Saturday, May 22, 2010

A Letter Changes Everything

One of the things that always bothered me about church was all the talk about "helping" others, but there was little "doing".  Social justice is a big part of my spirituality.  My parents imparted this to me by doing not saying.  I grew up with different people staying in our house, or people eating Christmas dinner with us, or driving out to the truck stop to pick someone up.  We delivered groceries and clothes to people.  It was an important part of my growing up.  This to me embodies Jesus' message.  I feel Jesus was about taking care of those around you.  But like I said, at the churches I had been a part of, there was more talking than doing.

That all changed when we moved to Raleigh and Jack started pastoring Pullen.  Here I found people in many different areas actively working to make change.  There was a boycott going on when we got here against Taco Bell and Mt. Olive Pickles around their treatment of farm workers.  (It worked, by the way)   There was an environmental group that set up adventures to clean highways and rivers.  There were groups around hunger issues.  We would go out and glean the sweet potato fields or go to the food bank and help there.  There was a group about the Death Penalty.  They would hold services on the night of an execution and then march to the prison.  They also wrote these guys and visited them in prison.

I didn't jump in.  Wisely, Jack recommended to wait a year and get to know people, settle in, get the kids settled, and basically see what our lives were going to look like before I got too involved.  So I waited.  I kept being drawn to one cause - death row inmates.  It seemed like that year there were several executions.  Years before I had been deeply moved by "Dead Man Walking" and felt I needed to get involved in some way.  Now, if you know me, you know I have a huge fear of being imprisoned falsely.  I don't know why or where this came from, but it is VERY real.  So my interest in this cause surprised both me and Jack.  But when I asked him how I could become involved, he told me about becoming a pen pal.  I thought about it for a while and it seemed the perfect solution.

So Jack introduced me to Billy Ray Anderson.  Billy Ray had written to Jack asking him for a pen pal, and Jack set me up with him.  I was forewarned of the requests for money and of getting too attached, but was not prepared for what would happen.

I realized after his first letter that Billy Ray had a learning disability.  As we begin to write back and forth, I realized that Billy Ray was somewhat mentally disabled.  When he found out I was a teacher, he began to tell me stories from his childhood and told me his I.Q.  His stories broke my heart as I had known many little boys who fit his descriptions.  There seemed to be a symmetry to my work with inner-city kids and now befriending Billy Ray.  I wanted to make a difference in these kids' lives so they would not end up like Billy Ray.

His letters were usually full of scripture and his musings on Jesus.  I told him about some of the students I was tutoring.  He gave me advice about them and my own kids.  He sent me artwork which he had learned to do in prison.   After several months, he asked if I would come to see him.  I was terrified.  Me, going into a prison?  Voluntarily???  Jack agreed to go with me which was allowed because he was a minister.  Jack described the process of the gates closing and at one point being in a very tight space with a gate closed in front of you and another closed behind you.  There really is a "clank".  I made it and met Billy Ray for the first time.  He was a huge man about my age.  Jack stayed with me until my nerves calmed down.  Then he left us alone.  We talked some and he asked me to pray.  Then he asked me to sing, so I sang.  Then it was time to go.  I was deeply saddened to leave him there.  I knew he had done something bad (didn't know what at this point) but he was more like a child than an adult.  Afterwards I asked him about his crime.  He had a hard time telling me, but he did.  He had murdered his girlfriend because she left him.  He described the murder in detail and had confessed when arrested.

All this time the letters kept going back and forth.  I wrote one letter a week, he wrote 4 -5 letters.  I sent little bits of money to his account for stamps and ice cream.   I felt a good friendship with him, much like those I had with my students.  Then one day I opened a letter that changed everything.

Billy Ray wrote a sexually explicit letter to me.  It was a lengthy letter describing many obscene acts.  I was stunned and began crying and shaking at once.  I didn't know what to do.  I felt defiled and betrayed.  We had been writing for over a year at this point.

After much thought and talking with Jack, I opted to end all communications.  Billy Ray had sent several letters as I was trying to understand and decide what I needed to do.  I threw them all away, unopened.  I asked Jack to find a replacement for me and a male therapist had recently asked Jack about a pen pal on death row.  This man took my place and is still writing to Billy Ray.

I have experienced a lot of guilt about leaving Billy Ray.  He has been left all his life, and this is what precipitated his crime.  But at the time, I was unable to cope with the feelings of betrayal and vulnerability his letter evoked.  I was scared.  I became terrified that he would be released and would come to my home. 

About this time a moratorium on executions was put in place as the legislators looked at the issue.  I stopped all involvement in the cause.  Passing the prison causes me much pain.  I have just recently realized the depth of this violation.  I pray that naming it, putting words to the pain can help me begin to heal. 



  1. Very brave of you. Took a lot of courage. I cannot imagine what you are feeling. I have no words other than "good for you" for all of it.

  2. Kaki, thank you for having the courage to write about such a painful and difficult topic. It's so sad on so many levels. I do believe that writing about the things that are hardest to talk about is healing, and I hope this will help.

  3. Kaki, thank you for having the courage to write about this painful and difficult experience. It's so sad on so many levels. I do believe it can be healing to write about things that are hardest to talk about, so I hope this helps.