Chaplain: Executed woman true to faith until end
Jim White, Associated Baptist Press
September 28, 2010

Chaplain: Executed woman true to faith until end

Chaplain: Executed woman true to faith until end
Jim White, Associated Baptist Press
September 28, 2010

JARRATT, Va. — For Lynn

Litchfield, the former chaplain at Virginia’s Fluvanna Correctional Center for

Women, the past few weeks have been a heartbreaking build-up to the execution

of Teresa Lewis. 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 six years of

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. 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.”

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 explained.

Litchfield, and her

successor at Fluvanna, Julie Perry, grieve the loss of their sister in Christ

who ministered to her fellow prisoners. But Litchfield grieves for other

reasons as well.

“What surprised me about

this process,” she said, “was the hatred that people spewed at me and at my

family for advocating for Teresa. Others were just silent, withdrawing their

friendship and support. Those of us who knew and loved Teresa on the inside and

have tried to advocate for her on the outside, all of us lost friends over


Litchfield said she’s

disappointed that some seem to believe that to advocate for Lewis’s sentence to

be commuted meant becoming an adversary of the victims’ families.

“As a member of the clergy,

my faith was shaken — not my faith in God, but my faith in people over this,”

she lamented. “Through this experience, I have seen intimately the unfair

application of the death penalty. How can a man who tomahawks four people to

death get a life sentence while my Teresa got death? I have also observed the

hatefulness of those sitting in distant seats of self-righteous judgment

against those who become entangled in the legal system’s grasp. I see clearly

that capital punishment is far more about a political agenda than it is about


Thinking theologically,

Litchfield offered, “In my faith, Christ teaches that God can bring good out of

even the worst of circumstances. I hold to that. I am forever changed by my

experience with Teresa Lewis. I grew to love her. She taught me about the

resilience of the human spirit, about making the best out of a horrible and

tragic situation and about light in the darkest of places. Teresa showed me a

peace that surpasses understanding and love in the midst of hate.”


is editor of the Virginia Baptist Religious Herald.)