Have you heard the story of the two brothers who were convicted of stealing sheep and then branded on the forehead with the letters “ST,” meaning sheep thief? One of the brothers was unable to bear the stigma and tried to run from the shame by traveling to distant lands. He ended up dying far from home, full of bitterness for his situation.
The other brother came to terms with the consequences for his actions, determining to stay put and work on gaining back the respect of his neighbors. As the years passed, he developed a reputation for integrity. One day a stranger came and saw the old man with the letters on his forehead. He asked a neighbor what they signified. “Oh,” he said, “it happened a great while ago. I have forgotten the particulars, but I think the letters are an abbreviation for saint.”
Our back stories are important in that they remind us and others of the incredible power of God to take a life submitted to Him and turn that life around for His purposes and glory. Mary Riley was one of those people.
I met Mary when NOBTS began its undergraduate program at the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women (LCIW). I visited the prison chapel with Dr. Rhonda Kelley and others to speak with officials about the details of such an undertaking. I was quite surprised to encounter several pieces of intricate hand-stitched banners and sketched art. When I inquired as to the origin of such creativity, I was introduced to Mary.
At that time, Mary had been in LCIW for almost 30 years, convicted for killing two people including her abusive husband. She was a “lifer.” Her journey to that place was not unlike others in the lifer club: abandoned and abused as a child, then resorted to prostitution and crime. She had no children and only one sister who lived in Iowa. LCIW had become her home and, as a result of painting a Bible mural in the old chapel, she said yes to a relationship with Jesus. This relationship didn’t get her out of prison but it changed the way that she faced her time inside the barbed-wire fences.
Mary was in the original cohort of NOBTS students at LCIW but her participation was full of personal insecurity. She questioned regularly whether she could perform up to the par of her peers who were younger and, in her estimation, much smarter. Dr. Kelley recalled a specific time this uncertainty came in play:
“I remember walking up to her just after she received a paper back with red marks all over it. She was discouraged and thought she wouldn’t be able to succeed in seminary. I had the joy of telling her those red marks were love notes from a caring teacher who knew she could improve and invested the time in her to grade her papers. And, she did succeed.”
As an instructor in several of the NOBTS courses at LCIW, I was continually amazed at how I would find myself forgetting the setting as I taught and processed the class material with the students there. Interacting with Mary filled me with this wonder. Whether dialoguing about course content or admiring her handiwork throughout the present chapel, I wasn’t focused on the crimes that got her there. Instead, I remained humbled by the work of God in her life reflected in her selfless spirit and creative expression.
Mary died just over a week ago. She had stage four lung cancer and had refused treatment. She was buried in a cemetery at LCIW that she was instrumental in getting in place so the women would not be buried at Angola as they had in the past.
Just like the sheep thieves in the fictional story had choices of how they would deal with the consequences of their actions, Mary had choices. And she chose Jesus. I imagine that if she had been branded in some way to reflect the nature of her crimes, a similar statement could have been said of her: “it happened a great while ago. I have forgotten the particulars, but I think the letters are an abbreviation for saint.”