Terre Haute Journal

Ploptch. The rain fell in big drops. Ploptch. Ploptch. Ploptch.

Big, slow, kersplash drops. Falling on a group of about 50 or 60 of us gathered in a circle, praying. Kneeling, sitting, standing. Saying the rosary. Holding candles. Praying silently at sunrise for peace, for knowledge of God’s will for us, for reconciliation, for an end to the death penalty, for Timothy McVeigh’s soul. Spin the wheel.

Getting wet as the day dawned over us, first gray then billowing wet clouds lit by the low-angled sun. Trying to ignore the swarm of reporters, photographers, and others hovering and covering. Ploptch. Ploptch. Kersplash. Praying in a circle in a cordoned-off patch of earth a few hundred yards across a flat, grassy Indiana field from the federal penitentiary where a planned homicide was scheduled to be performed at 7:00 a.m. local time.

Surreal. That’s the word that best describes what it was like in Terre Haute, Indiana, on June 11, 2001.

It was 12 hours of doing what I’d rather not do. I mostly sat in the dark stillness, on one of the bales of hay lined up in two neat rows. Hay bales wrapped in thick plastic that the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) had provided for the death penalty protestors they expected. Occasionally a film or radio crew, reporter, or photographer would approach me or one of the other protestors. They’d ask the same questions: "Why are you here?" or, "Are you disappointed in the small turnout?"

I slept awhile under the tent the BOP had pitched for us, wrapped like a hay bale in a poncho a friend brought with us. Toward daybreak, the trickle of reporters became a deluge. I heard later that there were 1,400 credentials passed out to the media.

I told the reporters that I wasn’t disappointed in the turnout, as I had no expectations. That it wasn’t a scorecard. That I wasn’t there to change anyone’s mind. That I was there as an act of faith. That it has become increasingly important to me to demonstrate, not merely to assert, the things in which I believe. That I would have been there regardless of the facts.

I asked them whether they thought a high turnout was some measure of the quality of the abolition message. Reporters aren’t used to answering questions. I told them that I had heard that Jesus preached for years to hundreds and thousands of people but ended up with a handful of disciples. Was that a measure of the quality of Jesus’ message?

I thought. I thought about the horrible thing we were about to do in that building across the way. I thought about how I felt. About the sadness I felt for our society. About how little regard we sometimes have and sometimes show for one another.

I thought about my Friends. About how, little by little, I’ve learned to ask about my own behavior. I thought about the regard I so often fail to have or show toward others.

In the distance, the generators powered the lights and the cameras. Whurrr. I could hear them but I couldn’t see them. I asked a guard to describe the prison complex. "Where’s Mr. McVeigh?"

"You can’t see it from here."

But he was there. And so was I.

Doug Stern

Doug Stern attends Louisville (Ky.) Meeting. © Doug Stern 2002