The Life of a Prison Chaplain August 2000

Six years ago, Chaplain Jim Brazzil reported for his first day of his new job at the Huntsville prison in Texas. Called to the Lord at age 9 in his hometown of Temple, Texas, he’s been ministering since he was 17 and has served as a Baptist pastor since 20. He has worked in a tuberculosis ward in a Ukrainian maximum-security prison and has seen all manner of physical horrors as a paramedic. But that day, at age 45, his assignment daunted him for the first time. “By the way,” the administrators told him in passing, “there is an execution tonight, and we need you to handle it.”

“I can’t even explain the experience,” Brazzil says now, in his soft drawl. “It was extremely traumatic. It was extremely religious. It opened my eyes and my life to things I had never even dreamed of, as far as being alive. Back then, they were still executing at midnight, so it was a long, hard day.”

On the campaign trail, George W. Bush has had to explain why Texas puts more people to death than any other state, with over 130 executed during his tenure as governor. But Brazzil faces more pressing questions from the 131 men and women he has counseled in the last two weeks of their lives, through the last full day of their lives, to the moment that he puts his hand on their leg and watches their last breath.

As witness to so many deaths, Brazzil no longer fears his own (“When I come to grips with life and death, it’s not the death I’m afraid of,” he says). Instead, he works to retain awe. Texas executes so many people that two men were put to death on the same night this August. “I try very hard not to ever become callous in this,” Brazzil says. “I don’t ever let it become a routine. Every man is different. When I first started this job, I tried to find out everything I could about the inmate. I knew his crime. I knew the history of how many times he had been in prison. I knew his family environment. But I felt all that got in my way, because a lot of times it affected how I looked at him. And now I just go in there. He’s already been condemned by the state and he’s fixin’ to die. He doesn’t need somebody else there to browbeat him. I feel like what he needs is somebody to love him, to lead him to God, to lead him to repentance, and to prepare his life for death.”

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