Celebrating the life of death penalty opponent Bill Pelke

On a cold November day, I noticed on Twitter Sister Helen Prejean, the Catholic death penalty opponent, announcing that her friend Bill Pelke had died in Anchorage, Alaska, where he had retired. He was shoveling snow when he suffered a heart attack.

I had heard Bill speak years before and had tried to schedule a phone interview with him. It didn’t work out and now I felt a shiver of loss.

The 73-year-old Pelke traveled quite a journey in his life. In 1985, his grandmother was killed after allowing four teenage girls into her Gary, Indiana, home for Bible study. Robbery, not religion, was on the teens’ minds, and before leaving with a paltry $10, Paula Cooper, a troubled 15-year-old, stabbed Ruth Pelke 33 times.

The brutal crime caused a huge uproar in Gary, and Cooper was sentenced to death. In Indiana at the time, children as young as ten could be executed by the state.

Bill Pelke, who operated a crane for Bethlehem Steel nearby, was furious and revengeful about his “Nana’s” savage murder. It seems like a normal human response.

But Advent reminds us that our “normal” human responses are challenged by Jesus, born into the margins of society in a marginalized area of the world. He would spend his life upending our preconceptions.

Like his grandmother, Bill Pelke was a Christian. And one day, sitting with his anger in the cab of his crane, he had a conversion moment. He was praying – a sign of openness to conversion – and suddenly, in his rage, he saw a new image. Not the brutally destroyed body of Ruth, who had died praying, but rather a radiant image of his grandma. It was his Damascus moment.

He became deeply aware that his grandmother would say as Jesus did, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” The next day, he wrote to Paula Cooper and began a lifelong mission of forgiveness and opposition to the death penalty.

Later, he would tell audiences it was a miracle. Everything changed in those moments, and he never again felt that revenge was an answer.

Pelke was a co-founder of the anti-death-penalty organization “Journey of Hope” and campaigned across the U.S. and the world against the death penalty. He visited and corresponded with Cooper often.

Amnesty International pleaded for Cooper, and Pope St. John Paul II sent a Vatican emissary to Indiana to plead her case. In 1989, Cooper was taken off death row and sentenced to 60 years. In prison, she received a General Equivalency Degree and ultimately, a college degree and was released at age 43 on parole.

Unfortunately, for Cooper, there was no happy ending. The victim of horrendous childhood abuse by both parents was at loose ends in a world she hadn’t seen since she was a kid. She committed suicide in 2015.

Our three recent popes have all spoken out vociferously against the death penalty, outlawed by European countries and used mainly by states like North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Iran. In his recent encyclical, Pope Francis made it clear: “The death penalty is inadmissible, and Catholics should work for its abolition.”

In her Christmas poem, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” Christina Rosetti proclaims, “Our God, Heaven cannot hold him.” I envision Jesus bursting forth, so eager is he to join the poorest of us, all of us, in this messy life. His first visitors, the shepherds, are on society’s lowest rung, and he moves on to sinners, tax collectors, all of us, in need of repair, rehabilitation and forgiveness.

Rest in peace, Bill.


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