Ted and I made a donation through our church this past Christmas to New Hope House, which has offered support and hospitality to Georgia’s death row prisoners and their families since 1988.
We had no idea what a moving experience it would be.
Our contribution helped fill gift boxes for 38 men facing the death penalty in our state. The thank-you letter we received January 7 from New Hope House, located near death row in rural Jackson, Georgia, brought tears to my eyes … and reminded me that often it’s the simplest acts of kindness that mean the most.
Shower gel … shampoo … items that smell nice
“The packages included some new items that we were very excited about—men’s toiletries!” wrote Mary Catherine Johnson, director of New Hope House and coordinator of the Christmas package program.
“I know that toiletries typically aren’t all that exciting, but the guys on death row love to use things like shower gel, deodorant, and shampoo made especially for men—items that smell nice and far exceed the quality of state-issued toiletries.”
These things we take for granted in the outside world caused a happy clamor on death row when they were delivered the morning of December 21. So did the other goodies in the carefully packed boxes: chips, nuts, squeeze bottles of strawberry jelly, cookies and candies, as well as essentials like towels, socks, warm knit caps, and writing tablets.
‘Like the floor of the New York Stock Exchange‘
One of the men described the scene this way to Mary Catherine: “At first everyone was excited as they went to the gate to get their stuff – some of them were yelling back to the others about what was in the packages. Then it was like the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, with everyone trading items for more of their favorite things. Now it’s just quiet – everyone is in their cell eating! Please tell everyone who helped that we said thank you.”
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never imagined shouts of joy at Christmas time on death row. That’s a rare and beautiful thing.
And it happens every December. Rev. Murphy Davis, a long-time activist and advocate for death row inmates and homeless people in Georgia, started the program over 30 years ago. She died of cancer in 2020, but her compassionate work lives on. It is making a difference.
‘I felt like the world hated me …’
Mary Catherine told me that Larry Lee, a Georgia death row inmate for 20 years, had this to say about the Christmas package program: “I felt like the world hated me, and here would come these packages from people that I didn’t even know … It gave me hope more than anything that maybe I wasn’t as hated as I imagined, that there were people out there who actually cared …”
Larry’s words remind me of the times I was struggling to come out as a gay man, times in our 20s when Ted and I were going public about our relationship. I sometimes felt, like Larry, that the world hated us. Knowing people loved us during those times was like opening a Christmas box. Like Larry, I made the joyful discovery that there were people out there who actually cared.
It’s one of the reasons I wrote my book. I wanted to tell that story. To show my gratitude for all the people who have supported us through the years. To show the difference it made for us.
Love isn’t selective–or shouldn’t be
Some might say that the men on death row don’t deserve to feel joy at Christmas, but I don’t buy it. The ultimate lesson I learned from coming out is that love isn’t selective–or shouldn’t be. And it’s the lesson I hear echoed so clearly in the story of the Christmas boxes.
So, Ted and I will continue following New Hope House and supporting its good work.
How heartening it is to know that, even on death row, love finds a way in.
P.S. There is one woman on death row in Georgia. Incarcerated at Arrendale State Prison for women in Alto, Georgia, she is not permitted to receive boxes of gifts, but New Hope House sends her the cash equivalent of a Christmas box so she can purchase items she needs from the prison commissary.
Find out more about New Hope House and the incredible work it does here.
10 thoughts on “Love Isn’t Selective: Christmas Joy on Death Row”
Thank you Mike! Your words bring to life the joy the Christmas boxes bring to people on Death Row.
Thanks, Kathryn. What a wonderful program. We were happy to play a small part in it this year.
This is a great article. Loved it!!!
Thanks for caring enough to participate in the Christmas gift project.
You are right about Mary Catherine Johnson, the Exec. of New Hope House. She is one special lady!!! The men on death row think of her as a guardian angel, and most of them know her by name.
Another part of the work of New Hope House is to support vigils in several locations in whenever a Georgia prisoner is scheduled to be executed. Central Presbyterian normally participates in the vigils held across the street from Central on the steps of the Georgia capitol. I hope there will be no executions this year…but if there is, please join us.
Thank you, Lee. And yes, we will join you should another vigil be necessary.
I have mixed feelings about this. I mean, they’re on death row. They did horrible things. I don’t think I could support this cause, but I commend you for supporting it.
You’re right, Laraine. They did horrible things, but they are humans and deserve our compassion, difficult as it may be to show.
What a wonderful, uplifting story, Mike. It just shows how seemingly small acts of kindness can bring so much joy, especially to those who have so little to look forward to. Thanks for sharing! It made my day.
Thank you for reading, Nancy. Your comment made my day!
Thank you so much for writing this beautiful piece, Mike. You really captured the joy of the annual distribution of Christmas gifts on death row. New Hope House is honored to be featured on your blog, and I feel truly blessed to be associated with such a talented, compassionate, and generous writer ❤️
Thank you for your kind words, Mary Catherine! It’s been a pleasure getting to know you and learning more about your good work at New Hope House.