Note: This is not a news report filled with facts about last night’s vigil. This is simply my story of what I experienced and what I understood to have happened. The news articles are about the facts. This is about my heart.
Yesterday started like any other. Breakfast, math, spelling…..and then the text came from the Fella.
He said there was a vigil going to be held at 6 p.m. at the prison where Kelly Gissendaner was to be executed.
Having already seen the announcement on Facebook, I knew, but I wondered where he was going with this.
“I think you should go.”
And with those five words he turned my day and my world upside down. I offered many excuses as to why I shouldn’t (carpooling children, the drive, not wanting him to have to leave work early…..) And still he said, “Go.” He even texted Aub, home from college for Spring Break, and offered the idea to her.
As we talked and after I talked with my Aunt, I started warming up to the idea. And then, in a moment, I found myself wanting to go. To be there with others who were concerned–passionate even–about justice and mercy and finding a place for them to co-exist peacefully.
As I was cleaning out my vehicle–a job that always needs doing, I soaked in the spring-like air. It was…..downright warm. The littles were literally romping in the backyard as was Miss Sophie, so happy not to have frozen fingers and toes and noses. It was wonderful.
And in the midst of that, I stopped and wondered if Kelly would be allowed to breathe in the beautiful fresh air, if she would know that winter was slowly losing its grip on the world, and that maybe spring would win. Again. As she does every year. And hopefully sooner rather than later. I just hoped Kelly could feel it and know. And I cried.
Aub and I met the Fella on our way out of town. He took the littles and headed out on the adventures that Monday usually brings.
It took a surprisingly short time for us to get to the prison in Jackson. I was glad I had read the directions on Facebook as to what to bring and do. We no sooner had turned in than they directed us to turn before the guard’s gate into a pasture/open field to our left. Having pulled out our IDs as we were told, we handed them over to an officer who copied down our names and my tag number. There were law enforcement officers, dressed in full protective gear from what it looked like, all over the place. As I drove to park where directed, Aub and I were quiet. The officer who guided me into the spot to park under the trees next to the roped off area told us to gather all we wanted to take with us. We would not be allowed to return to our vehicles unless we were leaving the grounds. He also had me open all doors and the hatch on the back. The drug dogs searched our vehicle.
Aub and I carried our water, our chairs, and phones with us around to enter the roped off area. On the outside of the roped off area that was closest to the road, the press had already started gathering.
My eyes were immediately drawn to a group of women gathered close. They were calling out, “Kelly saved me!” “Kelly is my friend!” “Kelly told me to get out and never come back there. And I did what she said. I haven’t been back in there since.”
The Struggle Sisters.
The women who have served time and been encouraged by Kelly. Coming together to support her, even if as close as they could get to their friend was out there in the middle of that field. Looking back towards the woods that hid the facility from our eyes.
Five minutes in and I was already so overwhelmed with emotions, my eyes flooded.
Y’all. The story we’ve all been following. The people we’ve heard about whom Kelly touched and helped. The woman we’ve been praying for.
All of that is real. So very real. And in that moment, my heart broke even more. This was no story, this was someone’s life.
And while I knew that it was real, it hit me in that moment like never before.
About that time, a woman (whom Aub and I are pretty sure was one of Kelly’s attorneys) lifted her cell phone in the air. “Hey everybody! I have Kelly on the phone and she’s listening. How about a round of ‘This Little Light of Mine’?”
Oh my heart. The tears really fell then. We all sang together, our eyes and hearts and energy focused on that cell phone and the woman listening on the other end. Several of her friends called out, “I love you Kelly!” “Thank you Kelly!” “I’m still here, Kelly!” “We’re still praying, Kelly!”
The woman with the phone laughed as the singing faded and said, “Maybe one more time in tune?” We all laughed and sang one more round.
We had been there less than ten minutes.
Immediately following the phone call, the woman gathered herself and went to a van that had pulled up. She was told she couldn’t take her notepad with her I guess, as she walked back and handed it to someone. She got in the van and it pulled away. She was going to meet Kelly, I believe.
