It would seem that an article with the title of Christmas should be special. It should reflect the message of Christmas by being hopeful while facing reality and loving without being sentimental. As I thought about it and discussed what I might say with my friend Jesse Morrison, he observed that he had never experienced my being at a loss for something I felt needed saying. And then he mentioned a book I had given him some years ago, Man’s Search for Meaning, by Victor Frankl, and I knew exactly what my theme would be.
Man survives in the darkest places of the world, whether as in the case of Victor Frankl in a concentration camp, or on Alabama’s death row when there is meaning in life, meaning which invites hope. Victor Frankl observed that those who had no meaning larger than themselves and therefore no reason to live gave up.
Have we not all experienced that? We are able to continue because there is a reason for us to do so. There are people in our lives, elderly parents, children, grandchildren who need our care, depend on us and so we continue. We have issues we believe in and so we know we can’t give up and continue the fight, no matter how tired or discouraged we may be.
In exchanges with my brothers at Holman prison I am constantly aware of their search for meaning and how they are energized by this search. If there is one place where one might expect total focus on self, surely that would be death row? We do not blame those who spend their time navel gazing but we certainly do not envy them. They are already dead even while still alive.
No, I haven’t forgotten what I am writing about! The more I thought about this special time of year, the more it became clear to me that Christmas is an invitation, a challenge to us to persevere in our search for meaning in our lives. The core message of Christmas is to go beyond the material, to transcend the self and find a larger meaning. Finding that in Bethlehem in the manger rewarded the shepherds and the three wise men who journeyed to find meaning. Bearing gifts they were rewarded by the gift of understanding to last a lifetime. Was that the end of their journey? Of course not! I believe they understood that to embrace a meaning larger than ourselves is essential to be fully human. Often this meaning is hard and extremely demanding but it is life giving if seen in its fullness. Our challenge is to recognize it for what it is, a gift. When we do, we will welcome it just as the wise men did over 2,000 years ago.
My Christmas wish for all of us is that we remain faithful to the search for meaning in our lives and that finding it, embrace it fully!
GREETINGS FROM THE EDITOR'S DESK
2009 was PHADP's 20th year of existence and it has been a trying year, with 11 men on death row losing their lives. 6 were executed and 5 died of "natural" causes. This year Alabama executed more people than in any other year since they reinstated the death penalty in the 1970's. We have also lost friends, family and supporters on the street. One beautiful human being we lost, Shirley Cochran, was friend, family and supporter all rolled into one. Shirley was our Big Brother and ex-death row inmate Bo Cochran's wife. She was also a surviving family member of a murder victim and an ardent supporter of Hope, who always made the time to speak at events in an effort to end capital punishment. Shirley was always there for us. We mourn her passing and send our love, support and compassion to our brother Bo. Shirley made a difference and she will be missed.
This issue is not, strictly speaking, about the death penalty. It is more about the men who write for the newsletter. The articles are not all happy-go-lucky, but they are real. I started out wanting an issue full of cheer and heart-warming stories, but when I read the submissions, I realized that what I had hoped for would have been a lie. The articles are as different from one another as the men who wrote them. Each contains personal truths about that individual, and maybe that is more important than putting on the happy-face for the holiday} season. I know we all have different ways of dealing with our situations, different ways of trying to make sure that our daily lives have meaning. And, really, isn't that true of everyone, no matter our circumstances?
Here's to hoping that the New Year will be a better, more productive, less tragic time for us all. There have been a lot of behind the scenes negotiations with the administration here in an effort to keep our group meetings intact, and as of now, things are o.k. but the struggle continues and we are doing all we can to keep Hope alive.
We thank each of our supporters for helping us through a difficult landmark year. May you all have a loving and happy holiday season. And, as always, please help keep Hope alive.
I was about 11 years old when I first saw the sign in the post office. A string tied around a finger, with the big bold letters: DO NOT FORGET. And from that point on I remembered the saying and heard it plenty of times. Tie a string around your finger to remember important things. So, when you look at your finger and see the string, you are supposed to remember that which is important to you. So, by me being in prison before and I had vowed to never return once I was released… I had trouble remembering what I hated so much about prison .. The weird smells, the food, the loneliness, the over-crowding, the congestion of having men around all day every day, time away from home during the holidays. These were the things I felt would keep me out of prison. But I was wrong. I think my problem was not that I really hated all these things, but I FORGOT how bad I hated them. I simply forgot!
