Interview with Raymond Johnson on Oklahoma Death Row

Interview with Raymond Johnson on Oklahoma Death Row

By Cantor Michael Zoosman

My name is Cantor Michael Zoosman. I am a former prison chaplain, an advisory board member of Death Penalty Action and the co-founder of “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty.,” where we are in touch with all human beings in our nation who receive an execution warrant. For the past year, I’ve been corresponding nearly daily with Mr. Raymond Johnson, a man condemned to die on Oklahoma’s Death Row. Raymond’s profound faith, his desire to do his best to transform himself in the wake of his crimes, and his modeling and intentions for engage in Tikkun Olam - repairing the world - even from his cell on death row, have struck me deeply as a chaplain and as a fellow human being. Though we come from different faith traditions, I feel connected to Raymond in all these ways and am grateful to have the opportunity here to highlight the person that he has become, today…and what he can offer the world, tomorrow.

Transcript of Audio Interview:

Part 1

Okay, Shalom Aleichem peace unto whoever is listening. This is Cantor Michael Zoosman, a former prison chaplain, and, uh, with our group Jews Against the Death Penalty and really with, with all concerned people in humanity and blessed to be joined today. Uh, my longtime, uh, friend in pen pal Raymond Johnson, um, who is here on the line.

It's uh, January 29th, 2023, and it's about 1230, uh, Eastern time. How are you, Raymond? I'm blessed. I'm blessed to have this opportunity. Again, glad to hear your voice and thank you for this door opening up. You know, that I can walk through, not just on my behalf, but for others. Decided as well, going through the struggle.

Amen. Well, thank you for, for taking the time and um, for, uh, for your opening your heart with us. So I know that these calls are unlimited in time. So without further ado, um, I did have some, some thoughts and that I, I would love to hear from you. I know we've written a lot over, over the, the months and, um, but to, to be able to hear your voice speak to these.

These ideas. So my first question for you, Raymond, is what gives you hope? What gives me hope? It's a good question. I mean, uh, I could be robotic and, and speak of, you know, the Bible verse, uh, in the love chapter of Corinthians, where, you know, the three things that remain is, is, is faith, love, and hope, you know?

in these times. A lot of times it's hard to have hope, you know? But I think my faith in God is the only thing that gives me hope. You know? And the assurance of having a good circle, you know, that I know that is praying for me, feeling those prayers, you know, having that encouragement to, to lift me up when I'm down, you know, having people to love me in spite of, you know, when I see that, that gives me, You know, because it makes me feel a part of humanity, having people that love me unconditionally, in spite of my feelings of my past, that gives me hope.

Okay. Well, thank you. Thank you very much for sharing that. And I can, I can say in my own way, um, you know, having been having read a lot of your essays over, over time, through the Death Row, soul Collective and what you've shared with me, um, that it, it goes both ways. You know, it goes both ways and, um, we give and receive.

And I also have, have found hope. for the future of, of humanity for us all in, in our, in our interactions. Um, uh, I, uh, I'm reminded of Martin Buber who, who said, um, I and thou that we can find, we can find God, uh, in the other. And, um, I feel that I found it. Well, I don't want to jump the gun, so I'm gonna, I'm gonna ask you the next question.

um, , uh, it's related to that. So what, what is God for? . What is God for you? God is optative. He is omnipresent. I mean, he's the creator. You know, we read, it's, it's, it's hard to put it in words. I, I, I see God in everything. I see him in, you know, the landscape I see him in, you know, the little things. I see him as the big things, you know, he, but to, to just make it simple.

He is the creator, you know, and, and we can look in society and see y'all and back things going on and say, well, where is God? You know, in this, you know, but we have. You know, and I think that's the problem in society. We have choice. History repeats itself, and we as the people, we have to evolve. I myself, in the past, you know, I used to make the same mistakes repeatedly, repeatedly, repeatedly.

