As Way Opened

Marietta’s little daughter was murdered. Through her anger, grief, and devastation she struggled until she found peace with her God and the path to forgiveness. This was the powerful message Marietta Jaeger Lane gave us at the 1999 summer gathering of Montana Gathering of Friends (MGOF). It was in this message that we saw an opening to put into action our belief in the sanctity of every life and to work toward eliminating the death penalty in our state. Jean Triol and I volunteered to represent MGOF at the Montana Abolition Coalition, an alliance of church and human rights organizations formed to stop state-sanctioned killing.

At the September meeting of the coalition, Eve Malo, the district coordinator of Amnesty International, said she had a preposterous idea. She wanted to travel to many of the smaller towns in the state and hold dialogues on the issue of the death penalty. I asked if I could join her. I had been waiting for such an opening. I longed for a meaningful focus for my life. The year 2000 seemed special to me as in it I would celebrate 80 years on this planet. Over the next months we planned the itinerary and sought contacts in each of the towns we had chosen to visit. This was a more difficult task than anticipated. With patience and hard work we were led to someone in each town who would help us find a place to meet and hand out flyers for the meeting. The 42 towns chosen encompassed all four corners of the vast state and the seven reservations of Native Americans.

We considered walking this journey but for a state that is 240,000 square miles this would take several months, so we settled on Eve’s pickup truck pulling a sheep herder’s wagon, which would be our home for the journey. The wagon represented Montana’s rural life of sheep and cattle ranches, is antiquated just as is capital punishment, and is in keeping with Quaker simplicity. Our mission, "Lighting the Torch of Conscience," was written across both sides of the wagon. The chosen route followed that of peace and women’s rights activist Jeanette Rankin when she ran for representative to the U.S. House in 1917. The choice of the wagon proved a real gold mine for publicity. Almost every newspaper in the state carried a story of our visit. There were excellent articles and photos. The publicity given us by newspapers, television, and radio stations provided openings we had not anticipated. I am certain this publicity carried our message to many we would not have otherwise reached.

March 19, 2000, was the date chosen to depart from the old state prison at Deer Lodge, Montana. The hope was that at the coming of spring the snow would soon disappear. Twenty-six brave souls joined together on a very cold night and became a circle of loving support for the venture. "We shall overcome" and "Peace I give to thee, oh river" rang out in the icy air. After silence Father Pins, chaplain at the prison, led in the prayer of Saint Francis.

The reception in each of the communities was different. In all of the towns, openings came to speak with and listen to groups in churches, schools, colleges, senior centers, and libraries. We found respectful citizens in every community. Many did not agree with our mission, and the confrontations with those who aggressively opposed it gave opportunity to learn to stay centered, listen to the truth within, and speak with clarity and compassion. We both look back on this as a gift.

Each meeting started with a short presentation of the spiritual basis for abolishing the death penalty and the need for forgiveness. Eve, a member of Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation, told her story of how her family learned to forgive her uncle for killing her grandmother. After listing the injustices of the death penalty the meeting was opened for dialogue. We carried a simple resolution for signatures. These names, as witness to those who oppose capital punishment, were to be pre-sented to the state legislature in January 2001.

We went to teach and to inform. But as usual, we found ourselves learning. The sorrow in these small communities was palpable. So often people opened up their hearts and shared their stories of encounters with the justice system, of relatives from their own families on death row, narrow escapes from death row sentences, their personal fears, and the grief of victims’ families. We felt their pain.

Speaking to high schools and colleges brought some of the liveliest and deepest discussions. It was from these groups that we heard personal stories of how violence, the judicial system, prison, and the death sentence affect their lives. One story told of how the community had rejected the entire family because of the acts of their relatives. Support was scarce for many friends and families. Occasionally even their faith community had turned against them. Students were encouraged to ask questions, and we answered from our knowledge and insights. When we did not have sufficient time to answer, we took the questions with us and sent answers to the teachers so that the students could have our input. After returning from the journey we received word that one of the teachers had included a question on the death penalty in the final exam. She was pleasantly surprised that many quoted us accurately. She said she felt our visit had influenced the thinking of her students and thanked us for coming.

Wherever we went we found eagerness to explore the causes of violence in our communities and nation, how we could prevent it, and how to heal both the victim’s and the offender’s families. Our focus was on restorative justice and finding paths to forgiveness and healing. We found ourselves telling Marietta’s story over and over again.

Visits to the seven reservations gave opportunity to hear the concerns of some of our most oppressed people. Since the native population has suffered greatly by the death penalty, we found much support for its abolition. In spite of tremendous difficulties we found great courage and hope in the students and faculty of the community colleges of the reservations. From older Native Americans we heard of the tribal practices of the "old days." This gave us insight into their view of the death penalty. Many still believe that the spirits of the victims cannot find rest until the murderer is killed. We were told that these restless spirits are often seen wandering the reservation at night eagerly awaiting peace. We also realized how difficult and confusing it can be to obey both the tribal laws and those imposed by state and nation.

Many wonderful stories remain with us, but perhaps the most poignant is that of our visit to the very small town of Lincoln, Montana. In rural Lincoln Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, lived undetected for a number of years. Our contact person there was the librarian, who told us frankly that there would be few interested in attending our presentation but she was happy to have us meet in the city library. The audience was small. At the evening discussion the librarian told us of her contact with Ted Kaczynski. He often used the library, and she found him a most interesting and intelligent man. She told us how he liked children and was very caring of them. His identity was not discovered for many years, but when it was and he was convicted, the whole town turned against him. She said she had always believed in the death penalty but now she was not sure. She knew both sides of him. She had known his goodness and now she knew the evil side, but she was still his friend. Through tears she came to the place of her own truth about this man. She said she realized that probably all these people who had committed such crimes had two sides to them. She signed the resolution.

There were some surprises. While traveling I-90 a red pickup truck motioned us to the side. A young man came up to our window, and we talked about the death penalty. He said he was for it, but he was glad we were doing this and was impressed that two old white-haired women would take on such a challenge. He gave us money toward our gas. Several times we found notes under the windshield wipers with messages like "Drive Safely" and "Thanks for doing this." One time we found a $20 bill tucked under the wiper.
Our journey ended at the state capital, Helena, on May 4th with the odometer reading 4,129 more miles than when we started. In 46 days we had witnessed most of the weather phenomena of Montana including 7 degrees below zero (F) at West Yellowstone, two new snows where the four-wheel drive was needed, and winds that rocked the wagon like a boat on water. We also had sunshine, blue, blue skies, and witnessed the new life of spring on this magnificent planet.

As Quaker women have done throughout history, we went to witness to truth as we knew it. Openings came in many unexpected ways. We come away from this venture with renewed faith in the power of love to open doors and hearts. We find ourselves with greater appreciation for the citizens of these small towns of Montana. We share their pain. We look forward to new openings where we can continue the work of healing our world, our communities, and ourselves.