Before I knew it, I was running the streets with the wrong crowds and doing things that would inevitably get me back to the place I So dreaded. But never did I ever think I would come to death row… And, after being here a little over a year, I found myself doing it again, forgetting.
I experienced my first execution in May of 1999. By that November… I no longer remembered how I felt during the execution. I moved on. Not remembering at all. But as time went on, Brothers grew on me and by the time the next execution rolled around, I was kinda at a loss for words.
Then a close Brother's execution came upon me and this felt different. I really felt it, and I didn't want to forget this feeling because I knew this feeling would keep me fighting, praying and persevering- to move forward. But for that to happen I knew there was only one way this could happen… and that was if I remembered that feeling. It wasn't something you normally want "to remember, but I needed to.
Knowing my past of forgetting, I knew I needed help. So, what did I do? Tie a string around my finger? NO.. it wouldn't stay on there.. So, instead, I tied one around my ankle. Every time I put on a sock, shoe, or shower, I see it and I remember.
Z-641 . F-19
I MISS CHRISTMAS
I know the holidays are supposed to be a festive time, where the children are laughing and families are gathered together eating, opening up gifts etc ••• This reminds me of when life was so simple. When Mom would get up at 6:00a.m. on Christmas Eve and start cooking for the Christmas dinner.
I hate the fact that I've traded the beautiful white Christmases, the love, laughter, teasing and memories, for a 5X8 cell, cold meals, hot and humid Christmas days. They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder? Well… My heart is just bursting from the seams with so much yearning.
Now.. I'm just a distant memory to most in my family. I so desperately want someone to share Christmas with. Instead of looking at the guy who is a death row inmate, I want people to know there's much more to me. So much love is stored inside of me, waiting to be unleashed.
I haven't changed since coming to prison, I am and always have been an open, kind generous person with a strong spiritual upside. This is part of my character and I will not allow prison, life or any of the dire circumstances to define me. It's no fun feeling this way. I miss feeling the heat coming from a real furnace, walking around on a soft carpet, the way 'the cold snow falls on the trees and rooftops.
Most of all, I miss my Mom. I know God wasn't pleased that one of His angels was roaming the Earth, so He has called her back where she belongs.. Heaven. I enjoy all the normal, simple things that a normal person enjoys. So, just remember when you are gathered together this Christmas, that Ulysses Sneed is more than just a number. I am a human being. Have a blessed Christmas and a peaceful Journey.
A QUICK GOOD-BYE
The year 2009 is a year I'd soon rather forget. The bad days seemed to have outweighed the good days. For the most part, I was left feeling helpless, hopeless and hapless. I believe my sentiments were a common theme shared here.
Looking back, there was less laughter. The smiles one normally saw daily had turned into frowns. One day someone was here, the next he was gone. Even the singing had faded. In a few instances, friends became enemies over night due to small and petty things. Forgiveness appeared to have been avoided and/or rejected as if it were the plague.
Yes, forgetting 2009 and saying good-bye to it is something I need to do. In my attempt to do just that, here's looking forward to a better, wiser, brighter and peaceful 2010.
Editor's note: A FEW WORDS FROM A LARGE & HUNGRY MAN
T’was a few weeks before Christmas and I was awoke with haste. To breakfast that was served that I could not taste. While this may not seem like a big deal to you, I happen to be a "foodie" who loves breakfast too. I love watching food shows on PBS with my friends Mark and Jeff. I even watch fast food commercials and have torturous dreams about "Golden Corral" buffets and IHOP holiday pancakes. I'm not picky mind you, good cheese and good bread. To go along with whatever entree is put before me. A nice Caesar salad. Maybe some fried mushrooms, or mozzarella for an appetizer. Or possibly some potato skins. No lima beans or boiled okra, please! Dessert is no big deal. As long as it is some sort of cake or pie or tart or pastry served ala mode. And then maybe a small bowl of pudding to fill in the chinks.
I had more I wanted to say in this article but, I've gotten hungry writing it and I just happen to have some peanut butter and biscuits from breakfast and a bag of barbecue pork skins I've been saving. I think my taste buds are about to make a comeback. We should never take our taste buds for granted. I know I won't.
Merriest of Christmas to all and to all a great feast!
Ronald B. Smith Jr.
