The following is excerpted from a speech given at the Arkansas National Association of Social Workers' Conference in March 2018.
By Morgan Leyenberger
I’m grateful for the people who have blazed this trail long before me, and there are so many, but especially for Anna Cox, who is a visionary of healing, transformation and social justice. Without her guidance, I wouldn’t have the courage to meditate with men and women who are in prison, wouldn’t have the courage to reflect daily on how my experiences and bias affect others and to hold myself accountable to compassion and deep love, and I certainly wouldn’t have had the courage to walk into a locked cage with a man about to be executed by the state of Arkansas.
May everyone have a happy Chotrul Duchen today...the Buddhist day of Miracles.
Approximatey 2400 years ago, Shakyamuni Buddha completed many miracles to benefit all beings (this wish of benefit included you, all these years later!) I expect that there might be some more that you are wishing that he had added just for you...perhaps winning the lottery! But today all your actions and even your thoughts are multiplied millions of times over...the good ones and the negative ones. So perhaps you can hold a vision for your own miracles..but remember the key ingredient...to benefit all beings!
My vision today encompasses a wish of long life of great benefit for all. Why is this so much on my mind? In Arkansas, the execution dates have been set for eight of my friends on our death row. The executions of these eight people are scheduled to take place in just 10 days, beginning April 17 until April 27.
In history, executions were considered justice before science explained a great deal more about the causes of violence and how to safely protect ourselves from those who have committed violence. Of course, many in our justice system today who are given the death sentence are also subject to a system that suffers bias of racial and social identify, the inability of some to pay for excellent legal help, and of course, many on death row are actually innocent. We try to provide justice but we will always fail because we are flawed beings in a flawed system.
Even though all religions ask that we not kill others, we continue to offer justice in America (although we are one of the few countries in the world that do) that kills people to give comfort to the victims and to all of us. I do not want any killings done in my name. I know these eight men. Twenty years ago as I visited the Arkansas prisons, I met weekly with these eight friends - Bruce, Don, Stacey, Ledell, Jack, Marcel, Kenneth, and Jason. Although I haven't seen them in a while (because of my health issues), I still get letters and exchange cards with them. Back then, we had long talks about the horrific circumstances that caused their incarceration...but also about the horrific life events that planted the seeds for those circumstances. And we talked of their pain, sadness and, with each one, we touched the compassion in their hearts that wished to do good things for others. In 2017, they are different people than they were then. To live in a state that says it will put them to death for 'our' peace asks us to truly examine this premise of justice.
Today, on Chotrul Duchen, I will begin the walk to the death chamber with my eight friends and offer an invitation to you to come along...bringing compassion and awareness to all beings everywhere with every step. Each day, I would like to take a step through that door via the gift of social media. Perhaps with enhanced attention to this unfolding mass execution, and in writing letters to the governor and Arkansas representatives, we might bring about an end to the death penalty everywhere...or at least save these eight lives.
May you receive the miracles that you need to be happy, peaceful, and awaken to living compassion for all beings everywhere, with no one left out.
To the Honorable Governor Asa Hutchinson:
Compassion Works for All, a prison outreach organization, strongly urges the cancellation of the eight scheduled executions.
Over the twenty-three years that Compassion Works for All has provided therapeutic services to people in prison, including people on death row, we have witnessed that offenders were victims long before they harmed others. Violence perpetuates violence, and state sanctioned killing will only continue this cycle of harm and trauma.
Executions are harmful to all. State sanctioned violence does not offer resolution or healing for victim’s families, it causes tremendous stress to Department of Correction employees, and it implicates each citizen. There is no person who has the wisdom to decide who should die by our hand.
The majority of the country’s criminologists are opposed to the death penalty, and research shows its use does not deter crime. There are many flaws in our criminal justice system that leads to mistakes and disparities for those sentenced to death. More than one hundred people have been executed in our country who were later proven innocent, and people of color are far more likely to receive a death sentence. This system is expensive and flawed -- marred by inequality, systemic racism and arbitrariness.
Violence and crime create fear and trauma in communities. These are conditions that must be addressed. While extremely challenging, crime also creates opportunities for our society to have conversations about justice, healing, compassion and hope.
As governor, you have shown deep compassion and willingness to confront poverty, trauma, education and family stability in our state, and you have made the connection between these adverse experiences and criminal outcomes. You have encouraged second chances and hope for children in the foster care system and people reentering society after serving time in prison.
We urge you to extend this compassion to those on death row. We cannot know what led these eight individuals scheduled for execution to act in the way that they did to cause such harm. We can transform that violence with compassion and understanding. As a state, we can break this cycle of violence and harm. Human decency demands that we cancel these executions and end the death penalty.
