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War and Remembrance

Father Jim Sunderland chose to spend his life as a middleman -- between killers and God.

This past July 22 began like any other Sunday for Father Jim Sunderland. He woke at seven o'clock and said his prayers while sitting in his big green easy chair. Help me help others today. Amen!

He kissed the silver crucifix he'd been given when he took his vows 53 years earlier, laid it on his pillow, then left his room at the Xavier Jesuit Center. He walked down the hallway past icons of saints and paintings of Colorado wildlife until he came to the dining room.

Normally blessed with a healthy appetite for a 76-year-old man, he didn't feel very hungry this morning. So he had a cup of coffee -- strong black coffee, no sugar or cream -- and then went back to his room.

Through the window that overlooked the gardens tended by fellow priests and the lawns of Regis University just beyond, he could see that it was a lovely day. He sat at the large wooden desk from which he'd launched a thousand letters and thought he might do some reading. He loved to read, as evidenced by the books that lined the shelf above his desk, including The Death Penalty: A Historical and Theological Survey, by James Megivern; A Bright Shining Lie, Neil Sheehan's book about Vietnam; Christ in Prison, by George Anderson, the former jail chaplain at New York's Rikers Island prison. And he loved to write: The twin file cabinets were stuffed with a lifetime of clipped articles, academic papers and correspondence -- much of it concerning the quest for his own holy grail, the abolition of the death penalty.

He looked around his room. A few photographs of friends and family members stood on the shelf above his desk, along with awards he'd received for his own work on social-justice issues. The walls were bare now that he'd given away the framed drawings by Fritz Eichenberg depicting the life of Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement of the 1930s and, as far as Sunderland was concerned, a saint for her work with the poor and exploited. His eyes came to rest on his appointment book, which lay on top of the desk. He picked it up.

I don't need this, he thought, and tossed it in the wastebasket.

A shoebox on the desk contained a dozen letters he needed to answer. Most were from inmates, including Ron White, the serial killer whose death-row conviction was being reconsidered. I don't need these, either. The shoebox went into the wastebasket. So did his checkbook. I don't need that.

After he'd cleared off the top of the desk, he began going through its drawers, throwing papers away after little more than a glance. I don't need this. Out went the directories and newsletters from the Regis High Class of '42. I don't need that.

When the wastebasket was full, he picked it up, left the room, took the elevator to the bottom floor, and went outside to the dumpster. He emptied the wastebasket and returned to his room.

Soon the desk drawers were empty. He walked over to the file cabinets and opened a drawer, taking out a file folder and its contents. I don't need this, or this, or this. Everything went into the trash. When the wastebasket was full, he took another trip to the dumpster.

Since it was Sunday, there weren't many priests at Xavier, a retirement home for the Society of Jesus; most were attending or assisting at parish churches. The few he passed in the hallway were in poor health and paid no attention to his odd activity.

Finally, one noticed that Sunderland wasn't his usual affable, smiling self. He looked preoccupied, deep in thought. "Jim, you okay?" the priest asked.

"Yeah," he answered, without stopping, "I'm fine." He didn't know why he was doing what he was doing, but he felt okay. I may be losing my mind.

Two hours later, after maybe a dozen trips to the dumpster, the filing cabinets were empty, except for his power-of-attorney paperwork, baptism record and a few family documents.

Gone were the newspaper articles and pamphlets from those Sundays in the 1980s when he and others protested outside the Rocky Flats nuclear-weapons plant.

Gone were the treatises, great and small, debating the death penalty, racism, the exploitation of the poor. Gone was his correspondence with such leaders in the fight against capital punishment as Sister Mary Prejean, a friend who'd written Dead Man Walking.

Gone were the homilies he'd collected over the years to hand out on special occasions or to use in his own services, including the wedding homily: "Let your love for others expand your horizons, touch you to the troubled, befriend the less fortunate, bring the compassionate Christ to the crippled in flesh and spirit..." He'd tried to live by that philosophy himself.

Gone were the letters of thanks from the inmates he'd counseled, the families he'd consoled, the students he'd taught, the defense lawyers who'd admired his principles. Gone were the Christmas cards from Colorado killers like Frank and Chris Rodriguez, Gary Davis, Robert Harlan and Nathan Dunlap.

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