A very dear friend of mine, Roger W McGowen, has spent more than half his life on death row in Texas for a crime we know he did not commit (he is now 47). Rather than allowing himself to be destroyed by totally inhumane circumstances, he used them to grow. Often painfully, slowly, with setbacks, but never, never giving up his relentless search for improvement, a deeper understanding of life, a more spiritual vision.
A spiritual heritage for humanity
I started corresponding with Roger in 1997. After 3-4 years, I felt I could not keep his amazing letters to myself. They belonged to the cultural and spiritual heritage of humanity. The book of his letters appeared in French in 2003 (since it has been translated into Dutch and a completely revised English version was published by Cygnus in 2010.)
The impact of the book has simply been unbelievable. For eight years it has been transforming lives around the planet and enabled the international support committee created in support of his defence in 2006 to raise an important sum donated by readers for his defense (legal costs are very high in the USA). One woman in Zürich was so touched she sent over $50,000 – just from reading a book!
In April of this year, Roger sent me an extract from a letter from a young Swiss boy of 13 who wrote: ‘Because of your book, I now volunteer in a shelter for the less fortunate. After reading your book, I will never look at people the same or treat them the same and from this day on I will try to do only good.’ 13 years old! Roger adds, ‘I had the letter until the last shake down where they destroyed [personal possessions in] our cells and everyone lost things. It was one of the most touching letters I ever received.’
Giving thanks for small blessings
This amazing man has reached a level of forgiveness, humility, unconditional love, happiness and even humour that are almost unbelievable. He wrote to a good friend of mine that if he had to die on death row, he would at least have proved that one can be happy even there! And speaking of humour, a correspondent of his sent me a recent letter where Roger writes, ‘I am doing well. I could wish for better lodgings but there are many that live in worse conditions so I give thanks to God for the small blessings that I have and try to make the best from what I am given.’
Among the many spiritual tools Roger has forged or used to grow in prison, blessing has played a key role, as the following extract from a letter of his stresses.
‘Much of my property has been destroyed and they tore my cell apart twice a day [= shake down]. They tore it apart on December 23, my birthday. They came back and did it again later that same night. They tore it apart again on New Year’s Eve – they really destroyed things that day. Then they locked the prison down on January 2, and for the next 11 days we were fed cold pancakes and peanut butter sandwiches. … I was very upset for being treated this way, so upset that I stopped talking to anyone…’
A burden lifted
‘Then I received The Gentle Art of Blessing and began to read and my burden lifted. So I started blessing the officers, all of them, especially those who had just torn apart my belongings. And I realized that God was showing me the calm in the middle of the storm and that love is so easy. I will not bow to hatred. They cannot make me hate them. I will continue to bless them, regardless of what they destroy, because they cannot destroy the love I have for them as children of God.
‘I have to forgive them a thousand times for the wrong they do. I will not be a victim. Blessings for others are blessings for us. God never forgets. When we bless others we bless ourselves, mind, body and self.’
A renewed sense of love
And the next month he wrote to me: ‘Actually things have gone smoothly over the last month, and I recognize it is because of my blessing everyone all day and night, no matter what they have done to me. Yes, things are a lot easier here, not because the officers have changed, but because my outlook has changed. I look at things with a renewed sense of love and understanding. I now try to look for the good and perfection in all of God’s children, even those that hate me, because God made us all perfect.
‘I know that God has really blessed me. I know in my heart that God has something wonderful planned for me. Yes, God’s plan for us all is perfect.’
This is written from death row, Texas.
And I will end with my favorite quote from the whole book:
‘Love is only one thought away.
It can never be depleted.
Remember to use it often.’
Love to you all,