Studying Scripture on death row

When looking for examples to illustrate the point of a story, sometimes the example can overshadow the story.

Such was the case of a story I recently wrote on Little Rock Scripture Study, in which participants study different books of the Bible in thousands of parishes in the United States and elsewhere, including several other countries.

But one nonparish setting where Little Rock Scripture Study is used is death row at an Arizona prison.

Deacon Ed  Sheffer of the Diocese of Tucson, Ariz., has been ministering for the past four years, at the request of Tucson Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas, to inmates at Arizona State Prison in Florence, Ariz., in the death row unit known as Eyman SMU II.

“It was not something I would have picked out” as a ministry, Deacon Sheffer confided. He develops spirituality programs for elder care and leads youth retreats, and he used to do bereavement counseling in hospice.

Unlike the typical Little Rock Scripture Study group, there is no small-group setting on death row. Instead, Deacon Sheffer conducts one-on-one studies with individual prisoners.

In an essay published in The New Vision, Tucson’s diocesan paper, Deacon Sheffer recalled his first visit to death row. “As I passed through layer after layer of steel doors, I was hit hard by a presence of a genuine darkness. But even more distinct from this feeling was how God was remaining present to me in the midst of all that darkness. When I arrived at the destination for the visit — a 6-by-10 room used for attorney meetings and pastoral visits — I looked searchingly through the thick safety glass. Sitting behind the glass was a man dressed in an orange jumpsuit who looked closely at me and smiled. I wondered apprehensively where this would all lead.”

From the first encounter came a referral for visits with another death row inmate. Then a third prisoner’s legal team asked Deacon Sheffer to minister to their client, as his attorneys greatly feared for the man’s well-being.

Two more invitations followed. None of the five prisoners he has visited to share Scripture has yet been executed, Deacon Sheffer said. One has since joined the Catholic Church while on death row.

In fact, that inmate wrote Deacon Sheffer a letter. It’s reproduced here,  just as the prisoner wrote it.

“Dear Ed,

“May the peace of Christ be with you! … Today I received my new scripture studies from Little Rock Scripture Study, they look very interesting, especially Parables of the Kingdom. I always praise God for all the blessings, and being able to study His word is always real high on my list.

“My journey has been an adventure, and continues to be, your fellowship has helped a great deal. It may seem strange, but being born again spiritually has transformed me in other ways as well. Physically, mentally, and emotionally I feel like a cocoon changing into a butterfly, praise God it is all good.

“Things seem to fall into place when I’m calm and at peace, another learning experience that I am very grateful for. Actually, I have learned it does not matter how many bible studies I do, or how often I read scriptures, without practical experience being able to apply them in my life I do not fully apreciate their meaning. In fact it is entirely possible that during our journey I learn as much from stumbling now and again as I do from any achievements along the way.

“For now things are going well for me, thanks to the many blessings, some of which I have yet to recognize. On the streets I’d probably be dead by now, so even being in prison could be a blessing. I make no judgments and leave it all up to my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. …

“Love & Respect Always

“In Christ


This entry was posted in clients, CNS, Synod of Bishops. Bookmark the permalink.