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Death row inmate joins Circle of Mercy Congregation

Rev. Joyce Hollyday, co-pastor of Circle of Mercy, Asheville, NC

It was an unusual service, for several reasons. To start, it’s not often a small congregation welcomes 22 new members into its ranks. Because the congregation has no indefinite membership, everyone—including the pastoral staff—is asked to choose again. But it’s always been that way, so this wasn’t out of the ordinary.

What was really unusual is that one of the new members is an inmate who’s been on death row for decades.

Circle of Mercy Congregation first established a relationship with *W.D. Luther, convicted with two others of murder during a robbery, through one of its co-pastors who began visiting him more than a dozen years ago.

Over the years, Luther learned to crochet, and his signature item was a small angel. (Access to crafting material has come and gone with different prison administrations.) Many of those angels have been taken to Cuba by members visiting Circle of Mercy’s partner congregation, Iglesia Getsemani in Camagüey.

In recent years another church family has begun visiting Luther, and others in the congregation have become correspondents.

During the December 11 Covenant Renewal service, one Circle of Mercy member read portions of a letter she received from Luther.

“I am a 62-year-old black man, single and uneducated. I’ve never in my lifetime been involved in anything. To become part of this family, this family who has been strong for me these years, who has been my eyes, my back, my soul . . . this family who has shown me more love than anyone...what a blessing.”

A 10-year-old in the church, who with her family has been visiting Luther in recent years, also read a portion of a letter she received. “There are no words to express how grateful I am to become a part of this Circle of Mercy. I have no blood family that even knows who I am. [One of your co-pastors] has been my family since my mother died in 1997. . . . I thank you and my beautiful goddaughter for her help in sharing my appreciation with you all.”

From its beginning in 2001. Circle of Mercy has been involved in local prison ministry since another co-pastor is chaplain at a maximum security men’s prison. Each year prior to Valentine’s Day, children in the church make cards for inmates. In December they make and decorate cookies for the prison’s annual Christmas program. Each year a group from the church help lead the Easter morning service at the prison.

*A pseudonym, since the criminal justice process strongly discourages publishing the name of death row inmates, except in reporting on court cases. Circle of Mercy members’ names are also omitted.

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