Chaplain: Executed woman was true to faith until end

JARRATT, Va. — For Lynn Litchfield, the former chaplain at Virginia's Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, the few weeks building up to the execution of Teresa Lewis had been heartbreaking. On Sept. 23, Lewis became the first woman put to death by the Commonwealth of Virginia in nearly a century.

Seven years ago, when Teresa Lewis was sentenced, the Baptist chaplain began praying for her and for the families of the victims even before Lewis arrived at the prison.

"Choosing to love someone condemned to death was never a comfortable idea," Litchfield wrote in a Sept. 21 opinion piece for the British newspaper The Guardian. "I knew I would be exposing myself to a relationship in which, the more I gave to it, the deeper my hurt would be should her sentence be carried out. Yet, as a person of faith, I believe I am called to live out mercy, grace and love for 'the least of these' and Teresa Lewis was certainly among the least."

Litchfield didn't write Lewis off as a hopeless cause, although many others had. Years ago, in an unhappy marriage, Lewis began an adulterous relationship with a young man, Matthew Shallenberger. Later, Shallenberger and a friend of his—seeking money for a drug enterprise and with Lewis' cooperation—killed Lewis' husband, Julian, and adult stepson, C.J., in their beds while they slept. The two men who actually pulled the triggers were sent to prison for life, but Lewis, whom the judge believed to have masterminded the scheme, received a death sentence.

Because she entered a guilty plea, no real defense was mounted on Lewis' behalf. After her sentencing, and too late to be entered into evidence, information questioning her mental capacity to have formulated such plans surfaced, as did statements from Shallenberger and others saying he had actually been the one to plan the murders. They were disregarded.

During her ministry to the women at Fluvanna, Litchfield spent many hours talking with Lewis, though physical contact was limited.

"My hands were the only ones to hold hers in comfort or in prayer on the occasions when guards would open the food-tray slot for me," she said. "I regularly visited her and heard her hopes, her fears, her grief and her faith. I was her chaplain."

The visits paid off as Lewis began to respond to the idea that no one is beyond God's love and the hope of redemption. Lewis committed her life to Christ and was baptized.

Some discount Lewis' commitment as just another jailhouse conversion, Litchfield acknowledged. She estimated that between 15,000 and 21,000 women cycled through Fluvanna in her 11-plus years as chaplain there.

"Seeing that God wasn't a genie in a lamp, some gave up when the going got tough," she recalled. "But, Teresa never did. Her Bible was worn out from use."


Seeing fruit
The chaplain also cited Lewis' ministry to other prisoners as evidence of her new life in Christ. Even though she was segregated from other prisoners, Litchfield said, Lewis would attempt to comfort, pray for and share her faith with prisoners in nearby cells by communicating through air and plumbing connections.

"As strange as it may seem, she really was a loving and nurturing presence. Teresa grew into a woman who inspired others to reach for their Bibles, to actively seek a spiritual relationship and to try and be better than they were before," Litchfield said. "Countless women who had the chance to meet Teresa while serving time in 'seg,' or cleaning the wing, or who cut her hair, passionately shared how 'Ms. Teresa' changed them."

During their final meeting the day before Lewis was executed, Litchfield recalled her own anxiety as she wondered what to say in offering comfort. Instead, the prisoner comforted her.

Litchfield recalled Lewis' response when she asked her how she was doing.

"Can't you see the peace? The best way I know to describe it is like the way a little child feels when they go to bed at night knowing Mommy and Daddy are in the next room. That is how I feel. Jesus has me."

They shared songs.

"When she sang 'His Eye is on the Sparrow,' I lost it," the chaplain said, her voice shaky with emotion. "Standing in a prison cell, facing execution, she radiated, 'I sing because I'm happy.' Then, raising her arms, face lifted toward heaven, she continued, 'I sing because he set me free!' At this point, I'm sobbing, so deeply moved by her faith. Tears are streaming down my face and she reached through the bars, cupped my face in her hand and wiped away my tears. I had gone to comfort her, but she comforted me. She ministered to the minister. The person who participated in those heinous crimes in 2002—she was dead long ago. The person who stood before me was a new creation in Christ."

She recalled Lewis' final words to her: "Fierce love!"

Litchfield said the two had often used that expression.

"It means the kind of love that God has for us—strong, powerful and lasting," the chaplain said.


ABP News Service


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