(Portions of this reflection written by Stacy Rector are taken from “Pizza Resistance in Tennessee” in Hospitality (August 2007), a publication of the Open Door Community in Atlanta, Georgia)
One year ago—May 9, 2007—the state of Tennessee executed Philip Workman for the death of Memphis police officer, Lt. Ronald Oliver, who was killed in a shootout following the armed robbery of a Wendy’s restaurant. Evidence in the case indicated that though Workman was guilty of the armed robbery, he was not guilty of shooting the police officer, who was most likely killed by “friendly fire.”
Philip Workman had six execution dates set and was moved to death watch four different times during his incarceration on Tennessee’s death row. The final time Workman went to death watch he was asked what he wanted to eat for his last meal. Workman requested that a homeless person be given a vegetarian pizza. He didn’t ask for lobster or steak or chocolate cake. He didn’t ask for one thing for himself. His last act—his last meal—he gave to someone else, to a homeless stranger, someone most rarely consider on their best day, must less their last day.
The state refused to deliver the pizza. The reason: the state could not use taxpayer money for such a charitable purpose. So with an empty belly but lips full of prayer, Philip Workman was strapped to a gurney, and after 17 agonizing minutes, breathed his last. The state had taken his life, and yet…
The pizza began showing up. Donna Spangler, a Nashville resident and some of her friends, donated 150 pizzas–$1,200 worth—to the Nashville Rescue Mission. Linda Carter, a member of Second Presbyterian Church, Nashville, took nine large pizzas to the Campus for Human Development and shared dinner with the homeless there. The People for Ethical Treatment of Animals heard about Philip’s request and delivered 15 pizzas to the mission. The Oasis Center, a shelter for teenagers in Nashville, received 17 pizzas from a Minneapolis Radio station.
And the pizzas kept multiplying. Pete Gathje and Jenny Case reported that in Memphis at Emmanuel House, a house of hospitality, 20 large pizzas were served courtesy of Elizabeth Vandiver from Washington. In Portland, Oregon, the Sisters of the Road Café—a drop in eatery for the homeless—began receiving pizza. In Connecticut, Bob Nave, Executive Director of the Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty, reported 500 homeless people enjoyed 150 pizzas. And, Fabian Hathorn, along with other French activists, sent $200 to the Tennessee Coalition to Abolish State Killing to buy pizzas for the homeless. All told, over 1,500 homeless people nationwide enjoyed a pizza party because Philip Workman, executed by Tennessee as the “worst kind of monster,” chose to remember a homeless person as his last act on earth.
Today we remember the compassion of Philip Workman in his most agonizing hour. We remember Lt. Ronald Oliver, Philip Workman, and all those affected by their deaths. Today we remember that there is much work to be done, and we recommit ourselves to resisting and ultimately abolishing the death penalty in Tennessee. Let us on this day strive to live as people who affirm with Martin Luther King Jr.:
Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.