Deacon: God's love is available for all, even those on death row

Deacon Richard Tolcher, 71

Richard Tolcher
Who he is: Director of the Atlanta archdiocese's prison and jail ministry; deacon
Lives in: Hapeville, Ga.

Sr. Camille: This past summer, I came on your invitation to the chancery offices in the Atlanta archdiocese as one of three people invited to speak about the death penalty. Approximately 90 participants arrived to hear Dale Recinella, an author, lawyer and chaplain to Florida's death row inmates, and Amy Vosburg-Casey, staff attorney with the Georgia Resource Center, which provides free representation to death row inmates. You recruited me because I've been a longtime spiritual adviser to a man on death row in Terre Haute, Ind., and because I am the founder of The Cherish Life Circle, a New York-based group that opposes capital punishment and has an outreach to families of murder victims.

We presenters were inspired by the spirit and organization of this inaugural event of Georgia Catholics Against the Death Penalty. You were one of its organizers. What drew you into this ministry?

Tolcher: I felt I could make a difference if I immersed myself totally and listened for God's plan for me on a daily basis.

Who are your closest collaborators on this project?

Mary Boyert, Kat Doyle, and Joy Place

How did they assist in preparing for and overseeing this successful event?

Mary Boyert did the budget, marketing and lunch. Kat Doyle arranged the photos, emcee and marketing. Joy Place helped with registration, folders and breakfast. All task force members played a significant role.

Please describe the attendees, many of whom seemed to be deacons.

There were many deacons and deacon candidates. In addition, we welcomed sisters, prison ministers, death penalty opponents, Respect Life representatives, justice and peace promoters, and relatives of incarcerated men.

When did you become a permanent deacon?


What was your profession before you assumed this full-time work?

I was a prison chaplain for 13 years and a youth retention center director for five. I served as a spiritual director for three inmates on death row, and I chaired the task force for Georgia Catholic Against the Death Penalty. I continue to coordinate all liturgies on death row.

Please say something about your responsibilities.

I recruit and train volunteers to bring the word of God and sacraments to inmates in 22 prisons and 69 jails. Volunteers include clergy, religious, and laypeople.

That is a massive undertaking! What have you learned from incarcerated people you have visited?

God's love is available for all. All humans have human dignity and inmates have needs, desires and issues similar to all those outside the prison or jail.

How do you think the prison system might be improved?

It would do well to provide more of the tools needed for an incarcerated person to make it upon release. There's a great need for assistance that will enable prisoners to obtain a high school diploma or GED diploma. Many would benefit from alcohol and drug abuse counseling and job training.

Where, with whom, and in what circumstances did you spend your childhood?

I was one of five children. My mother was Catholic; my father had no religious affiliation. I spent the first 21 years of my life in Cleveland.

What schools did you attend?

Our Lady of Good Counsel Catholic Elementary School and St. Ignatius High School, both in Cleveland. I went on to John Carroll University and the University of Virginia and received my Juris Doctor from Woodrow Wilson Law School in Atlanta.

Would you please describe your current family? Where and with whom do you now live?

I live in Hapeville, Ga. (seven miles south of Atlanta), with my wife, Martha. Our six children are all college graduates. These include a doctor, engineer, teacher, nurse and musician. They have given us nine grandchildren.

How, when and where did you meet your wife? Please tell us a little about her.

I met Martha shortly before her graduation from Mary Washington College. I was an officer in the Marines. We were married in 1969, soon after the Vietnam crisis. She has been a wonderful wife for 45 years.

What do you consider your everyday challenges?

Slowing myself down, completely trusting in God's presence.

What gives you the courage and wisdom to address them?

Great supervision and support from Archbishop Wilton Gregory and his staff. My long, abundant experience in prison ministry assures me that I can learn to handle most situations as related to prison ministry.

Where do you worship?

I'm drawn to Our Lady of Lourdes, an African-American parish. Their liturgy is very inspirational.

What is your favorite Scripture passage or Bible story?

With great liturgies, Matthew 25 and Matthew 5: Both address issues relative to prison ministry.

Do these Scripture passages make a difference in your life?

Yes, and receiving the Eucharist and hearing the word of God energize me immeasurably.

What is your image of God?

I think of God as loving, forgiving, merciful, caring -- above all, available.

Has this image changed?

Not for a long time -- not since 1981. That was the day I grew into my faith.

Can you say why?

A Cursillo helped me see God in a more personal way.

What about your faith is most meaningful to you?

It has openness to us who want to explore the truth. I also appreciate Catholicism's reliance upon Dcripture and tradition

Where do you see our faith in action?

Pope Francis is a man of action. I anticipate his influence will take hold over time. He has many barriers to overcome.

Who most influenced your belief system? Please explain.

My experience as a permanent deacon has shaped my belief system. Other deacons provide role models.

How do you pray?

With my wife in the evening. Sometimes, we use contemplative prayer, the Liturgy of the Hours or the rosary. At other times, it's extemporaneous.

What does Christianity ask of you?

To love God and our neighbor as ourselves, and it encourages us to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. It tells us to believe in the two great commandments and directs us to live the Creed.

What do you want from it?

Guidance and encouragement leading toward occupying one of the many rooms in the house of the Lord.

What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?

My service as an officer in the Marines in Vietnam.

What in contemporary Catholicism or distresses you?

Nothing. I refuse to be distressed. I am more encouraged by our churches. However, I would like to see the gifts of laypeople and religious utilized more extensively.

Is there anything you would change?

The hearts of legislators, judges, district attorneys and fellow Catholics who still support the use of the death penalty.

What causes you sorrow?

Very little. I trust in God's presence and his plan for me and others; however, the deaths of close relatives call upon my reserves.

What causes you joy?

Many different things: seeing my children and grandchildren be happy, loving, caring people. Love abounds in our family. I also rejoice when an inmate is released from death row.

What gives you hope?

I think people are beginning to see how devastating the death penalty is. Change is forthcoming.

How do you relax?

I enjoy biking, walking, attending football and baseball games. Dinner with my wife and family. I am relaxed when I am ministering in a prison or jail. I truly love all aspects of my ministry. I also love to preach, and I do a fair amount of that.

Is there something you wish I had asked?

I am thankful for people like you who provide energy and motivation for me to stay the course.

And I am thankful for people like you.

[Mercy Sr. Camille D'Arienzo, broadcaster and author, narrates Stories of Forgiveness, a book about people whose experiences have caused them to consider the possibilities of extending or accepting forgiveness. The audiobook, renamed Forgiveness: Stories of Redemption, is available from Now You Know Media.]

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