Messages of Life from Death Row provides a living example of how we can transform even the most dire of circumstances into an opportunity for transformation and flowering of the soul. Imprisoned on death row in Texas State Penitentiary, for a crime he did not commit, Roger McGowen's situation was seemingly hopeless. Kept in terrible conditions, with virtually all compassion stripped from his day to day life, Roger could so easily have given up. But he believed that God had a perfect plan for his life, and has now become a beacon of truth, hope and inspiration for many. Roger spent years on death row before receiving his first visitor. Often submitted to cruel sensory deprivation, his only lifeline was with his correspondents. From 1997 onwards, they included Pierre Pradervand, who sent Roger a copy of The Gentle Art of Blessing . After reading it, Roger started to ask for blessings for everyone around him, and gradually, a weight lifted from him. Roger's letters - which form the foundations of this book - reveal the blossoming of a soul, a spiritual transformation that led him from rage and victimhood to compassion, forgiveness, gratitude and unconditional love. As Pierre Pradervand says: 'There is a flipside to the astonishingly dehumanizing practice of capital punishment: the equally astonishing discovery that every now and then a death row inmate rises far beyond what could be expected of anyone caught in such an environment and becomes a symbol of hope for us all.'
For the past twelve years, I have been corresponding with Roger W McGowen, an inmate from death row, Texas, the toughest such place in the US. For twenty two years Roger has been sitting on death row in a 6×9 foot cell, for a crime we know he did not commit. For instance, among the unbelievable events of his trial - such as a lawyer who slept in the courtroom and prepared his plea on the basis of the police report, and who did not make a single phone call to simply check Roger's alibi - was the fact that the police concealed two testimonies that could have proved him innocent. Death row, Texas, is not exactly an enviable place. Inmates are in solitary confinement twenty four hours a day, which produces severe psychiatric symptoms, known as the 'SHU (Security Housing Unit) syndrome'. Breakfast is served at three in the morning, lunch at nine and dinner early afternoon. Prison regulations change constantly, harassment of inmates is the rule, and changes of cell are frequent. Punitive violence and brutality is the norm. Some inmates do not even receive visitors - a prison chaplain on death row told me of an inmate she met who had not seen a single visitor in fourteen years!
A spiritual model
No surprise, then, that desperation reaches such extremes that some inmates commit suicide or mutilate themselves atrociously, some become zombies or monsters of violence, and others become insane. A very few manage to stay almost normal or, like Roger, even become spiritual teachers for others: which is what Roger has become for me. This man has 'used' death row to become a spiritual model for many. He has replaced resentment and hatred with love and forgiveness. My favourite statement of his is: 'Love is only one thought away. It can never be depleted. Remember to use it often.'
After corresponding with him for three years, his letters were so remarkable I decided I could not keep them to myself, and published them in French and later Dutch. (An English version is soon to be available on the internet). The impact of the book has been extraordinary, and has changed hundreds of lives, as attested by the amazing letters I have been receiving from readers for six years. As a result, an international defence committee has been formed and, for the first time in twenty two years, Roger has a good lawyer defending him. We are currently seeking a new trial on the basis of the incredible irregularities of the first one.
Roger loves to quote a verse from the favourite hymn of his deceased mother: 'Lord, do not move my mountain,give me the strength to climb it.' He has been doing just that for twenty two years.
Being responsible for your life
His life changed radically the day he decided to no longer be a victim, but to assume the full responsibility for his life. As he wrote to me: 'I believe that everyone is responsible for his or her life. At one point I thought I was a victim and actually started to feel like one, blaming everyone else for my problems. But I realised I had to take responsibility for my actions, and that doing so was the only way I could ever stop feeling like I did...
Every single day of my life, I find something to thank God for. When it is cold and the guys are complaining about it and do not want to get out of bed in the morning, I roll out of bed onto the floor and start doing my push ups. All the time I thank God that I am still able to feel and know what it is like to be cold, because a lot of the guys who were here last year complaining about the cold weather are not here any more to complain this year (because they have in the meantime been executed). Every day and everything is a blessing for me, Pierre. We are responsible for everything that enters our lives, because the things that we allow into our lives are the very things that shape our lives. We can allow these things to be of heaven or of hell - but it is our choice.'
August 22, 1991
And a last word from him on love: 'Loving is so easy and simple that people simply forget it. We only have to remember who we are, and where we come from and who sent us, and remember that we do nothing of our own, that it is the divine Mind and creator who directs our path... You ARE love, so do not waste precious energy deciding that you are love, because love decided that long before you did. You just have to realise it.'
If Roger can do that on death row, Texas...
Gentle blessings and love,