Living for God on Death Row: Prisoner befriended by Stephen Walsh

Angela Burrin Features

Sickness in a family member is often a catalyst to seeking extra prayer. Such is the case of 2001 when a member of my family began to experience severe depression. I called Deacon Al O’Brien, director of the prison ministry for Beaumont Diocese in Texas, and asked if he knew of a prisoner who could pray for Michael. Since I became director of the Partners in Evangelism prison ministry in 1998, I have found Deacon Al’s experience and wisdom invaluable. I call him my “mentor.”

“I know just the man,” Deacon Al responded. “He’s on death row.” So began my penpal relationship with Rocky.

Over the next years, I noticed that Rocky always ended his letters with, “See you when I see you.” I wasn’tsure we would ever meet. Then I discovered I had 32,000 frequent flyer air miles! How should I use them? “Go visit Rocky,” I heard the Holy Spirit whisper.

A Brother in the Lord. It took some time to have my name added to Ricky’s visitor list –additions are permitted only every six months — but our meeting was finally arranged for Tuesday, May 10. Because I was traveling from more than 300 miles away, I received the warden’s permission for a four-hour visit.

At 9:50 on the morning of my visit, Deacon Al prayed with me in the prison parking lot. We cleared security, and he went into the cellblock to visit other death row prisoners. I made my way to the visitors’ room.

Rocky was all smiles as he walked into Cubicle 30, escorted by two guards. After being locked in, he put his wrists through a hole in the door so that his handcuffs could be removed. He loosened the shackles on his feet and lifted the phone on the wall.

We already knew that our backgrounds were very different: Rocky is Hispanic, left school after seventh grade, and started picking cotton to support his family, as his father had died when he was nine. I’m from England and a former schoolteacher and principal.

But once we started talking through the security glass, we quickly found we had much in common — especially our love for our families and our relationship with Jesus.

“Any desire I have to pray is from God,” Rocky was quick to tell me — more than once! “Any desire that I have to serve God here in this prison is from God. I thank him often for all my blessings.”

The Battle for the Mind. Rocky is in his cell 23 and-a-half hours a day. Each day’s other half hour is alternated between exercising and taking a shower. Exercise Time is when Rocky seeks opportunity to share God’s love with other prisoners. “Sometimes I will actually talk about God, but not always. Whenever I can, I talk about making good choices,” he said. Again, he was quick to add that any desire to do so came from God!

Rocky longs for all his family members to come to a personal relationship with Jesus and looks for opportunities to share God’s love with them. He smiled as he told me, “The other week I tore a page out of the book The Purpose Driven Life and mailed it to my youngest son, because I thought it would help him.” Then he added, “I also memorized Psalm 139 as a joint challenge with my niece — I knew she’d benefit from reading Scripture.”

Rocky is very alert to the battle for the mind. “It is so easy to be distracted from the things of God,” he said. He has a small radio and limits his listening to Christian radio and the news. “I have been delivered from wanting to spend all my time listening to Mexican music! I also have to watch that I don’t play too many long games of chess with the man in the next cell” — they both have a board and tell each other what moves they are making through the small opening in their doors — “or that I get lazy and just lie on my bed. So I’ve made myself a schedule.”

Praying from the Heart. Rocky has broken up his 23-and-a half hours of cell time into times of prayer — the first beginning at 5 a.m. At set hours, he turns his heart to the Lord, intercedes for needs of his family, friends, and anyone who has asked for his prayers; prays the rosary; and reads The Word Among Us or other devotionals. Every week he prays all the psalms — he has a schedule of how many to read each day.

“I always keep the Bible open on my bed and move it to under my head at night so that my feet are not on it,” he told me. At the suggestion of another pen pal, a religious sister in Philadelphia, he also repeats prayer phrases throughout the day to keep his mind on the Lord.

I asked Rocky how many time hours a day he spends in prayer. “I don’t know,” he answered. Sometimes 40 or maybe 50 minutes at a time. I just pray from my heart.”

“You Visited Me.” Now, talking is thirsty work! Deacon Al had told me to bring quarters, so that I could get us snacks and drinks from vending machines. Rocky asked for strawberry milk, Coke, a honey bun, and a packet of Bugles. As I walked away, he banged on the glass to alert me to one of the prison regulations: “You know you can’t touch the items, don’t you?” I didn’t know.

An officer helped me out; she took a brown paper sandwich bag, wrote #30 on it, picked up the items as they dropped from the vending machines, and took them around to Rocky. I had hoped that she would also take a photo of us both, but that didn’t work out — the camera is brought out during the first week of each month.

Rocky expressed much gratitude for Deacon Al, who brings him the Eucharist whenever
possible, and for Sr. Maria Gehab, OP from Beaumont, who visits him regularly. He also receives visits from a pen pal in Switzerland. Rocky mentioned many times how much he benefited from the ministry of the late Fr. Stephen Walsh, OFM. These and other visitors have greatly nourished Rocky’s spiritual growth.

In The School of Christ. Rocky is a man who acknowledges his sin. He admits that he is guilty of the crime for which he is on death row, although it did not happen as reported.

An appeal of his execution is at the Federal Fifth Circuit Court in New Orleans. Unless the court finds an objection, an execution date will follow. But Rocky is still praying for mercy. “I just want to hold my grandchildren,” he said.

Rocky knows God’s forgiveness, too, although he admits that it is not always easy for him to love or forgive himself. He is truly in the school of Christ, being taught by the Holy Spirit. At one point, I was prompted to pray with Rocky, that he would be filled with more of the Spirit. After praying for guidance, I opened my Bible to Luke 19:2-10 — the story of Zacchaeus, a tax collector who was despised by the people but loved, accepted, and called by Jesus. “For the Son of man came to seek out and to save the lost” (19:10).

At 2 o’clock the guard indicated that our time was up. Our four hours had sped by. We stood, put our hands together on the glass, and prayed the Our Father. “I don’t know if we will meet here again,” I told Rocky, “but I do know that we see each again in heaven!”

Often, I think back on those rich hours of sharing with Rocky. I remember especially his emphasis on praying from the Heart, staying focused, and acknowledging that any desire to live for God comes from God. The Holy Spirit has truly used Rocky to encourage me in my faith journey. I hope his story encourages you to live more fully for God as well.

Angela Burrin is director of Partners in Evangelism, the prison ministry of The Word Among Us.