Dear Santa, please lead this Nation from death to life. Move us from falsehoods to the truth. Take away all despair and give us hope. Take away all hate, and give everyone love. And fill this world with peace. Let Justice and Mercy pour down like rain. Let everyone see that just because the prison doors slam behind a person, it doesn't mean that that person must lose their human qualities.
Dear Santa, even in this de-humanizing prison environment, send us hope and the ability to evolve and reject violence. Just as we don't have to see the sun shining to believe that it's shining, help us believe in our hearts that we can put an end to state sanctioned murder so that we all can come together and make it happen. Make the death penalty a shameful thing of the past. Even if they kill the wisher, they can never kill the Christmas wish.
May you have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year filled with Love, Joy, Peace and Hope.
Every year, as this time approaches, my mind goes back to those good times that I experienced as a kid. But Thanksgiving then and Thanksgiving now, I see in two very different ways. As a youngster Thanksgiving was more about eating (of course) and being surrounded by the warmth of family, visiting family in the country... and yes, again, eating! But now it has begun to take on greater meaning. It still means good eating (smile) but now I begin to really factor in, and give serious thought to those things that I am really thankful for. Being in a place such as this (prison) I am thankful to have made it to another year. So many guys get sick in here and die before they have an execution date set. Although I have recently gotten over the flu shot that was given out about four weeks ago, I am so very thankful for my health being intact. I thank God for that.
I'm thankful for the love of family and friends that so many in my situation don't enjoy. I'm thankful for the love that I have from supporters and workers such as Esther Brown, a beautiful human being. I'm thankful for the friendships that I share with my brothers in Project Hope. Being thankful is a beautiful thing, for it wards off selfishness. Even God appreciates thankfulness! As Christians, we are admonished to bring thanksgiving on our lips when we come in prayer.
As I was preparing to write this article, I shared with my neighbor the subject matter that I wanted to discuss and he dropped a lil’ nugget on me that I just couldn't leave out. At this time, we also want to allow our thoughts to consider those victim's families who will be missing a loved one at the Thankgiving table this year. My thoughts are that God would bring blessings on their homes.
And lastly, I am Thankful for all of you- our beautiful readers and supporters out there in the free world! Be Blessed.
Oh yeah, and all that good eating (smile)!
GOD BLESS THE GENERATIONS
Often, when I think about my situation, I think back to my senior year in high school. For our Yearbook we were asked to submit a quote that would accompany our senior picture. With where I was in that moment of my life, I chose a quote from the rap group Public Enemy: "It takes a Nation of millions to hold us back." At that time I don't think I had a full understanding of those words. I also feel that anyone on the outside that reads that quote from my year book would be surprised at my current situation.
Now, when I look at the changes that have been made in this country, I attribute it to my generation, a generation of change. History shows the evidence of change from generation to generation. It was my generation that elected the Nation's first African American President. It is my generation that has changed views towards racial divides. We are the generation of thinkers and decision makers. We prepare the next generation to be handed the baton. As our new views and opinions get into position, the ways of the old fade away.
When dealing with the justice system, our High Court wishes to title it "The evolving standards of decency." I often wonder if I will be alive to see the end of the death penalty. The future seems promising, and I pray that God allows it. I received a letter from a friend that teaches social justice class through her parish. She told me that her class was asked the question, what is unjust? To my amazement and hers a fourth grader answered, "The death penalty." It touched my heart and was a revelation of that promising future! God bless the generation that will continue to change the world we live in.
Now, when I think back to my situation, I realize that my quoting Public Enemy 19 years ago was not by chance. God has blessed my generation, and though I am here on death row, I continue to do my part for my generation and the generation to come. Trusting in God and helping to change views on social issues, I am still in the race, we all are! God's favor is over us, and with God we cannot fail. Proudly I say, "It takes a Nation of millions to hold us back."
Still in the race,
THE LOST HOLIDAY
I have a bone to pick with the American retailer. It seems that the older I get, the more they try to bury one of my favorite holidays in obscurity. Let me explain.
When I was a kid, there were three months of the year that were bound to be the most magical of them all. Three months, three holidays, three separate joys unto themselves.
In October- you had the wonders of witches and ghouls, goblins and aliens. A night of mystery and wonder that was sure to spark the imagination of any and all children. You had tricks and treats, frights and fun. And, of course, free candy didn't hurt. All in all, a wonderful time to be a kid!
In December- you had a night of carols and candles, gifts and goodies. There were trees to decorate and stockings to hang, presents to wrap and songs to sing. A night of giving and receiving, family and friends! A holiday made for magic and joy, greed and generosity. A paradox of pleasure unmatched by any! A wonderful time to be alive!
