Seeing Christ in the Face of the Imprisoned

February 14, 2015

“Christ as Poor, Black, Death Row Inmate” by Marylyn Felion

“Christ as Poor, Black, Death Row Inmate” Portrait of Robert Williams by Marylyn Felion

An interview with Marylyn Felion

In 1994 as a member of an anti-death penalty group, Marylyn Felion attended a vigil for the execution of Harold ‘Wili’ Otey. People celebrating the killing with beer and food just yards away horrified her. “All I could think was how horrible this was and I couldn’t imagine how it would be to actually know the person being killed. I recognized that what the state of Nebraska was doing in the name of us all was wrong but I made a plan to never write a person on death row.”

God had different plans for Marylyn.

Months later, in an attempt to avoid another grotesque public celebration, embarrassed Nebraska prison officials stayed the execution of Robert Williams at the last minute. Marylyn, unaware of the change, on the scheduled day of execution phoned a friend who had been corresponding with Robert to express her condolences. Marylyn had made up her mind to never get to know a death row inmate but when her friend told her of the stay, Marylyn was so overwhelmed with relief that she felt compelled to write Robert and let him know of her joy. Robert wrote back.

Over the next several months, Marylyn got to know Robert through his thoughtful and insightful letters. It became clear to her that he was a man of deep human kindness, very much aware of the crimes he committed and very remorseful. A former Sister of Mercy, Marylyn obtained prison chaplain status with the help of the Provincial to act as Robert’s spiritual advisor.

In prison, Robert was living out the most productive, spiritual years of his life. He had the time to reflect on his childhood in poverty and the abuse his family suffered at the hands of his father. He had the opportunity to contemplate the sins of his crimes and seek forgiveness through his faith. He became a mentor for other prisoners and even the prison employees started to bring their problems to Robert. Years after his death, people would tell Marylyn stories of how Robert encouraged a prisoner to change his life or inspired a correctional officer to show greater kindness.

To cope with her anger and grief after Robert’s death, Marylyn turned to art and advocacy. She began producing paintings around the themes of faith and death. “I needed to pour it all out on paper,” she said. She also joined the Omaha Archdiocesan Social Ministry Commission to advocate for repeal of the death penalty. Eventually she painted a portrait of Robert for Jesus 2000, an art project sponsored by the National Catholic Reporter. The project asked for artists to submit new depictions of the face of Christ. Marylyn called her piece “Christ as Poor, Black, Death Row Inmate.” She has been overwhelmed by the positive response to her work, responding to requests from all around the world to use the painting in churches, faith groups, and books. She says about the experience: “if anyone had told me or Robert that Robert’s face was going to go all over the world as a representative of Christ, I wouldn’t have believed it.”

As a Sister of Mercy Associate, Marylyn Felion continues to advocate for the repeal of the death penalty in Nebraska by sharing Robert William’s story. She is 78 years old and currently lives in Omaha, Nebraska.