June 12 and 13
Roads comfort me. I often find myself on bright days and dark nights between strips of white and yellow paint. When I meet him, I often wonder who he is and what he has done with my self. The confusion lets me know that I am still alive and perhaps growing in my humanity. There is something comforting about being reminded that we are still alive. This is a story about roads and life.
My heart was full. My heart is always full when I travel to Livingston. From rainy drives to sunny drives, I always feel the same on the way down…full. I had my first visit of the trip right when I pulled into town. There were tears and love in that place. Regardless of the crime, I knew I had just encountered a child of God. I didn’t want to leave. I never want to leave. It always hurts to feel like you are leaving someone in such desperate need of love.
I pulled up to the hotel and took a few pieces of clothing out of the car. I nearly forgot my medicine, but I knew that my physiology can’t handle the fullness of the next few days without the right amount of medicine in my system. I get up to the room and start to pray. “God make me an instrument of your peace…and if I die…let it be for you.” I was scared. I had never walked this far in my life and there were so many unknown variables. Prayerfully, I pressed on to morning.
The door slammed behind me. The Polunsky Unit is good at making everyone who enters feel like a monster. I sat down across from a man I have been visiting for some time. We chatted about love and courage. I never grow tired of these topics…especially in a place so devoid of hope. I told him that I was about to do a 200 mile pilgrimage and he told me to walk for him…and I did.
The door slammed behind me. I jumped out of the car in my robe and stole to begin my walk. I said a brief prayer and turned the corner to start walking away from the Polunsky Unit. I made it five minutes before one of the guards from the residence of the warden drove up in a van and rolled down the window with his hand on a shotgun. “What are you doing out here?” “Walking.” “Where are you going?” “To Austin.” “That is a long walk. Why are you walking?” “I love Jesus and oppose the death penalty.” “You need to hurry up and get out of here.” I walked faster.
There was a beautiful shade tree that invited me to stop next to the road. It was hot and I paused to briefly collect myself. There was sweat dripping off both my glasses and face. There was a truck that slung into the driveway next to the tree and an angry young man jumped out to scream at me. “This is private property!” “Where does the right of way begin and I will move.” “Right there where that ditch is and if I see you so much as take a step over that line…you will regret it.” I held the line.
The gas stations and restaurants were unique experiences. Everyone stared and many commented. “What in the fuck are you wearing?” “Are you gay?” “That is an amazing costume.” A blue minivan swerved to the side of the road. “Do you need a ride?” “No, I am on a pilgrimage to abolish the death penalty.” “I am for the death penalty. Why are you against it?” “Because I am a Christian.” “I am a Christian too and I am still for the death penalty. Why do you think being a Christian has anything to do with opposing the death penalty?” “Because I don’t believe you can love your neighbor as your self and execute them.” “Damn that makes sense. I am going to have to think about that some more.” She said goodbye and drove away.
The sun was going down as I crossed the bridge over Lake Livingston and the Trinity River. I wept at the beauty of the moment or I wept out of exhaustion…I am still not sure which. I journeyed over to the side of the road to prepare a place to go to sleep. As I nodded off, I couldn’t believe that this was only just the first day and I prayed that God would somehow give me the strength to finish.
Sleeping is not easy when you are not on a bed. We take our rest for granted. Homelessness is a pervasive problem in our world. We do violence everyday when we don’t consider the sleepless nights of others. I spent the first few waking hours of my second day on pilgrimage walking against the death penalty and thinking about homelessness.
To say that it was hot on my pilgrimage is like saying that Antarctica is cold. My body consistently produced more sweat than I could have ever imagined possible. The robe I was wearing felt like being wrapped in a wet sheet. Regardless, I kept on walking to my next stop…the home of the Texas Execution Chamber.
Huntsville is a typical small town. Most people work for the local company…the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church is a bastion of hope in a space often darkened by a refusal of the people to engage in serious conversation around topics of social justice.
