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Bidding adieu to anti-death penalty activist Steve Dear 

When Steve Dear announced his departure as executive director of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, he posted it with Thomas Merton's "Letter to a Young Activist," from 1966. It begins: "Do not depend on the hope of results."

Don't depend on results, or even the hope of results?

I was dimly aware of Merton, a prolific writer and Catholic mystic. At other times in my life, I'd have passed over his advice without pause. Results, as I learned in my youth, are why you keep score. But now, I did pause. Full stop.

"When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on," Merton continued, "essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect."

I've admired Steve Dear virtually since he came to the fledgling PFADP organization in 1997. Simply put, he's been a fixture in the restless circle of social justice work in the Triangle, a fighter for a cause.

And Dear's work got results. Under his leadership, PFADP became a force, in North Carolina and throughout the country, for abolishing capital punishment. Yes, 31 states, including ours, still have the death penalty. But executions in the United States are down sharply. Last year, there were just 35, and 20 were in Texas and Missouri.

North Carolina, which put 32 men to death between 1999 and 2005, has executed no one since Aug. 18, 2006. For complicated reasons, a major one of which was the growing influence of PFADP, a virtual moratorium took hold then, and it continues—though Republicans in the General Assembly appear determined to end it soon and resume the killing.

I had two reactions, therefore, to seeing Dear's resignation with Merton's advice. One, I hoped that Dear didn't doubt his impact. Two, I'm finding it hard to depend on the hope of results myself as I observe our state's and our nation's corruption. I drove to Carrboro to meet with Dear for a pep talk.

When Dear gets up to speak at his going-away party, he'll probably tell how the Rev. Robert Seymour, mild-mannered Chapel Hill pastor, pounded the table at Gov. Jim Hunt, shouting that if the death penalty is such a deterrent, Hunt should stage the executions outdoors—"right outside your window!"

Dear organized 25 delegations of faith leaders to meet, first with Hunt, later with Gov. Mike Easley, seeking clemency for convicted murderers about to be put to death. Hunt and Easley each commuted two death sentences to life in prison. They let the rest go.

All those executions and the others that PFADP and its thousands of supporters fought unsuccessfully to stop took their toll on Dear. The ceaseless organizing, the press conferences, protests, sit-ins at Central Prison on execution nights, and, above all, the knowledge that a life would be snuffed out if mercy was denied pushed Dear to work for weeks on end with no days off and little sleep.

Merton's advice: "You are probably striving to build yourself an identity ... to protect yourself against nothingness, annihilation. This is not the right use of your work."

"I am impatient," Dear said when we talked. "I wanted results. I wanted to end the damned thing"—the death penalty. "I was driven by a sense of obligation."

But finally, after nine years of relentless battle, he was hurting physically (with herniated discs, "organizer's back," caused by too many boxes with too many pamphlets carried to too many events) and stressing out.

A five-month sabbatical in 2006, supported by the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, helped him to grasp Merton's wisdom: "Offer yourself, offer your gifts. But don't hang your ego on the outcome. What's much more important is the life you lead and the people around you," Dear says now.

Dear is moving to Eugene, Oregon, where his wife, a doctor, has accepted a position and where he will do some consulting. But also—in Nike's uber-healthy hometown—he will go tothe gym, lose weight and prepare for the next challenge at age 51.

Merton was right, Dear says, that we can't control "the big results." We can control what we live for and who we chose to live and work with. For more than an hour, Dear regaled me with stories about PFADP's many other heroes—unsung pastors, local organizers, forgiving family members of murder victims—who did the work that I was crediting to him. OK, but I saw him bust his butt.

His last take on 18 years at PFADP: "I have gratitude. Deep gratitude. I'm so grateful for all the beautiful people I've gotten to know."


Honoring Steve Dear

What A party with People of Faith Against the Death Penalty

Why PFADP's longtime executive director, Steve Dear, is moving to Oregon

WhereUnited Church of Chapel Hill, 1321 Martin Luther King Blvd.

When Friday, July 31, 7–9 p.m.

And No charge to attend, but donations accepted

This article appeared in print with the headline "The hope of results."

  • The longtime head of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty is stepping down

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