BRENTWOOD, Tenn. — Some of the newest members of Holy Family Parish will never attend Mass at their church.
They will never talk with fellow parishioners over coffee and doughnuts after Mass, join the church choir or volunteer for a mission trip.
They are inmates on death row at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville. Some have been at Riverbend for decades, with few visitors and limited contact with the outside world.
Parishioner and prison minister James Booth said welcoming them to join Holy Family "gives them a sense that their faith is not in isolation, even though they are." It sends the message that "whatever evil they've done, they are forgiven and accepted," he added.
After some of the prisoners requested church membership this winter, Booth approached the parish council and Father Joe McMahon, the pastor, who granted approval. About a dozen Riverbend prisoners -- from death row and another side of the prison -- are now officially registered as Holy Family parishioners.
"For all the men at RMSI this is a huge deal and a remarkable event," death-row inmate Bill Stevens wrote in an open letter to Holy Family parishioners.
For prisoners like Stevens, who have been abandoned by their families and have no outside support network, weekly visits from Catholic volunteers are a welcome break in their routine existence. According to the prisoners, to feel a sense of belonging at a parish is a true blessing.
The blessing, though, is balanced by the anxiety of the death-row inmates, as the state pushes to execute 10 people in the next 18 months.
Father McMahon said he hopes his parishioners understand how seriously the Riverbend inmates take their faith and their parish membership. But first, Holy Family members must see their brothers as human beings, he said.
The men may have done great harm, Father McMahon told the Tennessee Register, Nashville's diocesan newspaper, but they still deserve respect.
"No one loses their human dignity and no one is beyond redemption," the priest said.
Father McMahon became involved in prison ministry about three years ago at the request of Nashville Bishop David R. Choby.
"Father Joe was the first person of faith that has ever treated me like a child of God, without making me feel judged and condemned," wrote death-row inmate Ron Cauthern in a booklet introducing himself to Holy Family parishioners. It included calligraphy, photographs and drawings.
Father McMahon said one of his most vivid memories of prison ministry is baptizing Cauthern, surrounded by guards, with his hands and feet shackled.
After pouring holy water over Cauthern's head and blessing him, "I told him, 'Ronnie, real freedom is on the inside,'" he recalled. "It was a profound experience."
When Father McMahon was named pastor of Holy Family last year, he recruited Booth to join the chaplains at Riverbend. Booth, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University who will be ordained a deacon in June, was already making weekly visits to prisoners at the Charles B. Bass Correctional Complex.
Ministering on death row "can be a raucous, messy thing," Booth said. Sometimes he and other volunteers and chaplains meet with the prisoners in the middle of a large room with people streaming in and out. Or they may gather in a small, awkwardly shaped visiting area, cramped together, reading Scripture and sharing their reflections.
Generally, about eight of the 76 death-row inmates attend Booth's Saturday morning service. Some are lifelong Catholics; others are recent converts; some were raised in different faiths but enjoy the discussion.
"Clearly their faith has not followed a straight path, and they are on the periphery, but they are slowly finding their way back," Booth said.
One of the non-Catholics who participates is Charles Wright. For the last 10 years, almost every week, Holy Family parishioner Kathy Ingleson has visited Wright. She has come to know him as a friend, someone who loves motorcycles and is proud of his job as a prison cook, she said.
Ingelson's friend may soon be put to death. Convicted of two first-degree murders, part of a 1984 drug deal gone wrong, Wright has been on death row for three decades. He is among 10 men who recently received an execution date from the state: June 23, 2015.
"He asked if I would be in the room when it happened," Ingleson said. "I told him we'd have to talk about it later." While she fervently hopes Wright will be spared execution, she knows abolishing the death penalty "is an uphill battle in this state."
The push to step up executions in Tennessee came after convicted serial killer Paul Dennis Reid died last fall from natural causes, in a hospital room, rather than by lethal injection.
Ingleson considers the death penalty an abomination.
"I feel there is no sense in a death for a death," she said, adding that it is especially hard to understand the value of executing a man who has served 30 years in prison and is no longer the same person who committed crimes decades ago.
Wright "has spent his time trying to make life more meaningful," Ingleson said. "I think I've gained as much from him as he has gained from me."
Ingleson is helping launch Holy Family's "adopt-a-prisoner" initiative that matches volunteers with prisoners to write and visit.
So far, nine parishioners have stepped up. Steve Hayes, a new volunteer, said he "feels called to go and give the gift of time to someone who doesn't have anything but time."