We stood and got our bearings. There were different groups of people gathering. There were many clerical collars, mostly but not all Episcopal priests. Their Bishop was there too. There were students whom we believe were from Candler at Emory. There were the Struggle Sisters, loud and passionate and loving. “This is not right!” one called out.
There were a few older men and women–people who have been doing this for years. One older man brought a stack of signs that different people carried throughout the night. They have been attending the vigils for one about to be executed for a long time. “Since they started back the death penalty in 1976,” she said. She is 70 years old and very interesting. She pointed to another roped off area that I hadn’t really noticed. “That’s where the folks who support capital punishment can gather,” Miss S told us. “Way back when the Klan would show up in full garb and stand over there. Oh they didn’t cover their faces, but they were here. ”
The area for those in favor of capital punishment. The interesting thing is that for all of the negative comments I have read with regards to clemency and mercy, not a soul came and stood over there the entire night. Not a single person.
We gathered in a circle a little before 7 p.m., the scheduled execution time, and we held hands. We sang “Amazing Grace” and “This Little Light of Mine” and said the Lord’s Prayer together. Then a prayer was offered by a minister from Tennessee. When asked if anyone else wanted to pray, one of the Struggle Sisters said yes. She prayed briefly for her friend and those standing there, but then she began to pray for the ones behind the bars. The ones who knew Kelly and loved her and were going to feel very lost in prison without her. “Please let them find peace. And comfort. And please let them not riot. Please let them be okay.” And then at almost exactly seven, the rain began to fall. Just as it should be.
I can’t even.
I have thought of the message this gives about rehabilitation and redemption and grace to the world, but I hadn’t thought about the ones who day after day are imprisoned and were looking to Kelly, thinking that’s what it looks like to be okay in here. That’s what we are supposed to do. And then to know she’s been executed? Despite all of her efforts to become a better person?
No. I can see darkness all over that.
We then gathered close in together and we were told what was going on.
Would the execution happen at exactly 7 p.m.? No. We later found out there were three appeals being sent up through the court system, so no, thankfully it did not happen at 7 p.m.
How would we know? There were a couple of people who had folks contacting them. They shared with the rest of us. I don’t know who they were communicating with, but we were getting good information that the news sources didn’t have apparently. When we got it. And as far as it being “done” and “over,” one priest shrugged sadly and said, “The witnesses will come back. And then we’ll know it’s over.”
Because of those words, every vehicle that came up that road, lights shining in the darkness as it emerged from the area behind the woods, we all slowed our steps, took in our breath, and waited. And still no witnesses.
Word came in that the appeal had gone to the Georgia Supreme Court. At that time we were unclear what the exact appeals were, but eventually we were. Aub was really good at looking up things on her phone to understand what was going on.
When word came down that the 11th circuit had denied the appeals and it was now going to the US Supreme Court, shoulders sagged a little bit. The news articles will tell you it was fifty out there last night, but don’t you believe them. I can’t give you a number, but it was COLD. My toes were numb and it was obvious about the time the sky grew dark that my girl and I had not dressed warm enough.
At one point I offered my chair to one of the Sisters. She and another friend and Aub were sitting there together. Aub heard one say to a friend on the phone, “This ground is cold. Reminds me of my bed in lockup. But I can see the sky, and it is beautiful!” And she proceeded to go into great detail and describe the sky. Aub was blown away. Imagine not being able to see the sky whenever you wanted to. Something so many of us take for granted. Heartbreaking.
We heard a man who works with At Risk Youth talking about bringing young people to meet Kelly. She would talk with them and then say, “I don’t ever want to see you again.” Kelly is all about wanting folks to realize they are better than being behind bars. She wants them to stay out. He laughed at the memory of her heartfelt words.
He also talked about Kelly’s daughter at the Parole Board Clemency hearing last week. Her daughter stood up and said she was proud to say she is Kelly Gissendaner’s daughter. That she was proud of the person her Mama has become.
Bless it. Again, the tears.
Walking to keep warm and to quiet my soul. This is my shadow cast as I walked.
