United Methodist churches in the Great Plains Conference are leading the way in efforts against the death penalty in Kansas and Nebraska.
“We’re really feeling like this is the year we’re going to get it through,” said Kalaba Chali, mercy and justice coordinator for the conference.
Legislatures in the two states are in various stages of laws regarding capital punishment.
In Kansas, repeal of the state’s capital punishment statute is being pitched as a way of alleviating the state’s growing budget problems.
In Nebraska, the unicameral adopted a bill in May 2015 replacing the death penalty with life imprisonment without parole, but a group petitioned the issue to be put on the ballot statewide this fall.
“Right now in Nebraska, the focus is on this referendum that will be on the November ballot,” said Stephen Griffith, a retired United Methodist pastor and executive director of Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.
In the 35-year history of NADP, Griffith said, the focus had been on rallying state senators to appeal the death penalty.
“We accomplished that,” Griffith said. “Now the focus shifts. It’s not a legislative effort but a statewide voter campaign.”
Griffith said his group faces an uphill battle, but one that can be won.
“The death penalty proponents have large resources of funds available and they’re going to be very active,” he said. “We, on the other hand, not only NADP but others in our coalition, are trying to retain the action of the legislature. We’re actively fundraising and educating with churches and civic organizations to inform people about the death penalty and inform them about what the ballot question is.”
The NADP, Griffith said, is preparing a four-page discussion guide that will be available to Nebraska congregations.
“The involvement, the activism of individuals and congregations and groups is going to be really, really crucial,” he said. “People need to have conversations with their friends and neighbors and coworkers and congregations. That’s the way we’re going to share the stories.”
The NADP and Great Plains Mercy and Justice team is hosting a workshop from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, March 19, at First United Methodist Church in Lincoln to discuss engaging congregations and communities. Registration for the free workshop is online.
The effort in Kansas, Chali said, received a boost with the Feb. 20 appearance of Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and professor at the New York School of Law.
“So many people in Kansas have read his book and they really connect with his ideals of forgiveness and fair justice and restoration,” Chali said.
Stevenson’s presentation was on connection with the Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty, which had been trying to schedule the nationally known expert in the state for nine months.
“We’ve got a lot more push, we have a lot more people involved and Bryan coming gave us (a boost),” Chali said.
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, Chali said, has been given a signed copy of Stevenson’s book about the death penalty and has promised to read it over his vacation.
“A person with the respect of Bryan, with his framework of the Christian view, helps that cause even in a tough year like an election year here,” Chali said.
Chali said he is optimistic that death penalty prohibition will become law in Kansas.
“It’s a battle that you keep building momentum,” he said. “We feel at this point there is hope.”
The conference and Kansas Coalition both want life sentences without parole in place of the death penalty, he said.
“We’re not saying ‘Let loose every person who has committed crimes.’ What we’re saying is keep them in jail and give them an opportunity to receive salvation,” Chali said. “That’s a different message than, ‘an eye for an eye’ or ‘If you kill you need to be killed.’”
“It’s a Christian value to allow everybody an opportunity for redemption,” he added. “Jesus Christ is giving salvation not just to those who go to church every day but everyone.”
Great Plains Bishop Scott J. Jones has testified against the death penalty in both states.
“A lot of people know Bishop Jones and have a lot of respect for him,” Chali said. “It has been a great help for the bishop to issue statements and go to the legislators in Kansas and Nebraska and make a case from a Christian standpoint.”
Contact David Burke, communications coordinator, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.