It is with neither of these that my bone lies, though in truth, they are bound in the need to pick it. For you see, between these nights of magic and marvel lies a day of peace and plenitude that has, in the last decade, almost been forgotten. Thanks to the retailers and their endless drive of manufactured greed, a wonderful day of happiness has become
a virtual after-thought to the current generation.
When I was a child, November was a month of warm days and cool nights. An explosion of natural color and restful thought! It was a month when even the blind could see the season change and none were thought foolish for a blank stare or wandering daydream. A month that truly grew to embody the holiday at its end!
I remember with crystal clarity the smells and sounds of Thanksgiving. The unmistakable feeling of belonging, no matter where you happened to be. Anyone was welcome to share the feast and give thanks for the peace of the day. There were no strangers and none were unwelcome. Of all the holidays in all the year, it was the one with a feel all it's own. No matter how meager the feast, or small the family, all were thankful and content. The world seemed to slow and good cheer gathered around any willing to accept it.
I love the feel and fright of Halloween, I love the magic and anticipation of Christmas, But above all, I love the lazy peace of Thanksgiving and wish only that the retailers and advertisers would take the time to allow this generation to slow down and find ease in giving thanks.
I truly miss Thanksgiving.
When I started to write this article, I had another topic in mind. However, it seems that I can't write it, not now anyway. Instead, I'm going to write what I'm feeling now.
The holidays are upon us. Most of you will be spending time with family and friends. Some of you will take time to help some here feel loved and blessed. Honestly, I've never been into the holidays, for reasons I'd rather not get into. Lately, that has changed some. I've been thinking how nice it would be to enjoy the holidays for what they actually stand for. With Thanksgiving just a few days away, I've sat down and thought what do I have to be thankful for. Being on death row, one could say nothing. We don't get big turkeys and hams or even grandma's famous banana pudding or red velvet cake. But there is plenty everyone here has to be thankful for. I know it varies from person to person.
I personally am thankful for still being alive and having the opportunity to write this article for the newsletter. My hope in writing this is to give thanks to our board members who gather all the information needed to keep Project Hope alive, and the ones who make sure the newsletter is ready. Also, to give thanks to all our free world supporters.
I am also thankful for being able to write this because maybe my words will help someone. I know how hard things have become. A lot of our families and friends are under a lot of stress to make ends meet. Now that the holidays are here, that stress will be worse. I ask you to take time and look at everything you do have and not what you would like to have and be thankful. Remember, what you do have, the next person may not have. Something small you overlook every day, may be something big someone else wishes for.
I want to end this by wishing everyone a blessed and happy Thanksgiving, a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Thank you for your support.
Does the power of love and hate amount to the same thing? Does the power of mercy and forgiveness equate to the same as revenge and true cold-heartedness?
I ask these questions because I don't understand how justice is truly meant to be applied in this land of the free, where in actuality nothing is free! How can we pledge and claim to be one Nation under God, yet only apply some of what God says? Surely I'm not the only one who sees that we are a divided nation, because we are divided individually, in thought, heart and spirit! I'll be the first to say that I am a very flawed person but I do not hide from my flaws, I see them and strive to change them. Why? Because I know that I can't expect change in this world if I'm not willing to change myself first. I don't fear the unexpected. I fear things staying as they are.
Yes, I'm on death row but my living or dying doesn't matter, my goal, my hope is to open the eyes of the masses so they can see we were created to be more than what we are. The labels we place on people in this nation, based on one moment or hearsay, are the true prisons, which we all live in. They are the true death sentences, which we've all filed appeals to be over-turned, but we are our own judges, refusing to look at our own true facts.
We have sons and daughters fighting to preserve our way of life, many of them dying. I commend them for their courage, strength and true heroism, but I must ask; is the corrupt, uncaring, unforgiving, racist and hateful ways of this nation truly the best we as a nation have to offer upon their return? NO, we all have a vision or have envisioned a better place or world in which to live than this.
We can break this chain, so I encourage all to take this journey of change with me.
A brave face,
the sound of keys,
the tier lights shine,
even within the mind,
the heavy boot steps heard,
are our wind chime,
is it a time to hope,
or a time to fear,
if it's the mail, please stop,
if it's not, steer clear,
to all my readers, even my enemies,
I'm glad you aren't here…