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?
“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?
- Where have you seen the image of God in perhaps unexpected places and people?
After working in youth ministry for over ten years, Claudia Zuñiga Pham currently works as a religion teacher in a prominent Catholic high school in Orange County, CA. She graduated with her B.A. in Psychology, and before completing her M.A. in Pastoral Theology from LMU, she served in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps for two years in San Antonio, TX and Hollywood, CA. Truly #ruinedforlife, Claudia is passionate about empowering others and living out Gospel values through social justice work. She has devoted time to working with detention ministries, undocumented children, anti-death penalty advocacy, and Moms Demand CA. She is active on social media at @peacelovemrspham and is often seen with a baby on hip and coffee in hand.