I walked into the church and the people greeted me with open arms. I spent the first 20 minutes telling my story and then I heard from the gathered their stories. We came to a conclusion that Jesus loves us all more than we will ever know and that is the most important thing to carry with us. It was a beautiful evening. When I thought I couldn’t be moved further by their hospitality, a woman appeared with a basin full of water to wash my feet. Jesus lives in Huntsville. I met her.
Upon pilgrimaging to the Huntsville Unit or the site of the Texas Execution Chamber, I placed my hands on the brick wall. “May the cross that is on top of this place…be the cross that leads the State of Texas to stop perpetuating the cycle of violence by killing people. Make me an instrument of such peace.” I departed into the cold dark night.
The porch of the abandoned trailer was very lonely. I didn’t know if I was going to be safe or not. My phone died and I didn’t know if the folks I was counting on knew where I was. When the car pulled up, I was gushing. I would sleep in a bed tonight and arise to walk another day.
I had worried about violence and anger when I walked into Huntsville. As I laid my head down on a soft pillow, I worried about violence and anger as I thought about walking into Brazos County the next day. I prayed for God to keep me from fear. God didn’t…but I decided to walk anyway.
I was not too far over the Brazos County line when a Sheriff’s Deputy rolled up. Jumping out of the car, the Deputy started a line of call and response with me, “Where are you going?” “To Austin” “Walking?” “Yes, I am walking from Livingston to Austin in protest of the death penalty.” “Ok…” Then another officer pulled up and jumped out of the car. “Can we take a look at your license? We just want to make sure that dispatch has your name and knows that you are going to be walking.” “Sure.” The officer proceeded to check for prior arrests and warrants. I was thoroughly investigated for walking down the road. The entire situation made me think about the numerous persons who are put through a similar situation without the benefit of being able to speak English…often for the same reason that I was…walking.
I got my sweat on after the incident until I was stopped by a photographer/videographer for the local newspaper to do some interviews and pose for some pictures. When you can barely walk, you feel weird participating in such rituals…but you do it in order to get the message out. I kept on moving after the media interaction was over. I felt like I walked all day needing to take a shit. There are very few bathrooms on the way in to Bryan or College Station. Then I saw it…the closest thing to paradise I had seen in some time…a hole in the wall honky tonk called “The Beer Joint.”
Pushing the doors open with force, I walked in and spoke past the five guys sitting on bar stools to the woman working behind the counter. “Can I please use your restroom?” “Of course.” Before I could get to the restroom though, a man at the bar turned to ask, “What in the hell are you doing?” I guess they had never had someone come in with clergy vestments on before. “I am walking from Livingston to Austin in protest of the death penalty.” “Why in the hell would you do that?” “Because I am a Christian.” “That sounds pretty silly to me.” “I promise I will come back out and tell you why it is not silly after I get done using the bathroom.” “Go right ahead. I ain’t trying to hold you up.” I took one of the most impactful and freeing shits of my life before I came back out to have a long conversation about the death penalty and faith with the guys at the bar and the woman working behind the counter. Before I left, most of the folks present told me they admired what I was doing whether they agreed with me or not. I left and started walking once more.
Sweating profusely and in a good deal of pain, I made it until about four miles from the Brazos County Courthouse. I called the reporter who was to interview me that evening over dinner and asked her to come pick me up. I was exhausted. The reporter drove me by the Brazos County Courthouse where I prayed for District Attorney Jarvis Parsons to stop pursuing death sentences. I asked that Jesus would manifest in the life of this deeply religious man in a way that would not let him participate in the killing of anyone else. I got back in the car. Upon arriving at a real deal Mexican restaurant, I waxed poetic the rest of the night with the reporter about life, faith and the death penalty.
When I laid my head down, I was comforted to know that the next day I would not be walking alone.
I woke up. I woke up. I woke up. The transition from sleep to engagement with the world was difficult. I felt terrible. This was only to be my fourth day on my pilgrimage. How would I survive? I prayed and started to force my bones to move.
Still moving slowly, I met a group of people to walk down the middle of College Station and Bryan with me. We talked about the death penalty. The weather transformed the conversation quickly. There were not many steps before we transitioned to talking about how miserably hot we were. When we got to the church, I was soaked through my robe again. Traveling in a wet robe to a cold inside causes you feel like you are turning into a sea lion.
