As part of our blog series on execution vigils, I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Father Phil Egitto, the Pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes in Daytona, Florida. Since Fr. Phil became a pastor in 1998, he has organized and led vigils outside the state execution facility for every single execution, making him one of the most involved Floridians in the movement to abolish the death penalty. As yet another execution under Gov. Rick Scott approaches, Fr. Phil took time out of his vacation to talk vigils, the death penalty, and the importance of action. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
BG: How did you first get involved with vigils?
PE: When Florida reinstated the death penalty, I was a college student at the University of Florida, and the church invited us to go. And basically since then I’ve been committed to attending vigils. I lived out of state for a few years, but when I became pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes a priest friend reminded me that there were executions going on—it’s not well publicized really. And I decided to start going again in 1998. And I’ve been to all of them since. Under [Gov.] Rick Scott the process has been sped up, so we have been having a lot of executions. But it was when I was a student that I realized how wrong it is to execute people.
BG: Can you tell us about that realization? Why do you feel opposed to the death penalty?
PE: Well, the obvious—that killing people who kill people doesn’t stop people from killing people. That logic makes absolutely zero sense. But I believe it’s wrong to kill people because I believe all life is sacred. I’m a priest, and I believe that life is a gift. It is given by God and it is taken by God. It is always wrong for us to take the life of another. Execution is nothing more than state sanctioned murder—the state saying it’s okay to kill someone. But, my faith says it’s never right to kill people. It’s against the basic dignity of human life.
BG: And so you organize people around this belief to participate in vigils?
PE: Yes. When I started going to executions, I began to educate my community, making them aware that our state was killing people. So we started carpooling. And eventually we began to rent a bus, 5 or 6 years ago. So the first step is inviting people. We not only invite our own church, but also people from other churches. We’ve had Unitarians, rabbis, students, and many others join us. We take anybody who wants to go. We’ve never filled the bus, but it seats about 55 people and we usually have about 40.
BG: What exactly do the vigils entail?
PE: What it entails—we as Catholics pray—so we have an abbreviated form of our evening prayer combined with some of our funeral rights, many of the prayers we would do at a death. And we bring in a musician and sing. Music is an integral part of how we as Catholics pray as a community, and so we sing things like Amazing Grace, or Jesus Remember Me, or Come Into Your Kingdom. We hand out three or four Psalms and we intersperse that with scripture and prayers. We keep it as ecumenical as possible, meaning we try to use prayers that are inclusive of other Christian denominations. It’s ecumenical but not interfaith. However, about two or three executions ago, they were executing a Muslim gentleman, so I invited the Imam from Orlando and several Muslim people in the community. They weren’t able to come, but we did include several Muslim prayers in our service, out of respect for the faith of the one being executed.
BG: What would you say is your greater purpose in holding these vigils?
PE: We believe that there is a tremendous amount of evil being willingly done. And we come and stand outside, for us and for those being executed. And we try to bring a positive energy of love and compassion into an energy that is filled with hate, revenge, violence, and death. We believe our presence is cosmically important. That’s why we don’t just have a prayer service at our church, we go into the depths of the place where the violence and evil is being committed, and we bring love, compassion, and forgiveness to an energy that is the exact opposite. I believe our presence there negates some of that negative evil from radiating out to the rest of the world. We’re there for humanity.
People talk about justice being served, justice is not being served. Revenge is being served. I know that people in our culture want to punish people and think that they will get a sense of healing. But what I find is that you do not get a sense of healing at all, the pain is compounded and now not only is their loved one a victim, but someone else’s loved one is a victim. Violence begets violence.
BG: You said it’s important to you to have an actual physical presence at the site of the execution. Does that serve a purpose in raising awareness about the cause?
PE: I believe the fact that you’re talking to me right now is because I go to every execution. I bring 40 people to every execution, that fact does increase awareness about our commitment to justice. There have been articles in local papers, and we’re usually on the news. I believe our presence there is contributing to a changing tide in our country. I tell my 5 people, they tell 5 people, and those people tell 5 more people, and the word gets out. When people are willing to voice that this is inhumane, wrong, and isn’t solving anything, people start to recognize that our culture does not need to execute people.
Awareness is important, but at the same time, even when people weren’t aware, I would tell people we were here because it’s who we want to be. Attending executions affects who we are as individuals. If we do not go, we are basically agreeing with the death penalty. We can say we don’t agree with it, but if we are not there, we are complicit in the murder by our actions. So we go because we want to tell the governor and humanity that this person is being killed not in my name. It’s one thing to say you’re against the death penalty; it’s another to take time out of our lives for this cause. It makes us who we are as people that we are willing to say “not in my name are you going to kill somebody.” We want to be able to say “I went and did everything in my power to stand up against this.” By being a person who puts their actions where their words are, it changes who we are and who we are becoming.
BG: Any memorable moments that have occurred at vigils?
PE: Eighty percent of the time, there is a weather phenomenon. It’s very fascinating. One time it was pouring rain and there was lightning everywhere. But over the place of the execution, the sky opened and it was bright and sunny. It was as if the person was being taken into heaven. Another time I remember, the boyfriend of a victim who had been killed by the man being executed was with us. He did not want killing to beget killing. As he was standing there, a bird flew out of the sky and landed on his hand. I had never seen a bird land on someone’s hand. It was so bizarre. I don’t know what that meant [laughs]. Last time we were there, there was an extraordinary amount of dragonflies. And they had never been there before. They were landing on us and were unafraid of people. One time it was cows. After we rang a bell they all started to moo wildly. There have been all kinds of experiences.
Father Phil is cutting his vacation short in order to lead a vigil at the execution of Eddie Davis on July 10th. If you are interested in attending, you can show up at Our Lady of Lourdes at 2:30, or meet up with the bus at one of the stops along the way. Call 386-255-0433 for more information. All are welcome to attend. Father Phil says they have never run out of room before but it’d be fabulous if they did. “If we needed a second bus, it’d be a great day.”