Something about Ruth Cunnings told me that she was a teacher before I asked. Maybe it was the streaks of silver running through her short, black hair or maybe it was the fact that she conscientiously wore a
cap and sunscreen everyday (Ruth was one of the few fasters who wasn’t sun burnt after four days in the sun). Her eyes carried both warmth and a potential for sternness, something that would likely be useful in teaching fifth to eighth graders at an all-girls middle school. Or maybe she just reminded me of my seventh grade science teacher.
After graduate school in theology at Notre Dame, Ruth is now a
religion teacher at a Catholic school, Academy of the Sacred Heart, in
Michigan. She organizes annual fasts for Catholic Relief Services with junior and senior high school students, but she did not travel alone from Michigan just to fast for four days.
Why did she come? “Because I believe in the cause,” she said.
Ruth Cunnings always opposed the death penalty theoretically. As
a Catholic, she agreed with her church’s position on capital punishment; her faith told her it was wrong to take the gift of life when it was not necessary. But when her brother was murdered 12 years ago, she had to face her beliefs.
“I saw first hand how much pain and suffering an unnecessary death
causes,” Ruth said. “I don’t want the government to cause that kind of pain and suffering…murderers have families too.”
Ruth’s parents were also strongly opposed to the death penalty and
her entire family asked the state prosecutor to pursue life in prison
rather than a death sentence. “An execution wouldn’t solve anything or bring us healing…and it would not bring honor to [my brother’s] name,” Ruth said.
The state, however, pursued the death penalty against their
wishes. The prosecutor failed to secure an execution and a life sentence was handed down.
Twelve years after the murder of her brother, Ruth speaks about
her experience of healing through forgiveness at high schools and on the Journey of Hope with other Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation. Although speaking about her brother’s murder can be painful, she says “it is worth the discomfort if it helps people and lets them see something in a different way.”
The hardest questions she gets about her story are those asked in anger. “Some people just think revenge is the answer,” said Ruth. “But when they’re angry, they are not open to hearing anything.”