Hillary“Shane, do you have any tattoos?”

I asked this question looking in my rearview mirror. In my back seat, Shane Claiborne sighed with heavy consideration. I wondered if he gets this question a lot when he speaks at different events around the country.

“Nope,” he said shaking his head with a grin, “No ink. It’s just not my thing. I think about the things I would have put on my body 10 years ago and it makes me cringe. Also, my mom is really anti-tattoos, and so it just makes things a lot easier if I don’t have any.” (I laughed knowingly…my father is the exact same way.)

Passengers in my car are always treated as guests. Driving Shane Claiborne on February 3, 2017 was no exception. I had volunteered to drive him and other friends around the state of Georgia as he lectured against the death penalty with a group of local activists. It was a crazy, holy mess, but it was worth it to share with others how the “Bible Belt” has suddenly become the “Death Belt.”

Back in July 2016, my friend Sophie Callahan and I met to discuss our duties as co-presidents of the Candler Social Concerns Network. We asked ourselves how we could strengthen discussions around the anti-death penalty movement at Candler. Through the #KellyOnMyMind campaign for Kelly Gissendaner’s life, we had already won an award on Emory’s campus and co-sponsored an academic lecture. We took our question to the Laney Legacy for Moral Leadership’s senior program coordinator Letitia Campbell. With her help, we began asking another question: What could Candler students do to start conversations about the death penalty beyond Candler’s campus?

Enter Shane Claiborne, a nationally acclaimed American evangelical Christian activist and author, most recently of Executing Grace: How the Death Penalty Killed Jesus and Why It’s Killing Us. During the #KellyOnMyMind campaign, Shane’s social media presence had been a huge asset in advocating for Kelly Gissendaner’s clemency.

Shane Claiborne speaks in Atlanta on Feb. 3 (photo: GFADP)Sophie met Shane at a conference shortly after Kelly’s execution in the fall of 2015. He was extremely interested in coming to Candler to talk about his involvement in the anti-death penalty movement, but only if we brought in local activists to speak with him. After six months of planning, dozens of discussions with Candler faculty and staff, and countless e-mail chains with student groups, we had organized “Executing Grace in Georgia: A Faithful Discussion about the Death Penalty.” This event involved three stops: one each in Atlanta, Athens, and Macon. (Watch the Atlanta event here.) Moderated by Rev. Kim Jackson 09T, this event was dynamite. Over the two-day tour, we reached over 700 people, connecting them to basic legislation involving adult criminal justice, juvenile justice, and reentry reform. We also promoted resources, vigils, and letter-writing services provided by Georgians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty for those on Death Row.

Most of us helping with the “Executing Grace” tour were familiar with Shane’s work. In college, his writings and witness were a refreshing confirmation of our respective calls to ministry. Sophie and I basked in the time we got to drive him around Georgia and ask him about his social activism. Some of the topics we discussed included how to relate to extended family members who don’t understand our protest theology, how to do creative tax-filing so as to support local public works instead of the military-industrial complex, and even how to talk to Christians about being pro-active versus simply being pro-[insert political term of choice]. There was even a fun moment where Shane and I got to explain the sport of “frog gigging” (an activity I never would have imagined sharing with him) to Sophie and her husband.

Perhaps the best experience of this whole weekend, though, was seeing Shane interact with our other panelists: Sarah Gerwig-Moore 02T, Kayla Gissendaner, and Jameca McGhee. Their presence was commanding, endearing, and empowering.

Sarah was our panel’s capital case lawyer. She had recently represented Joshua Bishop, who was executed March 31, 2016 and had been her classmate in grade school. She discussed how we disproportionately incarcerate poor people of color (typically suffering from poor legal representation and horrific early childhood experiences). Kayla is the daughter of Kelly Gissendaner. Kelly’s story of redemption and reconciliation was well known at Candler—she was a graduate of the Certificate in Theological Studies program at Lee Arrendale State Prison, of which Candler is a co-sponsor—and I had heard many stories from former and current inmates who had benefited from her pastoral counseling. Kayla stressed the death penalty’s lack of faith in God’s grace and the human capacity for transformation. Jameca is the daughter of Raymond Burgess, who died of natural causes about two months before his death warrant was signed. She spoke of the love and effort he put forth into being involved in her life behind bars, even offering to help her with her homework (though he struggled to read himself). She spoke about the way we unduly imprison and execute persons with intellectual disabilities.

None of these people knew one another before the “Executing Grace” tour, but after meeting, there was instant friendship. To use Shane’s phrase, they were all “ordinary radicals” doing extraordinary work. The way each panelist talked about their loved one could bring you to tears. These were people who did not choose their friends and family members to be sentenced to death: the death penalty chose them.

As we drove between the three cities, one moment consistently stuck out in my mind. Before our second speaking event, Kayla and Jameca started talking with Sophie and me about the tattoos they got after their loved ones were executed. Strangely enough, they each had a tattoo on their forearm. “This is from a letter my mother wrote me,” Kayla said, pointing to the I love you, Mom inscription.

“No way! I’ve got one too!” Jameca said excitedly, extending her right forearm. “It’s my dad’s prison number!”

Sarah came and sat down with us. “Oh, I’ve got one too!” She then showed her forearm tattoo: the Latin inscription behind the bench in the Georgia Supreme Court building. “Fiat justitia ruat caelum. It means ‘Let justice be done, though the heavens may fall.’ So, basically, ‘Come hell or high water.’”

Sarah then proceeded to tell us the abolitionist history behind the Latin phrase. All Sophie and I could do was watch this exchange and tear up. It was the most unforgettable moment of an unforgettable weekend.

Author and priest Father Gregory Boyle talks about the people and stories we experience in ministry as “tattoos on the heart.” When Shane told me why he didn’t have tattoos, I don’t think he was considering the experiences in ministry and mission that have “inked” him all over. They include the nationwide affordable housing crisis, our failing public education systems, and the predatory nature of extended-stay facilities. They also included grassroots activists recognizing shared connections, passions, and visions for the future. I suspect events like our “Executing Grace” tour will “ink” another design on his heart, and so many others. Every Candler student who participated was mesmerized by the cry for love and justice we witnessed that weekend. It was more than just death penalty facts: it was a peragrenatio, a gathering of the saints, a sharing of God’s presence in our lives, and a sending-forth to cast out demons in the name of the Divine.

As we drove back to Atlanta that night, I kept thinking about our panelists’ tattoos. A love note. A prison number. Let justice be done, though the heavens may fall. I wondered what the tattoos on my own heart now looked like because of their stories. Maybe I will get a tattoo after all one day. From my point of view, those marks are “outward signs of inward graces.”  

[Top photo: Shane Claiborne with Candler students, alums, and anti-death penalty advocates during the three-city "Executing Grace" tour in February.]