Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Finding Life on Death Row: a visit with death row chaplain Dennis O'Keefe

My mother always said that money was a good thing to donate, but sometimes your time was more valuable.  She tirelessly counseled those in need through 12 Step service work.  Following her example, I have volunteered and mentored since high school.  But when I became a parent, I found that even time was something I couldn’t spare.  As I look toward the next 40 years, I want to find that time again, because now my daughter is old enough to learn from my example.  I want to walk the walk.


Dennis O’Keefe planned on becoming a priest.  Originally a member of the Paulist Father’s Community, he was ordained a deacon in 1967.  He was scheduled to takes his vows in 1968 but postponed his ordination.  Searching for direction, he arrived in Mobile, Alabama in 1972 where he worked with an African-American parish in the Plateau community.  Then he met Cathy shortly after his arrival and decided to leave the Paulists to marry.  While Dennis never became a priest, he has spent his life in the service of others.

Devoted to their faith, Dennis and Cathy raised five children while continuing their mutual commitment to serving the community.  For years, Dennis lead government funded outreach programs that targeted under-served and under-represented communities along the Gulf Coast.  As a family, they volunteered at with L’arche, a residential community for adults with developmental disabilities.  In 1996 he became their regional coordinator.  With years of experience doing outreach, Dennis felt comfortable advocating for at-risk communities.  The job became all-consuming, and eventually he decided to only work part time, largely serving in a pastoral role. 


But perhaps his most important work has been with death row inmates at Alabama’s Holman Prison.  He was introduced to the ministry through the Kairos community, which sponsors ecumenical, faith-based weekends at the prison twice a year.  The program presents the gospel in a living way – Jesus is right here and we believe it, we find Jesus in you, and you are loved unconditionally by God. 

The program, which has a presence worldwide, begins on Friday morning and ends on Sunday. Prisoners look forward to their visits, not just for the fellowship, but also for the home cooked meals prepared by volunteers.  Once an inmate has gone through the program they can then attend monthly meetings led by Kairos members.

The chaplain assigned to the prison invited Dennis to be a volunteer chaplain offering pastoral care to the inmates.  Since he had already been ordained a deacon, he was quickly approved by the state. His new role earned him access to the prisoners; he is able to visit any day of the week and is accessible to any prisoner who wants to talk.

Confined to 5x7 cells, the inmates look forward to the opportunity for human contact.  Death row inmates can’t work to buy things in the commissary, so they rely on friends and family to put money in their account. The prison isn’t air-conditioned, making the environment stifling in the Alabama heat. They are allowed an hour outside each day. 


Eventually Dennis established relationships with some of the men on death row. He has now witnessed two executions.  For the three days prior to their execution inmates are offered special benefits.  Friends, family, clergy, and lawyers are a steady presence for most of the men.  Stories are told, tears are shed, and there is prayer as they hold out hope for a stay of execution.  

On their last day they are provided their last meal and led to a holding cell where they are processed and placed on gurney.  There are last words and a final prayer.  Then you wait.

Dennis and I meet one morning at Starbucks.  Having grown up with Dennis’ children, I had pieced together parts of his journey.  So we sit together, just the two of us, and over coffee he tells me his story.  He starts with his desire to become a priest, but when he talks about his work at the prison, his passion for his work becomes clear. “There is a peace I feel when I go in there.  You find them in a different way,” he says.

“Many men find a connection to God in prison, not out of fear or their own mortality, but because they are essentially living a monastic life,” he explains.  

Left in solitude, many of the men find it to be an opportunity for thoughtful reflection. He continues, “You see the changes happening in people; God works to create that change.  They begin to realize that God is in you, and you are in God, and you can make amazing changes in your life.”  

The work of Kairos has had a positive impact on the spiritual life of the prisoners.  Now the 16 men on death row host their own service each week with supervision.  They preach, usually in an evangelical style. I listen, admiring his commitment to the cause and his ability to see the good in these men. “Could you transpose that to the outside world?  Would they be able to love and accept these same guys?” he asks. “I don’t know.    

Each week they take turns sharing their testimonies with one another.  “They share their own stories,” Dennis tells me with a smile. “That’s what the gospel is, a sharing of stories.”

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