By Raymond Johnson and the Manchester church
The story of Raymond Johnson and The Manchester church by Tyler Roebuck
“Each of us is more than worst thing we’ve ever done” – Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy
Printed in the bulletin each Sunday at Manchester Church of the Brethren ( North Manchester, Ind.) is this statement of inclusion: ” As a Christian Community, striving to be peace-makers, we are called by Christ to be inclusive and caring. We affirm that people of any race, ethnic identity, gender, sexual orientation, economic status, education level, ability, age, or life situation are welcome in our congregation.”
In recent years, the congregation-familiar with reaching out with love in controversial ways-has tested the “life situation” portion of this statement with the inclusion of a member who has been pushed to the farthest limit of society.
The story begins nearly five years ago with the seniors for Peace group at Timbercrest Senior Living Community, a Church of the Brethren home located about a mile from the church. David Waas, coordinator of the group at the time, invited Death Row Support Project co-founder Rachel Gross (see sidebar) to speak at one of their meetings. She discussed the project, in which participants engage in regular letter -writing with prisoners on death row, and brought the letters of several inmates looking to correspond.
David was intrigued by the letter of a man named Raymond Johnson who was in prison in Oklahoma. “When I read his letter to Rachel saying he would like a correspondence, I thought, ‘This is someone I can relate to'” he says. “He’ s a very intelligent person, and he’s interested in social issues.”
Their relationship grew rapidly, and the two began discussing nearly everything. “We talk about theology, the government, politics, prison, the death penalty, ” David says. They would talk about ” absolutely anything.”
Raymond views David as a father; he had no father figure in his life, and he loves David tremendously. “He can call if somebody has put money on an account to use the telephone, so I put money on an account, ” was says. “He occasionally calls when he’s down or blue. His cell is underground, so sometimes he’s kind of blue and deppressed and takes a little bit of cheering up.”
Eventually, David struggled to keep up with Raymon’s prolific writing, so he began to send a copy of Pastor Kurt Borgmann’s sermon each week with his letters. Raymond responded with curiosity and appreciation.
“As he read Kurt’s sermons and exchanged letters with David, he continued to express a lot of appreciation, “Rachel Gross says.” ( He) really liked what Kurt had to say and wanted to know more about, ‘What is this Church of the Brethren, Raymond asked a question that intrigued and surprised David and the Manchester church:
Could he become a member?
This was a complicated question given the background of the unique way membership works at Manchester.
“The membership request is brought by a pastor to the church board, “Kurt explains. “Often, people have been worshiping with us for a while or maybe people know them, or they’ve been connected and involved in the church. When you bring up someone’s name and say that, ( for example) ‘Tyler Roebuck is interested in becoming a member. His membership is currently at such and such a church, and he wants to become a member by transfer of letter.’ People say, ‘Oh yeah, sure.” And somebody might say, ‘ Who’s Tyler?’ ‘Well, you know, he’s the guy that plays in the hand bell choir from the college.’ It’s that kind of conversation.'”
With Raymond, it was a different conversation entirely. “People had never seen Raymond, never met Raymond; they didn’t know anything about him,”, Kurt says. ” It was not just that he was in jail o even that he was on death row. It was that he we had a person asking for membership who had never been in our worship and congregation. For Brethren, that’s really kind of weird, because we’re used to thinking of the church in term of a ‘community of faith’ or a ‘ church family’. Any time you bring something that’s that far out of our way of thinking. That already raised questions of ‘ How’s this going to work?’ and ‘Who is this person?’
The board had a lot of meaningful, well-thought-out questions about Raymond and requested more information.
“The assignment fell back on me to strike up a correspondence and work at a church membership correspondence course,” Kurt says. Through this conversation, in which he and Raymond wrote monthly, he was to lear where Raymond stood and if he was ready to become a member.
As it became more apparent that Raymond was to join, the Manchester church started easing the congregation into the idea with Sunday school classes and small group discussions about welcoming their controversial prospect.
“I offered along the way that I was willing to talk with anybody at any time that had questions about this,” Kurt says.
Accepting someone convicted for a double murder did not go without its struggles, and concerned members raised their voices, and were listened to, throughout the process.
“There were some people who felt very nervous or uncertain about that-some were not happy about it-mainly because they were aware that this person had committed a horrific crime, ” Kurt says. Conversations with concerned members were “matters of conscience and conscientiousness in terms of their faith,” he adds. “There was no knee-jerk reactions. It was all very thoughtful, reflective questioning and exploring.”
The issue centered on the confrontation of a Christian desire to forgive sinners and love unconditionally, versus the stark reality of welcoming someone into the congregation that society has taught is dangerous and a complete outsider.
Even Kurt had difficulties wholly accepting Raymond into his heart, a journey he spoke about during his sermon at Annual Conference in Greensboro, NC, this summer. As he said in his sermon:”It didn’t go particularly well at first. I suppose my writing was a little formal and uncertain, his was more emotional, but also the matter of what it takes to establish trust-to make a connection, a relationship.”
When most bof the congregation had found peace with the idea, Kurt brought the membership request back to the board. They had a phone conversation with Raymond, and he read his membership vows. These were recorded to be played to the congregation in a public affirmation of membership. “Hearing his voice was important,” Kurt says. “It make him a real person-to all of us.”
Raymond Johnson joined Manchester Church if the Brethren on March;, 2015, very near his birthday. The congregation’s response was prompt and full of love.
“His information was put into the Newsletter and in the directory,” Rachel says, “and then other people started to write to him.” He received birthday cards and congratulatory letters. He responded to each one.
Ruthann Angle, the only person from the congregation to have met Raymond in person, offers nothing but adoration and respect for Raymond.
“He’s a very personable young man,” she says. “Pretty articulate. He’s a very good thinker. We talked for four hours on a one-day visit and had a delightful time. We had some serious moments, as he told me a lot about his past, and some fun moments and just got to know each other.”
Now that time has passed, things have settled at the church ” For most people, they’re not thinking about it very much,” Kurt says. “It’s just past of our story now”.
So how does Raymond , who still sits on death row in Oklahoma, interact with the congregation? He writes letters constantly with a small but dedicated group. He sends birthday cars to his friends within the congregations. He prays constantly for them. Perhaps most significantly, though, he love them.
Kurt was still uneasy with his own reluctance to accept Raymond, however. In his annual Conference sermon he described a phone call he had with Raymond.
“A little less than a month ago I wrote Raymond a note and asked him to call me. He did, early one Saturday morning. He called from his prison cell, and I took the call in my living room. And I told him about this sermon, and I told him about my reluctance, and then I told him that I love him.
“With no hesitation at all, he responded: ‘I love you , too. And I love the church.'”