And it took getting to a place for me to sit my butt down and learn to evolve, to be a. Person, and we as a people, we as a society, we have to evolve. And that's why a lot of times we don't see God, you know, in today's society, but he's there just waiting on us to be better. If we take one step with him, he'll take two steps for us just like that.

the point, the, the, the footprints in the sand, you know, when mm-hmm. , there was two steps. Then one time there was one step. Why? Because he was carrying us. Right now, he's carrying us, waiting for us to be better people, so it can be two footprints in the sand. Amen. Well, uh, you, you remind me in what you said just now of this idea of covenant, uh, in Hebrew breach and, um, that like we, we actually, uh, have the, the CER circumcision, which the word for circumcision is Bre, but it literally means covenant and its idea of meeting, meeting in the middle that we do our part.

Yeah. So the divine can meet us and um, you know, you and I have spoken as well. Have written back and forth much about job, um, and, uh, this idea of, um, that relates to what you're saying about, you know, when bad things happen and how do we justify that? And, um, I I think back to a lot of those examples when you're saying what you said about, um, about how we find God and how God can find us.

Yeah. So, It's it that ties into a little bit to the next question. The first few questions are kind of broad, just general, and then, um, uh, well, most of them are general, but, but this one is, um, Uh, years ago when I was in a congregation, um, as a cantor, um, I gave a class on Jewish liturgy. And, um, one of the, uh, main themes in Jewish liturgy was , which is like, which is redemption.

And somebody raised their hand and they asked the question. He says, well, what, you know, we keep talking about being redeemed and we shall be redeemed. And he said, what? What is. . And at the time, you know, I know that word can mean different things in different religious contexts, and I know we come from different backgrounds, but, um, but, and, and, and I want to honor and, and give space for what you feel, what is redemption for you?

What is, what does that mean? I feel more comfortable to using the word reconciliation as we had had talked about this before, which I, I, I. puts it more context to, to me. Um, we talked about this, how forgiveness, you know, a lot of people look for forgiveness when, when we come to God, God forgives us. Right?

But what he asks is for us, from us is repentance. Forgiveness is an action that we're, it's resetting up repentance. Is, I mean, forgiveness is the words that resets us, you know, in right standards. Repentance is the action of turning away from the sin. Reconciliation is living in repentance, and I think that's where the redemption comes from.

If you are living in repentance, that's where the redemption comes. Does that make sense? Yes. Yes. And I, I recall now, um, us having talked about reconciliation and, um, and the difference between, uh, what, you know, when people throw around that word, um, uh, forgiveness, um, and, and what exactly does it mean, and.

Ties in that, that was gonna be my next question too, which is the, the question is what does, and you've already answered some of it, you know, what does remorse and forgiveness mean for you? And you, you've already talked about forgiveness. Um, and before I give you a chance to, to, um, comment on, on what the i, what remorse means, um, you know, I just want to share.

Um, in the Jewish world, uh, your ideas about reconciliation and making amends and repentance really are in line with centuries, millennia of, of tradition. This idea in, in Hebrew repentance is teshuva, which means returning. My colleague, uh, rabbi Donya Ruttenberg in her new book on Repentance and repair talks about Maimonides and how Rabbi Moses been maiman and how he laid out five specific steps that had to be made.

One of them was forgiveness, but, but there were, there were five specific steps for repair. The first was naming and owning the harm. The second starting to change in transformation. , uh, I know I'm listing these here, but I wanna make sure I get 'em right. Uh, the third is restitution and accepting consequences.

The fourth is apology and the fifth is making different choices. So, yeah, I, I don't want to take up our interview time too much, but I think it's important for folks to know that, that what you've just said is in line with, with, um, certainly with my own tradition and, um, with some of the greatest thinkers.

Um, That our, my tradition is put forward. So all that said, um, I'll get off my soapbox for a minute. Um, and, uh, I know you've written, um, you wrote a beautiful essay on, on remorse and what that means for you, and I'd love to get your thoughts on that. I, I'm in, in tune completely 1000% with that. And I, I. for me to say I'm remorseful.

It has to be an action. It can't just be a word, you know? And I, I try to wake up every day and better myself. I try to wake up, you know, uh, every day and be a better me, you know, be the best for me that I can be, you know, because as I tell some of the guys, it's easy for us to stay. Well, if you, if our lives of spirit, we would do this, but.

