Norfolk writer's pen pal is on death row in Carolina
Four years ago Norfolk Christian writer Sandie Shirley began sending letters to a fellow writer in Carolina, USA - George T Wilkerson. George lives on death row after being convicted of a double murder. Sandie takes up the story.
Every hour is precious to George – he never knows how long he will have the gift of life. But he has become a beacon of light in one of the darkest places imaginable and some of his articles encourage a global readership.
Over the years I have had the joy and privilege of writing to George by partnering with the organisation LifeLines that celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.
George is no longer recognisable as the former violent addict that sold drugs. He is both generous, insightful and full of hope and purpose. Despite being behind bars, he is truly alive because he has found faith in the Lord Jesus Christ who has set him free from guilt, despair and suicidal thoughts. He is living proof that nothing can separate us from God’s love.
Through regular correspondence we have developed a steadfast friendship and a common bond as writers; and I know that I am just one person who is all the richer for knowing him.
George takes up his gritty and moving story: “I have lived a hard, violent and surreal life but God has had his hand on me the whole while.
“My four brothers and I were very young when our mom, who is Korean, left our white American dad when she was at breaking point. It was 1987 and I was six.
“My dad, brothers and I moved into a trailer that Fall. My mom would visit every few weeks, bringing food supplies, clothes etc, to help support us despite the thunderous arguments with my dad.
“A week after Christmas, he accidentally burned our home down, trying to thaw frozen water pipes with a disposable blow torch. We were forced to move into a low-rent apartment complex where we were the first and only non-black residents.
“We experienced a lot of racism and had to fight regularly (sometimes daily or several times a day) in a complex that housed between 500-700 people.”
Home life was difficult and unsettling. “My dad’s mental health deteriorated, and my parents had joint custody of my brothers and I, so we were shipped back and forth.
“Fighting both inside and outside the home was normal to me. At my dad’s, in that dirt-poor neighbourhood, crime was a way of life; it is how people survived. I became good at violence and good at crime. I got addicted to partying, drugs and selling drugs.
“Fast-forward to 2005 when I was 23, I was arrested for a double-homicide. Although we did not go to church as a family, I believed in God but did not live for him. Immediately I knew this was how God was saving me from myself; I also knew I would get the death penalty.
“It was only when I was sentenced to death that I truly began to live when I began reading and studying the bible in prison every day.”
George learnt about the promises and ways of God and that belief in his son Jesus Christ would wash away every grime and crime, past, present and future. He made a pledge of faith in the Saviour of the World and his life changed.
After six years, when he turned 30, he believed God called him to be more proactive about his faith, “shining Christ’s light in a society considered to be one of the darkest.”
He says: “Prison culture is characterised by a general ethos of lawlessness and violence and it is set within an emotional context of helplessness and hopelessness. It is the default position to say: ‘What’s the point of trying to do good?’ At every turn, at every level of our existence – intellectually, emotionally, physically and spiritually – temptations bombard us in prison.”
“But the heart of Christianity is love - loving God and our neighbour - by abiding in Christ’s love to govern our thinking, feelings, speaking and behaviour,” says George as he continues to build bridges with his cell mates.
God’s purposes have stretched wide and far for George with the added gift of a writer. He writes letters and some of his articles are published in media such as the Upper Room – a globally distributed daily devotional magazine. “Writing is an act of faith – never knowing whether my words will be read by others.”
As editor of the bi-monthly magazine – Compassion – George is also playing a part in helping American prisoners on death row live connected and fruitful lives.
Says George: “Often I envision God as an artist who takes the garbage and scraps of our ruined lives and welds them into magnificent works of beauty if we submit to him. Now I am no longer helpless and hopeless. I live day-by-day, moment-by-moment - a sinner saved by grace, bearing witness to the miracles of that grace in and through and around me every day.”
LifeLines supports and befriends prisoners on death row throughout the United States through letter writing. Contact: www.lifelines-uk.org.uk
Pictured above is George T Wilkerson.