Hospitality House comforts during loss

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by Rand Jenkins — July 22, 2013

People face decisions every day. Some have little affect. Others impact every aspect of life, friends and family.

Almost 20 years ago, he pled guilty to a crime that the state of Texas deems worthy of the death penalty. And it’s set for 6:00 tonight.

In the meantime, some siblings and relatives sit around a game table playing Monopoly next to a large fish tank. Just before lunch, other family members come out of their rooms. One is wearing a t-shirt with the printed image of another relative who died recently due to illness. She looks as if she’s ready for all of this to be over but hopeful nonetheless for a stay of execution. She and her parents walk to the front porch to sit in rocking chairs and reflect on the events of the evening. Despite the impending execution, there is some laughing intermixed with discussions of food, family and of course their loved one on death row.

Then, the news of a possible stay trickles in which lightening the tone and giving a little more hope is visible in their eyes. If a stay is granted, this whole process starts over again in 60 days.

“Lunch is ready,” Debra McCammon, director of the Hospitality House caringly calls out to those who are in town for their family member’s execution. The family is gathered around two large tables and a homemade lunch (and made-from-scratch bread which fills the house with a scent of love) and before the meal begins, gratefulness for the food and request that the presence of God to be felt is prayed.

At 3 p.m. the phone rings. It’s the only phone in the state authorized to receive calls from death row inmates on the day of execution. It’s their son/brother/uncle/nephew/loved one and the 60-minute clock starts, counting down the minutes they had to talk. After each personal phone discussion, they hand the phone to the next person and just listened to one-side of the conversation.

At 6 p.m. a text from a lawyer comes in: the stay has been denied. As the early, unofficial news spreads around the Hospitality House, tears begin to flow and the comforting arms and words of the Hospitality House employees and volunteers begin to soften the blow that was overbearingly imminent.

A periodic, “Stay strong like he wants you to, Momma,” breaks the quieter-than-usual game of checkers. Debra continues to walk around doling compliments and saying things that the families are feeling but don’t know how to put it into words.

“Miss Debra, you got a vacuum?” asks the matriarch of the visiting family.

Her reply, “Yes, but I’m not letting you use it.”

“But it will help me stay busy this evening.”

“Well, ok, but only if it will help you. I don’t want you feeling like you need to help or do anything around here. Is there anything I can help you with?”

“No, your calmness is a blessing.”

Amidst this discussion, one of the teenage family members walks by with a full garbage bag taking it out to the dumpster. Following him back in is a person in town with the family lawyer who hands Debra a donation for their work at the Hospitality House and offers a quick, “This is to help you keep doing what you are doing.”

Two hours later following the finality of death, the chaplains and chamber witness return from the execution. At first, no words are spoken but so much is communicated just by their re-appearance at the Hospitality House. Once the initial and brief conversations of the details of the execution were complete, the family left to view the body at the funeral home.

When they returned, they are welcomed by the Debra’s warmth, the coziness of a home away from home and the smell of brisket. Without a place like the Hospitality House, many families couldn’t afford to come to their relative’s discharge from prison or execution. Even for those that can afford it, a hotel simply doesn’t have the welcoming, relaxed and Christian environment that the Hospitality House offers to people going through a difficult time.

The typical response of people returning from viewing the body is anger, according to Debra. The thing is, people exhibit their anger in a wide variety of ways. Quiet. Loud. Angry at God. Angry at the system. Angry with themselves. Angry with their loved one’s bad decisions.

Sitting around the supper table looking at each other through bloodshot eyes, it is evident they’ve had a difficult day but area relieved that this ordeal is finally over. In true Southern form, good food and great company are the best for any situation. Even through the family’s discussions of how they did through the day’s events, what happened at the execution and viewing the body it is evident that despite their complete physical, mental and emotional exhaustion having a welcoming place away from lawyers and the media that is filled with warmth, many comforts of home and Christian love is an easy end to a difficult day. The supper is polite but quick, in order to usher in the end of a long day.

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