At the age of 21, days before she was to begin at Calvin Seminary, Dorothy Streutker ’78 turned around and went, instead, to law school at the University of Washington. Her longing to explore the nature of God and faith didn’t go away, though. Rather, 10 years in the study and practice of law—first criminal, then civil law—put on that longing a clear focus:
“I saw the direct, hurtful effects of drawing out litigation, haggling over money and not looking at what was really happening to clients and lawyers in the process,” Streutker said. “I felt an impulse to connect legal resolution with Christian reconciliation, to find an alternative to the way we deal with conflict in America.”
In 1989 that impulse took Streutker to seminary at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Calif. Needing to work part time, she also accepted a job that threw her into the area of the law where conflict and the need for healing are most intense. That job was to help prepare an appeals case for Ron, a man convicted of murder and sentenced to death.
“I didn’t realize I’d made a lifetime commitment,” Streutker said.
She means a commitment not only to Ron, a friend now for 18 years, but also to raising awareness in two camps about the spiritual dimensions of the death penalty.
“I’m trying to put spiritual issues on the radar of the criminal justice community,” Streutker said, “and the death penalty on the radar of church people.”
Ordained in the United Church of Christ, Streutker works by day as an attorney at the California Appellate Project, an office she calls “death penalty central for California.” There she provides counsel and resources for lawyers appointed by the state to represent indigent people facing execution. To these lawyers Streutker considers herself “a stealth chaplain.”
“There’s a skittishness about spirituality among death penalty lawyers,” she said. “With them I’m trying to bring the spiritual issues of the work to light and to encourage conversation.”
Streutker has found more willingness to talk about spiritual issues of the death penalty among church people, but, she added, “I can’t seem to get them up out of the pews to be personally involved, even in writing letters. I’m a bit stymied by that.”
Streutker’s explicit parishioners, those, she said, who have also befriended and counseled her, are the dozen death row inmates she visits at San Quentin State Prison. To them she provides legal and, when requested, spiritual counsel.
“Even in the oppressive, bleak circumstances of prison, God presents possibilities for love and creativity,” she said. “I’ve seen the grace of God break out in astonishing ways.”
For now, talking to lawyers and people in churches about the death penalty’s spiritual issues and companioning the condemned take all Streutker’s time and energy. But there’s another dimension of the work that draws her and that she expects to enter in the future.
“The area of victim outreach calls out to me so much,” she said. “When those of us representing the accused can just be with the victim’s family and not see them as the enemy, then we can put forth a new approach to this worst of all conflicts, an approach that doesn’t cause more pain. That’s what I want to do. I want to be a messenger of that peace that is greater than our need for revenge.”
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