Looking out toward the prison behind the woods, where she sat and waited to know if she would die that night.
As the night got later, I decided to walk around as some were doing. It served to warm up my body and to quiet my mind. As I walked around and around and I looked out toward the jail where Kelly was sitting, waiting for others to decide her fate–one.more.time–these words went through my mind.
My sister waits but I can do nothing, and so I walk.
My sister waits.
And so I walk.
It was a hard and thin place to be. Caring and wanting to know answers and not quite sure how this was going to go. As I wondered around and while Aub was listening to the Sister describe the sky, I met and talked with an amazing priest who is shining so much light in this world. As we talked my stomach dropped. It seems to me, as I listened to her and others that night, and with all I’m reading, that this is very political. Sentencing, executions, death penalty, clemency, and all of it. It seems to be about who is in charge and what suits them at the moment. I don’t mean to be cynical, but it feels that way. It was also very disconcerting to hear that in addition to the execution scheduled last night, there had been one last month. Another was scheduled for next Tuesday and another for the 24th.
I’m sorry. WHAT?!
“Have there always been this many? This frequency?” I asked. I couldn’t believe it because how did I not know this was going on. In my very own home state. I was assured that no, something seems to be in the air, and some were pondering that maybe it has something to do with a case coming before the Supreme Court in the next couple of months. I haven’t really read up enough on it yet, so I won’t get into that here, but let me assure you, again–see how politics can govern so much of this?
Aub came up to join us, and we talked some more until we saw some vehicles moving again. Lights shining in our eyes from across the driveway. We saw someone get out.
Folks were murmuring. People were guessing. “I think it’s the witnesses.”
A man said, “Well I thought I saw the hearse go that way a little bit ago, so maybe yeah. Maybe we didn’t hear and it’s already over.”
The emotions were overwhelming. And then the words passed through the crowd gathered, a little smaller than the one that had started out the evening, but not by much–
We didn’t know the why’s or what’s, but we knew the who. Kelly. Kelly was still alive.
Good news. GREAT NEWS.
Aub heard one of the sisters point at another van and say, “Who’s in that van? Is it Kelly?”
We can’t be sure. But surely at some point, she would leave the prison in Jackson and be transported back to Arrendelle, the women’s facility. Maybe that was Kelly.
The Department of Corrections gave a 25 second statement that had all of the media scrambling. The spokesperson never came any closer to our group. As we knew we couldn’t leave the rope area and come back in and as fast as it all happened, none of our group was able to go and hear what was said. However it didn’t take long to know something had happened with the drugs. Thankful. Like last week with the snow that kept them from transporting Kelly down to Jackson for the execution as scheduled, I was so thankful for those cloudy drugs. Kelly would live to see another day.
We saw someone headed our way and I wondered if he were going to share what had happened with us. He did not. He asked us to gather our things and get in our vehicles, so we could leave in an orderly fashion.
I was so thankful and uncertain and blown away, that I just did what he asked and didn’t wonder why he didn’t give a statement to us until later on.
That was the fastest drive home I’ve ever had. The hour plus trip only seemed like fifteen minutes.
Miracles can do that to a person, I guess.
I am so thankful that the Fella not only encouraged us to go but that he also helped make it happen. It was a beautiful and emotional night. I met some of the most wonderful people last night. They shared freely, their stories, their smiles, their hope and fears. And we were together. Hands and hearts joined together with one hope. That Kelly’s life would be spared. I’m also grateful for a safe journey and a great traveling partner. She’s going places this one. If you could have seen her wheels turning as she read the information she could find on the appeals, you most likely would have been impressed too. I’m so proud of her.
I woke up this morning anxious for the news. Was it already scheduled? Or worse, had it already happened? No and no. Early this afternoon, a statement was issued that not only has Kelly’s execution been postponed, but so has the one of the man scheduled for next week–postponed indefinitely.
That made me smile for the rest of the afternoon.
Last night was beautiful. People of all walks of life joining together in song and in message and in support of another. If that isn’t a picture of what this life should be about–I don’t know what is.
Giving thanks and love to all.