Until our life is spirit, you know, if we really and truly have remorse, let's, let's live in the remorse now. Let's live in it now. You know, so people can see that our lives is worth spirit. You feel me? So it's like I live in it, you know? I live in it because I, I don't want it to be in vain, you know? I don't want it to be in vain, you know, the, the.

that I committed was, was, was bad, and I don't want it to be in vain. I, I recognize it and I have to be better. And it has to be more than words, and it has to be in action. And I hope people see that. Mm-hmm. , uh, amen. I feel that, uh, well, you know, um, I, I happen to agree with you. I think, uh, in this way you're.

You, I don't mean to make light of it, but you are preaching to the choir there. And I'm sitting at my desk here and, and I have a card right, looking right at me as you're saying this. And it's a quote from, um, rabbi Abraham Joshua Heshel. And he's a famous rabbi who actually marched with Martin Luther King Jr.

Um, yes. Uh, and, uh, he, he famously said, when he was asked, uh, about it, he said, we were praying with our. . Uh, and, and you know, when you speak about action, this quote is, um, we are asked to take a leap of faith rather than a leap of, I'm sorry, we are asked to take a leap of action rather than a leap of faith.

And faith of course, is important. I don't think he meant to d diminish that. Um, it's, I I certainly live by that, but, but not without, um, requisite action. And I think that's, if, if I'm, if I'm correct. I think that's what you're, what you're saying. Yeah. Even in the Bible and in our tradition, it tell us that faith without works is dead.

So you have to have the works. You have to have to action. Hmm. Yes. I, I, I remember that now. That is, that is a beautiful point. Well, building on that, and I know that. We may get cut off in a, in a couple minutes. Um, and then in which case you'll call back, um mm-hmm. , this one of the terms that a lot of people use these days to encapsulate what we're talking about.

All these other words we've been talking about is restorative justice. Um, you may have heard that phrase, um, this idea of, you know, The ideal, replacing the current type of system that we have of, of justice and the, the, the punitive system and, and bring or, or adding to it these values of restoration, restorative justice.

And, um, I wanted to ask, well, a, if you've heard of that, and, and b if so, what, what your thoughts are about that? I haven't heard that they was doing that, but I can. . Now, having spent most of my life in and out of prison, I've seen prisons change. Like when I came in, I, there was college, which we had, and it was programs and it was back then, it was in the early nineties.

It was when you came to prison, their job was to put you in vo tech. Their job was to itch in a school and their job was to give you programs. So when you get out, you. , you know, you, you would have a chance, you would be successful. You know, and now , those programs are nonexistent. You know, if there is, you know, vote, then it's obsolete.

You know, the last time I, I was in prison, uh, Right before I got ready to get out, I said I need to have a skill. And I went through this construction technology, uh, Botec and it was a nine month thing and I got the certificate and everything else and I got out and I thought, you know, I'm doing a good job.

I got this construction technology certificate and I went to do construction work and I showed the guy on the job I had this portfolio and he laughed and he said, I don't want me to offend you. He pulled it out and he tore. He said, this don't mean nothing. This is not state certified. This is not nothing.

All I need to know is if you can do some work. So it's like they put me through something that was obsolete, you know? Mm-hmm. , it's like, it doesn't surprise me. They set us up kind of for failure. So something does need to change because, you know, I had got out discharged, I had paid my debt to society, but it was like I was still being punished.

So something does need to be done. You have one more left. and to make us better prepared to be out there and be productive people in society. Okay. Yes. I, I do agree. I'm gonna, um, I'm going to, I, I know we're gonna get cut off, so I guess you'll call me back and we'll continue our interview. Yeah. Okay. All right.

Thank you. I Uhhuh, . The caller has hung up.



Interview with Raymond Johnson Pt. 2

The, the second to last question I have here, um, is kind of a broad one, and it may be hard to to answer, but give it a shot. What do you feel you can give back to the world? What do you feel you can give back to the world?

I feel like I'm sure that already, like I've, I'm one of those. Because of the, the bad choices and, and decisions that I've made in life, but yet to have survived.

I've been there and done that. You know, I have the t-shirt, you know, I've been there and I've done that. So I have the wisdom and the knowledge from having been there and done that, and I can shed light as to where I can give the wisdom and knowledge, you know, where people don't have to go through what I went through.

