Ledell Lee ate his last meal on April 20. Officials of the Arkansas Department of Corrections executed him by lethal injection at 11:44 that same evening.
The last meal is a customary ritual for death row inmates. The condemned can ask for whatever they want. State prison systems vary on how far they will go to accommodate these final requests.
For instance, the state of Virginia has a 28-day rotating menu of fare like hotdogs and chili. Prisoners can request a meal from that rotation. The chef in Texas tries to prepare at least an approximation of what’s been ordered. For instance, he grills a hamburger steak for the frequently requested filet mignon. (see this article in Slate)
At least one news outlet reported that Lee had rejected a last meal. But this was not accurate. As most journalists pointed out, Lee requested and received Holy Communion.
I read somewhere that Lee was not making a statement. Maybe he didn’t intend to send a message, but he did anyway. It’s one of the central messages conveyed every time we kneel at an altar rail.
Take the time to look at the fragile, sacred, distracted, harried, wounded, relieved faces to your left and to your right. Each of these women and men, teens and children brings their life—their entire life—to Christ.
In the past week or month or year or decade words have passed their lips that battered someone else’s soul. They have been indifferent to suffering or resentful of another’s success. They have let down friends, betrayed themselves, cheated on taxes or spouses, put career before family, and thought themselves better than someone else.
And here they are. At the breaking of the bread. Taking Jesus at his word that he wants them there. To mingle his life with theirs so that they can become who they truly are.
If you want to know who somebody really is—who you really are—gather for the breaking of the bread. As Sr. Helen Prejean recently tweeted, “People are worth more than the worst thing they’ve ever done.”
People are worth the love that Christ pours into them.
Communion gradually erodes one of our fondest habits. We sometimes reduce people to a single story. In the case of convicts, we reduce people to the worst story we can tell about them. We see them as the antagonist of a single damning narrative.
We see a “them” in contrast to “us.” It’s okay to heap contempt on one of them. To punish or even to execute one of them. But we hesitate to do the same to one of us. After all, we are part of the same story. Their story may be sad and worthy of some sympathy, but it’s not our story.
Holy Communion opens our eyes to see that we are all part of a broader story. A story that includes us all. The Gospel writer Luke illustrates this point in the Emmaus Road story.
Cleopas and an unnamed disciple are fleeing Jerusalem on the third day after Jesus’ crucifixion. What is for them a stranger, and for the reader the risen Christ, joins them as they walk along. They simply don’t recognize him.
Who they see when they look at and listen to Jesus is shaped by the story they’re telling. The presumed Messiah has just been executed. Sure, some women scrambled back from the tomb babbling on about an empty tomb and an angel saying that Jesus is risen. But they didn’t buy it.
Jesus turned out to be a loser. For daring to hope that he was the Messiah, they were losers, too. They should have known better!
Jesus talked to them about what the Scripture says about the Messiah, encouraging them to rethink the story they were telling themselves. Once they reached Emmaus, they sat down to eat. Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them. In the breaking of the bread they recognized him.
And they recognized themselves. They rushed back to Jerusalem. As people of the resurrection. They weren’t just the ones who had doubted and fled and deserted their friends. In the breaking of the bread, they remembered the story that Jesus tells about them.
Who they are is not what they make of themselves. Who they are is what grace makes of them. And so it is with each and every one of us.
In 1993, Ledell Lee bludgeoned his neighbor Debra Reese to death with a tire iron. Police apprehended him while he was spending the $300 he had stolen from her. Twenty four years later, at the age of 51, Lee made the Last Supper his last meal.
All the company of heaven—angels and archangels and all whom we love but see no longer—gathered with him in his cell. And so did we, whether we realized it or not.
When any of us gathers at the breaking of the bread the entire Body of Christ gathers with us. There is, after all, one Body of Christ. What befalls one, befalls all. There is no us and them. There is us.
Lee was the first of a proposed eight death row inmates Arkansas intends to execute this month. They’re in a hurry. Their supply of lethal injection drugs is expiring and replacements may be impossible to get.
That’s the story the Arkansas Department of Corrections is telling itself. No wonder they cannot see what Lee is inviting them to see: That we are all one in the story of grace. No one is reducible to the worst story we can tell about them.
The Holy Meal is at the center of our common worship. That meal tells us the story of grace again and again. I pray that we will eventually get the message.