His turn for turning the other cheek
Published November 23, 2006
STARKE - Five years ago Dennis O'Neill chucked a lucrative career as a warden of a death row prison. When he came back to Starke two years later he was an Episcopal priest with an antideath penalty message.
"I realized I wanted to be part of a healing, merciful world, not a punishing one," he says.
Every Sunday, in an old pine church, O'Neill takes the pulpit to lead a small revolution of progressive thought and action.
It's not the easiest way to build a congregation in a town long known for its hard line attitudes on crime and punishment.
"Florida is the only state where the farther north you go, the more you're in the Deep South," says Pam Whittle of the Starke Chamber of Commerce, "and Starke is definitely in North Florida."
But on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, about three dozen loyal parishioners squint in the burgundy and cobalt light of the 134-year-old stained glass windows of St. Mark's Episcopal and bask in O'Neill's message of compassion.
They are old Starke families, who, like O'Neill, either work or worked in the nearby death row prisons - Florida State Prison and Union Correctional Institution - or have families who do. Their names have been part of prison culture for generations.
They will tell you they did not come naturally to their newfound beliefs. But having been led by one of their own, they are now determined, when they promise to "love their neighbors as themselves," to include those 5,000 neighbors behind bars 11 miles down the road.
"Father O'Neill has helped us see that there are people on the street who belong out there in prison, just as there are people in the prisons who belong on the street," said Millie Winkler, a retired prison worker.
"The church has taught me if you're kind to people, including inmates, you teach them kindness," said Ilse Griffis, another retired prison employee.
Death penalty change
O'Neill had been an assistant warden at Florida State Prison for two years and warden at Union Correctional Institution for seven years, both death row prisons. After being involved in one way or another with more than a dozen executions over 14 years, O'Neill became opposed to the death penalty.
"For years, I told myself it was the law of the land, and went along with it," he says. "But several things really got to me: the arbitrary nature of who was executed. The fact that the person strapped in the chair or gurney often showed genuine, heartfelt change and was rarely the same person who committed the crime. And, my realization that antiseptic killing is as bad as raw and naked killing.
"I didn't want to be a part of it anymore," he says.
He also became increasingly troubled, he says, by the "increasing strictness" of the prison system in the 1990s and everything taken away from inmates - "from educational programs to colored pencils."
"How could they grow as human beings with nothing to do but sit?" he asks.
He recalls three incidents that particularly upset him: A death row inmate was not allowed by correction officers to have a Bible before his execution. O'Neill gave him one. A Muslim inmate was told he must drink liquids for a daytime drug test even though he was fasting in observance of Ramadan. O'Neill insisted the test be done at night so the inmate could follow his religion. The two children of condemned inmate Jesse Tafero called O'Neill and sobbed on the phone the night before Tafero caught on fire in the electric chair.
"That was haunting," he says.
In 2001, O'Neill, 55, and his wife, Marianne, left the Florida Department of Corrections for the mountains of Tennessee so he could study at the Episcopal seminary at the University of the South.
"What a different environment that was," he says, listing some of his classmates: two lawyers, a doctor and an actor in TV commercials.
"Like me they believed that any human action that diminishes the humanity of another is a sin," he says.
In 2003, O'Neill was ordained as an Episcopal priest in his hometown of Jacksonville and assigned to St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Starke, where he had been a parishioner when he was a warden.
"We trusted him because he was one of us," says Winkler. "We cheered when he came back here as our priest."
But, she said, they were surprised when their old warden and his wife returned with a "straightforward message about dropping our prejudices and judgmental tendencies."
Church on the move
In the past year, the O'Neills have attracted several new families to the church, including one Hispanic and one black family. But they lost three families the year before, after an openly gay priest was ordained as a bishop in New Hampshire.
Those families had asked for O'Neill's assurance that he was against the gay bishop.
"Practically everyone is confused about what is sexually acceptable, and I can't judge what is and what isn't," he told them. "But I can say I think pride is a much clearer sin than anyone's sexual choices." One family switched to Madison Street Baptist Church, a few blocks away.
The size of a Wal-Mart Supercenter, Madison Street Baptist attracts about a thousand people in two back-to-back services every Sunday, as compared to three dozen at St. Mark's, which has 112 members.
"Madison Street appeals to most people around here," says Whittle. "But little St. Mark's is on the move."
A nine-piece band kicks off the service at the Baptist church with a rock-style hymn. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Madison Street Winn-Dixie, where the last meal is purchased for those about to be executed, the lone organist at the small Episcopal church begins to play a hymn from the 19th century.
Dennis O'Neill enters in a white robe draped with a long prayer shawl covered with the smiling faces of yellow, brown and beige children.
A parishioner reads from Hebrews: "After you were enlightened ... you had compassion on the prisoners."
O'Neill tells his congregation: "The Holy Scriptures is about blessed hope, not eternal suffering."
He prays, "May we carry peace and love in all of our acts in the world."
After the service, on this chilly November day, the O'Neills stand on the steps of the simple white church, built in 1872, and greet parishioners.
They talk about church activities: helping out at the local Head Start preschool program, building homes for Habitat for Humanity, sitting with the dying at a nearby hospice and feeding the homeless. They also talk about the inmates at the death row prisons down the road.
"I tell my relatives who work out there that we all have a bad side and being unkind can make anyone's bad side worse, including a prisoner's," says church member Jackie Grider.
O'Neill beams as he talks about how they are all "growing together."
"It's when we act on our conscience that we touch that spark of divinity in ourselves," he says, "and I believe we're doing that right here."
Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report.
Meg Laughlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8068.