I think. Uh, that's what helps me, you know, in my parenting and I have two wonderful, wonderful children, you know, and it's easy for me to be a, a great parent because they see what Betty has been through. They cherish my wisdom and knowledge because I've made the bad decisions, learn from my bad decisions, learn from my aesthetics, and they.

and it helps them stay on track. And I try to share my knowledge. I try to share my wisdom. I try to share my emotions because I'm an open communicator, which I do through my writing. You know, a lot of times I'll write something and it'll be my feelings. And I, I've seen from the, um, the screenshots when you share with me that so many people can feel, I feel, or I've enlightened them, you know, because I felt I, I'm giving a voice to what they.

So it's like I have some wisdom and knowledge to share, not just with those around me, but with those with the platform that God has given me out there, you know, through Death Row, soul Collective, and, and through you with Jews against the death penalty. So I have that and I do that, and I'm sharing that


I, I thank you. And I know that, uh, the folks who have, um, read your essays would say the same. Um, and, uh, you know, I can vouch for the fact. I, I do communicate, I correspond with a lot of different people, but I'll, I'll be, I'll, I'll be honest. I put, I'll put my hand on a, on a, on a the Hebrew Bible to say you are the, the greatest communicator of, of them all.

We, you know, you, you write, uh, you, we, we, we exchange messages almost every. And, and, um mm-hmm. that I more than, than anyone that I'm in touch with. And so I can, I can vouch for that. Um, and, you know, I, uh, I'm, I'm, as you're saying what you're saying as a, a voice of experience in a way, having been through all of this, that as we as a society have, but we have a choice.

You know, we can, we can either try to, try to, um, um, understand ourselves. and try to mm-hmm. to learn from history. You know, our, as as Jews, and I mean, along with any other people, uh, we, we, we must, we, we must learn from the past. You know, we recently had International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and the idea is to learn from the past so that we don't repeat the mistakes of the past and.

When the response to mistakes is just to try to throw everything away and, um, and just pretend like it doesn't happen and, and kill everybody involved, which is, you know, how that was the Nazis idea, then, um, then it's a recipe for disaster instead of trying to understand, trying to move forward. . And so I, I, amen.

I do believe, like you said, you're, you're doing that right now with this conversation, so, um, amen. Yeah. So my last question that I have here and can open it up for any other conversation too, what is, what is your ideal vision for your future in this world? What is your ideal vision for your future in this.

In this world first, I think there needs to be some reform by judicial system. Uh, I think that we need to go away with the death penalty. It's too easy to judge and, uh, . I tell people that I meet all the time, you know, the penals that I've met. You know, give me an opportunity, you know, before you look up my prime.

Give me an opportunity, you know, get to know me. I'm not at lowest point in my life, you know, and it's too easy. I, I just asked the question if everything was okay. Poof. If we had a button and we can push this button and make everything okay, how long would it be before we find something else? . It's like we as a society, we look at the world as half healthy glass instead of half full.

We're not optimistic about anything. You know? And, and that's a, that's a problem in society, you know? Mm-hmm. . So I, I, I'm hopeful still, you know, that the changes come coming, you know, I'm, I'm coming. You know, sometimes it's, it's sad because we. You know, two steps forward, three steps back. But we got to keep praying and for those sitting on the sidelines get involved.

I'm, I'm very hopeful and grateful that we have a strong. , you know, younger generation that's becoming more proactive in, in different things in, you know, society, you know, global warming, justice reform, uh, uh, argument justice is out there, you know, and, and, and, and they're, they're after it. So I'm very hopeful in that.

But it takes other people joining in on the fight. It takes us crossing, you know, interface lines, takes. Cross official lines. It takes us not fearing each other, but coming together in unity, in love, and making a difference because together we stand dividing, we don't follow.

Can you hear Rason? May it be the divine will.

And, uh, as you said about the two steps forward, three steps back, uh, I, I, I hear echoes of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King with the moral arc of history bends towards justice. Sometimes it's a long bend, but I, I, I do believe, you know, we have to keep that intention in mind and. I obviously, you know, with our group, uh, being an abolitionist group, we, we certainly agree with you on just about everything, uh, everything that you said, uh, if with visions for the planet, visions for our society.

And I wanna also ask about, personally for you, you know, if you could, if you could envision yourself 10 years from now, 15 years from now, 20 years from now, what would be, what would you like to see happening in your life? Uh, if you could, if you could sort of time travel and, and, uh, see yourself in this world, uh, years down the road, what would, what would you like to see?

