Finding God on Death Row

Finding God on Death Row

BY CLAUDIA PHAM | October 23, 2023
Sunday’s Readings

My family and friends thought I was crazy for wanting a death row pen pal.

“But he is on death row for a reason. He is not a good guy, Claudia.” I was warned this over and over again. The thing is, after serving my first year in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, I had been discovering and encountering God in unexpected places, and I didn’t think this to be any different. God can be found here, on death row, I thought. 

My first letter arrived from Union Correctional Institution in Raiford, Florida, and my life was forever changed after that moment.

In today’s Gospel, the Pharisees were these self-proclaimed righteous and holy men, but they had malice in their heart and Jesus could recognize that. How many times have we encountered religious or political leaders who speak righteously but really, their actions show hate or disdain for others in their heart?

Finding God on Death Row

“Why are you testing me, you hypocrites?” Is this man on death row not a beloved child of God? Do these refugees escaping war and violence not bear my image? Do not undocumented children have hearts in which the Holy Spirit dwells?

The Gospel story reminds me of the many facets of our identity that we take on: our nationality, religion, gender, ethnicity, education, socioeconomic status, and more. In our pursuit of living out our Gospel values in a political world, it can be challenging for many to remember that beyond labels as Democrats or Republicans, we are inherently children of God. In our work for justice, we must not seek our own self-righteousness, but uphold the dignity of others, especially those whose dignities have been stripped due to political ideologies, laws or policies.

One of the seven values of Catholic Social Teaching is Rights and Responsibilities, and Jesus points out in this Gospel that it is not enough to only live out our civic duties and rights, but also our responsibilities to care for one another, to work towards a society that does not subscribe to systems that oppress or exclude. So yes, God is there, even on death row. Will you see him?

For Reflection:

  • Where have you seen the image of God in perhaps unexpected places and people? 
4 replies
  1. Dr. Eileen Quinn Knight
    Dr. Eileen Quinn Knight says:

    “Where have you seen the image of God in perhaps unexpected places and people?” Kelly asks us to ponder the question and share our thoughts/prayers/insights. The person that comes to mind was a woman who constantly brought the gift of “nesting” to others. She would set up their house in an organized and meaningful way that gave them freedom to do other tasks. She took care of providing a structure that would warrant goodness and health to the elderly so that they would be able to focus on what they really wanted to accomplish in the name of Jesus. She constantly and consistently brought people the food they needed to sustain their work so they could concentrate on their kindness to others. She was aware of the gifts of others and would tell them in a way that was meaningful to them so they could give the graces of their gifts to others. She paid attention to the direction of the Holy Spirit and lived a life in His presence. Yes, she did get annoyed when people couldn’t see the road ahead and took a wrong turn but that did not deter her. With God’s grace she came back to the person and assisted them in straightening out that last move. She invited but did not impose. She wanted God’s way to be their choice. She lives a life for others and with others and knows the goodness each life can manifest in our society.

  2. sonja
    sonja says:

    This week the image of God was portrayed for me by the Archbishop of Galilee, who identifies himself as Palestinian, Arab, Christian and Israeli. He said the land does not belong either to the Jews, or the Palestinians. The land belongs to God.
    We are all asked to lovingly care for the land where we live. God is not behind death and destruction. God is love and we are required to seek justice and bring about peace in our world. I pray that our world leaders will put human dignity before their own personal agendas and successfully negotiate for peace. Let us remember all those whose basic right to live in peace is denied.
    Let’s put things in perspective: the war in the Middle East is worse than the Ukraine. And what is happening in Africa is even worse than the Middle East, but we don’t hear about it due to the bias of our media.

  3. Mike Briley
    Mike Briley says:

    Thank you, Ms. Pham, for your article. Your Gospel voice is clear and compelling. God bless.

    Mike Briley

    Ojai, CA

  4. Dr.Cajetan Coelho
    Dr.Cajetan Coelho says:

    Living in dignity is respecting the gift of life residing in us. Upholding the dignity of others is participating in the art of “doing dignity” to which all are called.


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