Unsettling Advent 2022, Day 27 - Word&Way

Unsettling Advent 2022, Day 27

“If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become like night around me,’ even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.” (Psalm 139:11-12)

Working with folks who have been sentenced to death, as I do, can sometimes feel like living in an entirely different world. When confronted with the pain and suffering of others, it is normal to want to shut down. This is why so many people I know no longer watch the news because, “It’s just too depressing.” Allowing ourselves a break is important, but we must never fully turn our backs on the hurt. This is why last year for Unsettling Advent, I wrote about what Sister Helen Prejean calls “the blessedness of being awake.”

In his book Shot in the Heart, Mikal Gilmore — the brother of Gary Gilmore, the first person executed in the U.S. after the death penalty was reinstituted in 1976 — wrote, “One moment, you’re forcing yourself through the hell of knowing that somebody you love is going to die tomorrow in a known way, at a specific time and place. And that not only is there nothing you can do to change that, but that for the rest of your life you will have to move around in a world that wanted this death to happen.” Being awake to this truth is painful, but I would not trade it for anything.

This Advent, I have not had the luxury of looking away from the hurt in this world as an execution date looms for another one of my clients. Amber McLaughlin is set to be executed by the state of Missouri on Jan. 3, the Tenth Day of Christmas. This Christmas will not be like any other I have experienced.

In my work, but especially now, hope has to be an intentional practice. I find hope in my support system — in family and friends who are present to my pain and understanding of my anger. I find hope in my faith. I take comfort in the knowledge that by bearing witness, and being present, I am taking part in what my dear friend calls “a sacred theological tradition.”

Opponents of the death penalty hold a vigil for Thomas Edwin Loden Jr. outside the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman, Mississippi, as he was executed on Dec. 14, 2022. (Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press)

I also find hope in my clients. When I was earning my master’s degree in social work, I bought myself a leather-bound journal. Each time I am reminded of why I do my job — particularly after a meaningful client interaction — I write it down. That journal lives on my desk so that I can always refer back to it. The piece of scripture chosen for the start of this reflection was given to me by one of my clients and is written in that journal.

God calls us to be present to each other and to our world, both in the beauty and the hurt, but God doesn’t ask us to do this alone. God is always with us, and it is through being with and holding each other that we find our hope.

Sophie Day, MSW, is a capital mitigation specialist at the Federal Public Defender for the Western District of Missouri.