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A Murderer Finds Home
Summoned to the side of a criminal about to be executed, a historian describes his encounter which at first frightened, but then astounded him.

On December 8, 1907, near midnight, Mennonite Brethren minister and historian Peter M. Friesen was summoned to a prison (probably near his home in the Crimea) to give spiritual assistance to a criminal who was about to be executed. The prisoner claimed to be a Mennonite and had asked for him.

Friesen described the encounter, which had first frightened and then astonished him, in letters to the leaders of the criminal's former church and to the young man's mother. An excerpt from the second letter follows, translated from German by Ed Lenzmann.

He had desired a visit from a minister, it seemed, because he wanted to be confirmed in his faith …

In the prison, I found a young man in the garb of a convict, his feet shackled, pale, thin, the picture of misery, a wet towel around his head. He was seated at a table and was writing, I noted, in the Russian language. Upon my questions, first in Russian, then in German, and finally in Low German (in order to convince myself) it was established that he was A.V., 26 years old, and the son of the current Mrs. P.D. in ___.

Together with two others, he had been sentenced [to die] for the murder of two men and the wounding of a third during a robbery in the city of ___. This was now his final hour.

… [A.V.] was gentle as a lamb. Humble, fully contrite, he did not seek to justify himself and blamed no one else. He did not complain about anything, nor did he lament his lot, even though he was able to speak to me in confidence. He was as calm and submissive in his demeanor as one who has already overcome [life's battles]. He told me that he had prayed and cried much—one could see from his eyes and his face that he was, as Psalm 6:6-7 describes it, worn out from groaning, from flooding his bed with weeping and drenching his couch with tears all nightlong, emaciated and aged in appearance because of his fears. But he also had often, he said, rejoiced in the belief that Jesus Christ had forgiven him. I asked whether we might pray together.

"Oh yes, if only that were possible in these circumstances!"

He was apparently of the opinion that he and this place were too wretched for a formal prayer! At my request the assembled court officials and guards withdrew to an adjoining room (thus allowing him to express himself freely), though they were able to observe us trough an open door. We knelt side by side, ear to ear.

God had removed from me every trace of reluctance, reserve, and censure and had poured nothing but sincere love into my heart from the moment I first laid eyes on this poor child (for that was how the Spirit of God portrayed him to my heart) and heard him speak. We read Psalms 32 and 51 together, on our knees, and the songs "O Sacred Head Now Wounded" and "Sinners Jesus Will Receive," and discussed the story of the thief on the cross and everything that went with it: recognition [of sinfulness], remorse, confession, and (from God's side) forgiveness of the blood-red sins and washing white as snow through the blood of Christ.

My amazement grew as I saw the depth and clarity with which he understood the plan of salvation: the righteous verdict, the holy wrath of God and His great mercy, the costly price of the death of Christ for our redemption. The Holy Spirit had done His work so effectively I soon realized I was dealing not only with someone who was remorseful but with someone who had been born again.

He had desired a visit from a minister, it seemed, because he wanted to be confirmed in his faith, for the opportunity of a verbal confession, and for the enjoyment of fellowship for a last time on this earth. Through the authorities he had made a request that he be served with communion. Having ascertained the state of his heart, I was able to give joyous assent to his request … . To my question about whether he was judging or bearing a grudge against anyone he replied that he had forgiven everyone, and, insofar as possible, had written to everyone to make things right.

His eyes and pale face seemed very calm and friendly now. I covered the table … with a snow-white piece of cloth. (I had prepared for all possibilities) Once more I briefly explained, assisted by the Spirit of God, the meaning of this holy ordinance.

He understood very well. With a child-like prayer he poured out his heart before God one more time. The Lord prompted me to lay my hands upon his head. And thus once more I implored God for his forgiveness, presence, and grace until the awakening to eternal life and a blessed resurrection, and for a blessing upon [A.V.], which appeared to strengthen him and bring him great joy. Several times he said, "O, how very glad I am!" He remained on his knees this entire time. We concluded the holy ordinance with the apostolic blessing and the words of Psalm 103:1-2.

Now came the parting! I asked him if he had any further requests … . No, he said, only that I write his mother (as he had requested right at the start) and tell her I had been with him and "what had happened here." He gave the same reply, in a very friendly manner, to the head official, who had now returned with the others. He had written everything down, he said, pointing to the sheets of paper filled with writing. Later an official told me that he had written to many people. The officials and attendants were behaving as if in a holy place.

… We embraced and … I repeated into his ear one more time the last two verses of "O Sacred Head Now Wounded" … .

Be near me when I'm dying.
O show Thy cross to me …
For he, who dies believing,
Dies safely through Thy love.

He nodded vigorously, and with assurance.

Not many minutes later, A.V. was no longer among the living. He gave not the slightest indication of being afraid to die. He died a criminal washed clean. Unshakably gentle as a lamb and strong as a champion he passed through the black gate into the light of his Father's house, through death's cold waters to the bright shore of Home.

Originally published in the Mennonite Brethren Herald, November 3, 2006.




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