Magazines are known for their long “lead times” — the period from when a story is assigned to when it is published. Taking our time is how we produce thoughtful, in-depth stories. The typical magazine lead time is about six months. But this month’s cover story, “Keeping Faith on Death Row,” has been more than six years in the making.
Broadview writer David Wilson (and former editor of The United Church Observer, our predecessor publication) first met one of the story’s main subjects, Bri-anne Swan, in 2016. The Toronto Star had just published a piece detailing Swan’s journey with Ramiro Gonzales, a Texas death-row inmate convicted of murder. The story noted that Swan was a United Church member, and Wilson knew that a longer piece about Swan and Gonzales would be of great interest to our readers.
In the years that followed, Gonzales’s execution date was set and reset multiple times, and Swan became a United Church minister. She agreed to a few other media interviews, but after several negative experiences and a raft of misogynistic backlash from capital punishment supporters, she decided to keep a low profile.
Swan says Wilson was different from other journalists. When news about Gonzales’s case or capital punishment came up, Wilson would send Swan a note. Over time, a trusting relationship was established. Wilson took the time to get to know Swan, to understand her story and what matters to her.
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This past July, when it seemed that Gonzales had run out of legal recourse and his execution date was imminent, Swan flew to Texas to be at his side at the very end. With Swan’s blessing, Wilson joined her to report on everything happening outside the execution chamber. When they returned, we collectively decided it was time to tell this incredible story about the cruelty of capital punishment and how an Ontario minister and a death-row inmate were both transformed by their unlikely friendship.
As part of our coverage, Swan has also penned an essay comparing capital punishment to the Crucifixion. To be clear, she isn’t comparing Gonzales to Jesus. But she does challenge us to think more carefully about how the Christian faith calls us to oppose state-sanctioned executions, whether they happened 2,000 years ago or today.
For Swan, the journey with Gonzales is deeply spiritual: the experience of walking alongside him is part of what led her to become a minister. Her opposition to the death penalty is also firmly rooted in her faith. She wants progressive Christian Canadians to keep fighting capital punishment and to understand that many Canadians want to see its return in this country. “It feels like a conversation that I really want Christians and particularly the United Church to engage in,” she says. “I want someone else to be a witness to what is going on.”
Jocelyn Bell is the editor/publisher of Broadview.
This editorial first appeared in Broadview’s January/February 2023 issue with the title “Building trust.”
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