right. And I kind of came to understand that God just wanted a gentle spirit there and that was who I was, and what I did in that place during those times. It wasn't so much that God was absent, but that I had put such a wall up in order to protect me emotionally that I was shut down. It was like nothing I've ever experienced before.

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