Anna Cox, ACSW
Founder, Compassion Works for All
Morgan Holladay, LMSW
Executive Director, Compassion Works for All
Judith Elane, JD
Communication Specialist, Compassion Works for All
Volunteer, Compassion Works for All
Board of Directors
Cindy Brown, MBA, LCSW
Jean Crume, LCSW, Therapist
Dent Gitchel, PhD, Associate Professor
Jim Harper, LCSW, Therapist
Jim Hathaway, Attorney
Dave Hoffpauir, LCSW, Therapist
Ani Tendron (Kathy Downs), Nun
Robynn Zinser, DC, Chiropractor
Take Action Now1. Write your own letter to Governor Asa Hutchinson and send it to:
Governor Asa Hutchinson
500 Woodlane, St.
Little Rock, Arkansas 72201
2. Call the Arkansas Governor's office (501) 682-2345
3. Write a letter to the editor of your local paper
Thank you for the miracles we have shared in so many ways. I am saying goodbye as I have finally made the reluctant decision to retire from Compassion Works for All and from a professional life as therapist and meditation mentor.
We are thrilled to announce our newest board member, Dave Hoffpauir!
Dave is a Social Worker at the Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System working in the Substance Use Disorders Program on the Fort Roots Campus. He is an Adjunct Professor in the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s Bachelor of Social Work Program and is a Field Instructor in the Graduate School of Social Work.
He served in the past as NASW’s Central Branch Representative and he currently serves as a board member for Our House and the Harmony Health Clinic. He serves as an Advisory Board member for the Immerse Program which provides wrap-around services for youth aging out of the state’s foster care system. He has a strong desire to strengthen his community with an interest in mental health, public policy, education, child welfare and health care.
You can meet Dave and welcome him to the team this Saturday, March 26 at the Green Corner store, where we will all be enjoying ice cream and good company!
In our prison meditation group, we have a strong focus on mentorship and support for each member by the group. It is helpful in such a processing group, in a family, a relationship, or other classes that we all consider together how to give deep support of one’s life journey. Only then can we evaluate how to best serve each other.
Here we share with you a letter that offers a brief perspective on growth and evolution. We explore how all of us meet our growing edges of all the many aspects of our self constantly. If we understand that reaching those edges, especially when many aspects of self are approaching safety, defying next steps simultaneously, we may feel vulnerable and fearful. If, however, we know that each is the next step in our evolution, these edges are presenting themselves because we are growing. Therefore, we must tip toe along our path or take a flying leap to resolution. In this way, each challenge is made more manageable as we give ourselves the clarity of a road map. Then we can ask for the help and support of others who appreciate our journey. We learn to practice the essential key of emotional self-regulation, balance, and ‘letting go’ of fears because we know the root of our distress.
Then on we go with supportive people going beyond intellectual or emotional “choices” and instead, we are learning to listen to inner wisdom guiding us on our life long journey.
Here is the letter to guide the men in our group with a bit more self-awareness.
Anna, Jim and I were at the Maximum Security Unit last Monday for our monthly meditation group. In the past year, this group has taken on a new flavor. It is completely inmate run. One participant each month shares his spiritual practice with the group and then opens the floor for discussion. The topic this night was about unity. Jesus (pronounced with a hard J), our instructor, passed a shoe string around the circle and asked everyone to tie a knot to represent a struggle they were having in their lives. We were running an hour late due to miscommunication at the unit, but no one in the group seemed to mind. Or if they did, they just tied it up with all the other knots. When the shoe string was completely knotted up, Jesus led us in a meditation about interconnectedness and no self. The post-meditation discussion revealed incredible stories from childhood to life in the barracks. And then, some of our guys shared their celebratory news -- the recent Supreme Court decision to grant juveniles sentenced to life in prison a retrial meant renewed hope for several in our prison family. They announced with beaming faces that they may not be at the unit for much longer. As the guys celebrated the possibility of being released, Jesus reflected that he is dedicated to returning to prison to help others find freedom. It struck me, as I'm sure it strikes you, that Jesus spontaneously spoke a bodhisattva vow. In essence, this is a vow to use your own accumulation of wisdom, insight and compassion to help others attain freedom from suffering. Lack of freedom is ubiquitous in prison. It is the inherent nature of this system of punishment. Despite this, Jesus and others slashed through this story of confinement by cultivating internal freedom from suffering. He skillfully and cunningly interrupted a system meant to break down every basic human right, and declared his freedom behind bars. He further disrupted his shackles by committing to use his insight to benefit others. This moment was pregnant with authentic, sincere compassion. And then it passed, as all moments do. The group continued to share stories, to laugh and tear up (no full-out crying for our tough guys) and eventually we untied our knotted shoe string. As you sit down with our 211th issue of the Dharma Friends, I hope you find yourself closer to that deep sense of freedom that Jesus spoke to all of us about the other night.
Compassion works to transform us.
Begin relaxing as you take deeply softening and releasing breaths. Breathe in, then breathe out and let go. Notice your levels of stress and tension. With each breath, let go of all that tightness. Again and again, just let go. Compassion begins by remembering to treat our bodies gently. We want our bodies to feel comfortable and safe. We want our bodies to find balance and the potential for our healing and healthiness.