By Jennifer Saltsman
Eunice Ravenna, Kristen Barker and Sister Alice Gerdeman refer to themselves as bodyguards. And in a sense, they are. The three women comprise the staff of the Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center (IJPC), a small, non-profit organization
created to protect underserved communities and promote nonviolence in Southwest Ohio.
Since its founding in 1985, the Center has been involved with women’s rights campaigns, environmental campaigns and economic inequality issues. And while the Center responds to any and all social issues, the staff now focuses most of their efforts on the anti-death penalty movement, immigration reform and conflict resolution training.
On the morning of each execution in Ohio, the three women, alongside students and volunteers, gather outside the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility for a prayer vigil service. They pray for the inmate who is scheduled to be executed, they pray for the inmate’s family, they pray for the victim and victim’s family, and they pray for the executioners. The prayer vigil is held so that “there can be healing among all,” says Gerdeman.
Ohio, which reenacted its death-penalty policy in 1999, ranks as one of the states with the highest number of inmate executions per year. In 2002, a woman whose brother had recently been executed called the IJPC looking for resources and support. The staff responded by organizing the Families That Matter (FTM) campaign, which connects families of death-row inmates to legal advice, anti-death penalty advocates and other families of Ohio death-row inmates.
“It’s a most wretched experience to think that your loved one is going to die in two weeks, two months or in the near future,” says Gerdeman. “And by connecting people with folks who have already gone through the same thing, or just by lending a listening ear, we can help.”
The Center’s most recent endeavor involves compiling the stories of 12 Ohio death-row inmates into a document that the staff plans to distribute to churches, elected officials and other families. The mission of the project is to tell the stories that often are left unheard, and to connect and advocate for families of death-row inmates.
In addition to the Center’s anti-death penalty activities and organizations, staff members focus on immigration policy reform. They help struggling immigrants in the Cincinnati area by providing legal advice, creating connections with other people and establishing an emergency relief fund for those referred to the Center by social agencies.
The three women also coordinate the YES campaign (Youth Educating Society), which equips young adult immigrants with the skills necessary to advocate for themselves.
“It is a leadership training program based on the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” says Gerdeman. “Because the people who suffer the most from unjust policies become the next leaders in change.”
The Center’s third focus is on peace, nonviolence and conflict resolution training. The purpose of the program is to educate people on how to develop skillsets that promote peace, like active listening and nonviolent intervention techniques. The Center also provides information on military recruitment, hosts lectures and holds open dialogue discussions on nonviolence and
“We want to help create a beloved community,” says Barker. “That means creating a community where all voices are heard, everyone is respected, conflicts are resolved peacefully and resources shared equitably.”
And while the staff takes steps toward making the world a more just and peaceful place, Gerdeman recognizes the breadth of the Center’s mission. She says its success can’t be quantified monetarily, but it can be quantified by the number of people who care.
“We can’t say that the world has become peaceful, but there have been enough signs of people caring, enough steps made in the right direction, that the work becomes a rewarding experience.”