I would like to have my, have had my death sentence, commute to life without possibility of parole. And I'll say life without possibility of parole, and I could be the first to admit this and some people would never admit this, but I'm, I believe that my main street is in here. . And I remember when I accepted my ministry in October of my calling to the ministry in October of 98, and my dead pastor, uh, pastor James Reed asked me, why am I accepting my calling?

You know, why do I feel God is calling me? And my answer then was, I can reach people that you can because of the life that I live, and I still believe to this day that I can reach people. other, you know, ministers can't because of the life I lived, you know, and I believe that my ministry is in prison. You know, I believe that my ministry is outside of prison.

But to be alive. To be alive and making a difference in here and out there, you know, to help those guys that are getting out be better, be better men, you know, so they don't come back in because the door keeps swinging. The door keeps. Door keeps swinging. I'm blessed as in one of my buddies who I grew up with, you know, Terrence Jones.

I seen him come in way back in, I think it was 91, and he had a life it out and, uh, he was blessed and found a, a nice woman while he was locked up and they got married. He's out now, you know, had the life. Now commuted to a life sentence. I tell the guys, I said, all you gotta do is keep. and that gives you an opportunity for God to move and close.

So just to be alive and to help make, continue to help make a difference, not just getting on the lives in here, but the life outside as well. Hmm.

You know, um, I think that's very powerful. I, I used to be a, a prison chaplain up in Canada and they didn't have, uh, they didn't have the death penalty when I was there mercifully.

Um, and now I do my involvement from a distance. And really there is only so much that. Myself or, or anybody who, from the outside, even those of us who come in, enter the prison gates that we can do, um, and uh, to have change come from within. As you're saying is very powerful. I, I know we spoke about this, uh, before we recorded, but, uh, I think it's okay to mention now that, um, you used to be, um, a cellmate with, uh, another person I was in touch with, uh, Mr.

Donald Grant. Yes. And he and I used to have some conversations and, and I just, I think back to, and, and I, and I recall how you, you know, you said you were able to, to reach, In, in some ways. And, and, and it was that that wasn't an easy thing to do. Um, but you, you were able to do it. And, um, and you know, that is an example in my mind of how somebody in your position really is, is able to minister in a way that the most well-intentioned ministers of us out here are not able to

So, um, yeah. So, uh,

Well, that, that was the, that was everything on my, uh, uh, official list. Um, but I wanna also give you an opportunity, Raymond, to say if there's anything that that's on your heart that, uh, you know, that I wanna, I

didn't address. I wanna ask, I wanna ask you a question. While we have this platform, what do you think is the change that needs to be made in our.

I in, in the judicial, uh, uh, system that we have grown to today.

That's an excellent question. For me, it's the fundamental change is we need to move from retributive justice, which is the guiding force of our system, the punitive element of it. That is the fundamental, uh, force we need to move from. To a restorative justice model, which has, as its heart reconciliation, as you've indicated rest, other people might call it restoration, other people might call it, um, ways of giving back.

Um, other people might call it, um, uh, a more engaged approach toward healing. And that needs, those values need to replace the ones that we have, which right now are, um, a system fueled by vengeance. There can be nothing. Um, amen. Nothing restorative about a system that puts to death the people. It's trying to, it's claiming to correct.

You know, there's, that, there is, um, something, uh, inherently, inherently wrong about that. And that's one of the reasons why our group targets, we target the death penalty, you know, that for, you know, as if we triage the prison system. Um, for me that is the, the, the, the most damning part of it. And we can't talk.

We can't legitimately talk about a better system until we do away with, with this. So, um, that's, that's the, the driving force behind what we do.

Amen. I, I am agreement. I'm in agreement.

Yeah. Well, I know we're gonna run outta time in a minute. Thank you so much, Raymond. You have one minute left. May you be blessed in every way, and I look forward to continuing our connection for many, many, many years to come.

I love you, my brother, and thank you for this opportunity and thank everyone you know who's listed as will.

Amen. And you as well. All our love. Take care. All righty.

All right. Bye-bye. Bye-bye. The caller has hung up.

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