Kansas currently has nine inmates who have been sentenced to death.
The state has not performed an execution in 50 years and is not likely to do so anytime soon, but justice advocates, including many members of United Methodist congregations in Kansas, believe this is not enough and are working to see capital punishment eliminated altogether as an option in the state.
“We’ve been working with the Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty,” said the Rev. Junius Dotson, senior pastor of Saint Mark United Methodist Church in Wichita. “We’ve had conversations about how to keep this issue in the forefront.”
Within these conversations, the group had dreamed of getting Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer, social justice activist, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and professor at New York School of Law, to Kansas to share about alternatives to capital punishment.
On Feb. 20 that dream was realized as Stevenson spoke on the death penalty, race, poverty and justice at Saint Mark UMC at an event co-sponsored by the local church, the Mercy and Justice Ministry of the Great Plains Conference, the Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty (KCADP) and The Kansas African American Museum.
“There is great work to be done in this state,” Stevenson said. “There is great work to be done in the community.”
His speech mixed powerful personal stories with concrete suggestions for activism, including going into the places where there is injustice, changing the narrative, holding onto hope and committing to do uncomfortable things.
“We’ve been working since August trying to get him here,” said Ewnetu Tsegaw, community coordinator in the Wichita area for KCADP. “Our main sponsor is the Great Plains UMC Conference.”
“They were very influential in helping us make contact,” said Mary Sloan, KCADP’s executive director. “They sponsored this event and helped make it possible for us to bring Professor Stevenson here.”
The timing could not have been more relevant, given that a Kansas House bill that would eliminate the death penalty has not been given a hearing, and Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeay, D-Wichita, recently introduced a similar bill in the Kansas Senate.
Stevenson was clear that he had struggled to find time to speak in Kansas, but did so because of the importance of the issue.
“He made the time because he wanted to support our efforts for repealing the death penalty in Kansas,” Sloan said.
This was reflected as Stevenson spoke.
“Why do we want to kill all the broken people?” he asked. “What is it that when we see brokenness do we want to kill it and crush it and throw it away? I realize all of my clients are broken people. They’ve been broken by poverty, broken by race, broken by neglect, broken by abuse.”
Stevenson said an outpouring of compassion in a broken justice system is possible when people recognize that everyone is broken.
“I do what I do because I’m broken, too,” he said. “The truth is, if you change narratives, if you hold on to hope, if you do uncomfortable things, it will change you.”
Stevenson said the character of a community should be judged not by how it treats the rich and powerful, but by how it treats those who are poor, incarcerated and condemned.
He also said the death penalty is not in line with the Christian values articulated by Kansans.
This stuck with Tsegaw.
“Kansas is such a Christian state,” Tsegaw said. “But our Christian values should be reflected in the criminal justice system as well. As Kansans, the death penalty just doesn’t go with our values.”
Sloan said more information on Kansas’ death penalty is available at the website ksabolition.org, and she urged people of faith to contact their legislators about the bills that have been introduced.
“The churches have already played a big role in supporting the repeal of the death penalty,” Sloan said. “This includes the Mennonites, the UMC, the Roman Catholic Church, many other churches, the Episcopal Church, increasing numbers of evangelical denominations. They can mobilize their members and have their members contact their elected officials and tell them they want a state repeal.”
This story was written by Sarah Gooding, who is a freelance journalist and a staff writer for The Morning Sun in Pittsburg, Kansas.