I climbed the pulpit. I was nervous. This was the first time I had ever preached in a Roman Catholic Church before. I thundered down about needing to place our bodies into the conversations concerning social injustice. I had spoken about such things previously, but now I was truly starting to embody and believe it in a new way. After about 15 minutes, I said “amen.” There were awkward moments between the time of reflection and the time of departure. I didn’t know who was supposed to dismiss the group. The awkward blossomed to beautiful when I stood up and the people came to the aisles to bless me on the way out. The love of God flowed through the many hands that were placed on my body as I walked by. I now had the strength to finish.
Walking through the dirt and grass, I yearned for what I knew was approaching. The sun hit my eyes in a majestic reflection of light when I stumbled forward. I stooped down to drop both my hand and soul into the Brazos River. All of my sins were redeemed. I felt cleansed. I knew that I had to continue…I had to continue sounding the alarm of what the death penalty is doing to our souls.
Night was rapidly approaching as I stumbled through Caldwell looking for something to eat. I found a Chinese restaurant still open. I gobbled up strawberries, fried rice and coconut shrimp and washed it down with a cold Sprite. CNN was running a show about the anniversary of O.J. Simpson and the white Bronco. For some reason, I felt like the struggle to abolish the death penalty was similar to the situation playing out before my eyes on television again…it is a tragedy from start to finish.
I got bed bugs overnight.
Storms were coming that looked fierce but never truly developed into anything but a short shower.
Red bumps filled the skin covering my right hip. Each step I took caused my robe to rub up against those bumps and made them itch more. I knew I was in for a hot itchy day.
The wet hot dusty asphalt and rocks of Highway 21 were the most miserable part of my entire journey. I had trouble balancing and stumbled around. I prayed for help at numerous junctures. On more than one occasion, I had to decide to force my back to straighten a bit and simply keep walking.
One of the major stories to come out about my walk went to press in the middle of the day. I was highly encouraged. I knew that the article would shed much light on the death penalty in Texas. I walked faster…I guess because I felt like we were making progress.
After almost two full days of walking, I made it all the way to Bastrop. I conquered physical infirmary and boredom to begin my final two days of descent into Austin.
The bed bugs kept me company.
Walking down a busy highway late in the day was different than anything I’d done before. People were honking and yelling as I walked. I don’t think anyone was honking and yelling because they liked the look of a man in a robe either. I was unnerved. I thought about stopping. I was tired. I wondered what it would be like to stop. I kept going.
The sidewalks disappeared and I trudged through the tall grass. I felt like I had bugs in every crevice of my body. I walked.
I arrived at a motel close to the big airport in Austin. Sleep came quickly. I knew that I was almost done.
There is nothing like waking up and knowing that you are going to finish. I knew that every step I had taken and was taking was a step toward abolishing the death penalty. I called and talked to many people throughout the day as I walked into Austin. I stopped for some lemonade. The sweetness of the taste almost made me forget the pain in my feet and legs. I pushed on with lemonade in hand.
Two fellow pilgrims greeted me on South Congress Avenue and walked with me the rest of the way holding signs opposing the death penalty. Their presence was comforting. Multiple blocks later, two of my dear friends met me along the way. One of my friends had on a LGBT Pride shirt. I didn’t think anything of it…until someone drove by screaming out of a truck window “Fuck you faggot!” There is nothing like a little phobia and hate to try to ruin a moment of triumph. We didn’t let it…we just kept on walking.
Excitement filled all of us as we crossed the street and planted our feet on the grounds of the Capitol of Texas. I felt electricity shooting out my toes. The gathered friends and supporters began to clap and cheer as we walked up. I gave a brief statement and we walked into the Capitol. I stopped for a brief second to pray in the rotunda before moving on toward our closing event at University Baptist Church.
During the program, I talked over and over about the need to give the body to the struggle for justice. After my walk, I believe the group understood what I meant. I can think of no more fitting a place to finish my journey than where it began…in a Baptist church.
I walked for life. I walked for love. I walked for us.