We were two volunteers at a commune founded in the 1940’s in rural southwest Georgia called Koinonia. It was a legendary place where Habitat for Humanity had its beginnings and an off Broadway musical based on an interpretation of the bible of the founder, Clarence Jordan. His name was John Cole Vodicka. He was a journalist and prison reform and anti-death penalty advocate. He was an undiscovered legend. In the Dead Man Walking book (later made into a movie starring Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon) by Sr. Helen Prejean he is the unnamed person who first involved her in visiting Death Row.
I was leaving my work and ministry in the inner-city of Louisville, Ky with the homeless and mentally ill and he was leaving a hospitality house for family and friends of the women prisoners in a West Virginia prison. Of all the volunteers in that group we had a natural affinity. He had been working in prison reform and against the death penalty for most of his adult life.
He was hard core. He arranged for the downtown Americus protest on Good Friday to remind people that their Savior had been crucified in an unjust death penalty case. He was the one who we held a silent protest at the biggest event in Sumter County the annual Andersonville July 4th Celebration. People were dressed in Confederate uniforms and hoop skirts. It was about as Dixie of an affair you could get. But he felt it was good to be there as a silent witness holding our signs for the conservative Congressman who was to give his patriotic speech. He was also the one that started several of us visiting different individuals who may be future death penalty cases in the surrounding jails. Even in rural south Georgia he was workng how to change the system.
He and I would visit Joseph who was accused of murdering two individuals in a very violent way. Now I had worked with mentally challenged but not like Joseph. He was a decent artist and personable. But I noticed whenever a female guard or visitor passed he would stare and then his eyes would roll back in his head. I would try to distract him from this habit but it was too reflexive. When one heard his story you knew that his childhood had contributed to his current mental state. His mother’s punishment as a toddler was to turn on an electric eye of the stove and set his naked body down on it. He literally had scars of the coils from the electric stove on his butt. He was beaten often and severely by his mother’s various lovers. We would never know if things had been different if his sanity would have been different. The idea was for me to become his advocate especially if he was ever given the death penalty. This never happen for various reasons.
But Joseph enjoyed our visit and the one or two I did by myself. Things got eerie twice. The sheriff had been in the local paper the day before my visit because they head found three women’s bodies buried in a field who had been mutilated. This was similar to the two women Joseph had killed. When I arrived he was anxious and was asking me all sorts of questions about the investigation of the murders. I only knew what was in the paper but he seemed to know more about the murders than anyone else. In the end he shrugged his shoulders and said they are not looking in the right places so they will never find the murderer. They never found the murderer.
The other time was when Joseph had somehow discovered the name and address of John’s home and wife. He started writing her poetry and drawing elaborate pictures of and for her. We had no clue how he learned this information. He presented as an uneducated and close to mentally challenged person. But sometimes he seemed to be playing with us on a level we did not realize. It was these two experiences that made John and I both know that he was someone that should spend his life behind bars unless some miraculous event occurred.
John and I would have several conversations where he would teach me about his experience with Death Row and the Death Penalty. As a journalist he had written articles about Attica and other major prison events. He knew everyone in the field but seemed to have chosen to work in the shadows. After he left Koinonia he started the Prison and Jail Project in the surrounding area. He would visit court cases and monitor the judges and the process. He had at least two judges dismissed for their overt racism demonstrated in their language and by their attitudes toward the black defendants. He was threatened physically but he persisted. He held annual marches from one county jail to the next. I participated in the first one my reward were chiggers and blisters but later the march became quite the event with people from all over the United States participating. He would also help start local citizens organizations to monitor the local court systems. To say the least he was not a friend of the court. But he was a friend of the Peace and Justice Movement who gave him several awards for his work.
John had three sons. One of which was demon possessed. He would victimize his older and younger siblings by biting and swinging bats at them. His running joke was that this son was why he was involved in Death Row work to prepare himself for the inevitable visits to this wayward son. It should be noted none of his children who are grown now ever went to jail.
So our children played together, we talked, we worked and I was happy to call him a friend. But the times do change. We both left Koinonia to continue our work and life’s journey. We occasionally would visit each other but eventually life and distance overcame what friendship we had. He was a mooring in my life at a time when I questioned what was the use of the struggle for justice and peace ? These many years later I think of my time at Koinonia and remember him and the place. It is places and people like Koinonia and John that keep us grounded to the core of our being.