Wesley Memorial UMC Huntsville Pastor Awarded at Statewide Gathering
Great leaders are fueled by passion and vision. Rev. Cheryl Smith, Wesley Memorial UMC in Huntsville found her appointment near one of Texas’ largest prison systems to ignite a personal fervor for abolishing the death penalty.
In recent weeks, in fact, the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (TCADP), a statewide grassroots advocacy organization based in Austin, honored her with its 2015 Appreciation Award. In just a few short years, Cheryl has become known for being a pillar of strength and commitment in the abolition movement. As a minister in the city where the state’s death chamber is located, she holds vigil outside the Walls Unit during every execution carried out in the name of the people of Texas. In addition, she often speaks to journalists on site at the Walls Unit about her opposition to the death penalty and her belief in the importance of bearing witness.
TCADP presented Rev. Smith with the award during its 2015 Annual Conference and Awards Luncheon, which took place in February at St. David’s Episcopal Church in Austin. This statewide gathering, now in its 17th consecutive year, attracted more than 120 participants, including criminal defense attorneys, law students, death row exonorees, friends and family members of death row inmates, and grassroots members from across the state. Numerous clergy and lay leaders from United Methodist churches in Houston, Arlington, Carrollton, Georgetown, and Austin attended the daylong proceedings, as well.
In accepting the award, Rev. Smith said, “There are many of you here who have been active with this issue for much longer than I have been involved. But when Bishop Janice Huie appointed me to serve in Huntsville some four years ago, this was the issue that I found to be in the middle of my path. I cannot avoid speaking out when I drive by the spot where they go to such great efforts to kill people on our behalf in the name of justice.”
The United Methodist Church, according to its Social Principles (¶ 164. G.), believes, “. . . the death penalty denies the power of Christ to redeem, restore, and transform all human beings.” Despite this strong directive contained in the Book of Discipline, there is much support for the death penalty in certain parts of the country. Texas has executed more people than any other state – by far – and there are often strong feelings about the State’s right to do this, even among United Methodists.
Cheryl believes the majority of people who support the death penalty arrive at their opinion through enculturation or primitive emotional reactions that focus on punishment and vengeance. Instead, Christians are encouraged to approach the issue through a Christian lens, reasoned upon the resurrected life of a man who himself was a victim of the death penalty.
In further demonstration of her commitment to this issue, she joined fellow United Methodists and clergy from across the state on Monday, March 9, 2015 at the State Capitol in Austin for the first-ever Texas Faith Leader Advocacy Day on the Death Penalty. As part of the day’s activities, faith leaders released an Interfaith Statement of Opposition to the Death Penalty, which has been endorsed by more than 550 faith leaders statewide, including all active and retired United Methodist Bishops in Texas and 265 UMC ministers statewide, including many members of the Texas Annual Conference.
Coming to the floor at Annual Conference 2015 will be a resolution asking clergy and lay delegates to affirm the United Methodist long-standing opposition to killing people as a response to crime. The legal option of life in prison without possibility of parole has made rendering justice possible without the option of capital punishment.
“Being honored by the members of TCADP was one of the special events of my life,” she shares. “My advocacy work at the walls of the death chamber has come from personal conviction and I would continue it if there were not another person doing it. I have to say, however, that knowing there is a ‘village’ of people dedicated to this issue makes the work all the more easy to continue.”