Reverend Melissa Potts-Bowers, the spiritual advisor to Michael Tisius, recently described her experience ministering to him during his execution as “quite horrifying—as it’s intended to be.” Mr. Tisius was executed by the state of Missouri on June 6, 2023.

Rev. Potts-Bowers’ relationship with Mr. Tisius began when she was his minister and pen pal and continued after she became a hospice chaplain. At the time of his execution, she had been his spiritual advisor for more than twenty years.  In the days leading up to his execution, she said that Mr. Tisius often spoke hopefully about his legal petition, where his lawyers claimed newly discovered evidence that one of the jurors in his case was illiterate in violation of Missouri law, and his clemency petition, which was decorated with some of his artwork (pictured). Rev. Potts-Bowers said that her experience as a hospice chaplain helped her to prepare Mr. Tisius for his impending execution, and they spoke at length about faith and the afterlife. 

Rev. Potts-Bowers was present in the execution chamber on the day of his execution. “He said to me: ‘I’ve got a lot of faith. I’m not bitter — but I am terrified.’ He was full-on terrified, so he begged me not to stop talking. That’s what I did. I put my hand on his shoulder, as I was instructed to do, and held him fast. I said: ‘Michael, don’t forget what we’ve talked about. You’re loved, you’re forgiven and you have people on the other side who are waiting right now to welcome you. Just go straight to the light.’ I didn’t have to talk very long. He was gone quickly. But I continued to speak until the guard came in and escorted me out.” 

Rev. Potts-Bowers was one of several ministers who spoke about their experiences at the annual meeting of Missourians to Abolish the Death Penalty. Rev. Jeff Hood, who was present at the executions of Scott Eizember in Oklahoma in January and Arthur Brown in Texas in March, explained that he viewed the decision to minister through an execution as an ethical conundrum, as it could make him feel “complicit.” But he added, “I do believe in the ministry of presence. And I believe that God has called us to be in those moments to love people, and to be love, in a space of great evil.”

“It’s subversive to say, ‘I love you’ in a place that’s designed for death,” said Rev. Lauren Bennett, associate pastor at Metropolitan Community Church of Greater St. Louis. “It’s subversive to put your hands on someone who’s being killed and remind them of all the people who love them.”

Rev. Darryl Gray, the senior pastor at Greater Fairfax Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis, also described struggling with feeling complicit when he was present during Kevin Johnson’s execution in Missouri last November. However, he stated that he did not want Mr. Johnson to be alone, so he accompanied him “because Kevin’s life was worth it, the sacredness of human life was worth it.” He added, “You don’t forget it. You don’t get over it. It’s not something that you do and then it’s left in that death chamber.”

“Those of us who are following the path of Christian faith certainly see that in our leader, we have that as part of our teaching,” said Rev. Potts-Bowers. “Being present, being there, standing with those who are oppressed is one of the most important things we can do. So for me, remaining in that chamber is one of the most important privileges for us to protect.”

The 2022 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Ramirez v. Collier gave death row prisoners the right to have a spiritual advisor present in the execution chamber with them. The spiritual advisor is allowed to audibly pray and place their hands on the prisoner as the execution proceeds, so long as they do not interfere with the execution itself.

Despite this, Missouri state officials refused to allow Raheem Taylor to have his Muslim spiritual advisor present during his execution. Officials originally claimed that he had missed the deadline to have one appointed but could not point to an official policy stating the deadline.  Rev. Hood recalled similar efforts to prevent him from remaining with Mr. Eizember during his execution. He explained, “We really pushed back against the state of Oklahoma. You still have religious freedom in the death chamber. Religious freedom extends to that moment.”


Sources: Bill Tammeus, Witnessing the State-Sanctioned Killing of Michael Tisius, Flatland, July 30, 2023; Brian Kaylor, Ministers Reflect on Praying in Death Chambers, Word & Way, June 26, 2023; Brian Kaylor & Jeremy Fuzy, Denying Religious Freedom During an Execution, A Public Witness, Feb. 92023.