The tragic consequence of my life was unfolding before me. I was a condemned man, and the law had judged me guilty to be hanged till I was dead, so that as the judge said, I would experience the pain that my wife went through when she was murdered.
What hurt me so much was the pain that my two children would go through, or had been going through. My daughter had fainted and two policemen had rushed to her rescue. I wanted to rush to her rescue but the bailiffs could not allow me.
I was shackled, my legs and hands were put in chains and while still screaming about my daughter’s situation, I was carted away like a piece of wood and placed in a cell at the Monrovia Central Prison.
The date for my execution was set, and my situation was the talk of town. My first Monday at the prison, Pastor Samuel Weagba of the United Church of God visited me. Since the date I was supposed to be hanged had already been set, it followed that a man of God should visit me, to prepare what would eventually be my lot till I met my maker.
The pastor was also supposed to comfort me to ease the uncertainty and mystery that surrounded the inevitability of death.
“I know you know why I am here,” he said, after he had introduced himself, and seated himself comfortably on the only chair in the room, “I will be with you, as the Lord said, till even the end of the day.” I found Pastor Weagba very interesting. He had come at the right time, for my heart was bleeding, and my world was filled with uncertainty. For all my life I never entertained the idea of death. Though I knew death was destined in the end, I did not entertain any idea that circumstances could rush me to meet my death, so unexpectedly.
“I know my life does not worth a thing and many people, including yourself might have judged me guilty,” I said, sitting in front of him with squared shoulders, “but pastor, my only request is to pray for those whose actions have led me to my end.”
Pastor Weagba understood my position because he released an outburst of disappointment, when he said, “I followed your case from the beginning to the end.”
“Do you believe that I’m not guilty?”
The pastor waited for a while and said, “You have insisted of your innocence throughout the trial and the evidence against you were circumstantial and not beyond all reasonable doubt, yet you ended up being condemned to die by hanging.”
He hesitated to allow his message to sink into my mind, and I felt great warmth in my heart, for at least a man of God believed that I was an innocent man.
He continued, “Though the law is extremely clear, mistakes were made in this case and your conviction, in all manner and shade provides a cry against justice for your wife and yourself, as well as your children.”
“What justice is there for my children, when their mother is dead and their father will be hanged in a few weeks from now?” My question did not produce any shocking reaction but the man of God smiled, and gesturing to the Bible in his hands, said, “You may have been condemned today, my son, be assured that God, the father of our savior Jesus Christ and the provider of all tender mercies will not let your children’s future be in vain.” I sensed his reassurance and responded with a deep breath, uttering an outburst of dejection. I had heard that God is just and therefore His goodness would not hurt the innocent. But I was a condemned man for a crime, a heinous crime that I never committed and my children would bear the brunt of a judicial system that looked the other way. It was a crime and a decision that had denied my two beautiful children the best mother they could ever have and a father they had grown to love. Where was God’s kindness? Since I was condemned to die and a date set for my hanging, what would God’s goodness mean to me?
“Pastor,” I said a bit emotional, “I agree that God’s goodness never fails but will it not come too late for me, since I’ll be carted to be hanged in a few days from now?”
The pastor smiled, and it was a painful one. His blazing eyes looked through me and I felt emotionally spent.
Pastor Weagba opened a bag that he had brought along with him and pulled out a black book, with the cover bearing the title ‘Holy Bible,’ and thumped through it. His fingers ran through the pages with impressive dexterity that excited my admiration and gratitude. After some seconds, he got to what he was looking for, and turned the portion to me. It was Isaiah Chapter 41, and with his fingers he directed my eyes to verse 10. With a glowing sense of some accomplishment, the old man smiled and indicated with his eyes for me to read it.
“Read this verse,” he said. My eyes swept from left to right and settled on the verse. I gave a deep breath and placing my hand on the verse, God’s comforting words filled my afflicted soul; which said, “Do not be afraid, for I am with you. Do not be anxious, for I am your God. I will fortify you, yes, I will help you, I will really hold on to you with my right hand of righteousness.”
I was impressed with the words of God, but I felt I did not deserve those comforting words, more so when I was a condemned man, and who was waiting to die, unfortunately.
“Is the Lord’s mercy not sufficient for you, my son?” the pastor said, with a grin.
My reaction was natural when I said, “Does this verse refer to me, when I am condemned to die?”
“My son,” Pastor Weagba said, “no matter what men said you’ve done, remember the Lord will not condemn thee for He is with you.”
I was somehow surprised that Pastor Weagba believed that I was innocent. I had been a dutiful husband whose wife had been a supportive partner. With two beautiful children, I was on top of the world and could not ask for more.
I was angry at the shoddy work by the police and my poor financial status. I knew that on this part of the world, justice depended on how much money a defendant could provide for a high priced lawyer, not a public defender.
Pastor I said, “From what I read from the Scripture, God provides comfort for the innocent in distress, and I’m grateful that you can come here to let me know that.” The pastor, in his 70s, extended his hand to hold mine, and with a smile said, “I have been a man of God for the last 40 years and I have prayed for many of those who passed through this corridor.
“I cannot definitely be sure of your innocence but you strike me a great deal as a man whose denial needs further examination.” I felt proud that a man of God believed that the crime against me should be examined, though it might not be realistic since I was already a condemned man. I was just waiting my day with death. The thought of being hanged on a pole was not an encouraging one and the idea filled me with horror.
“Pastor,” I said, “it is evident that I will be killed before long, so I need you to do me a favor.”
“Ok,” Pastor Weagba said. “It is my duty to offer you every comfort that I can offer you to bring God’s Kingdom to you in this difficult but glorious hour of your life.”
“I want you to place me in the hands of God.”
“Yes,” he said, “that is why I am here and to also ask God, through his son Jesus Christ to have mercy on you so that this cup shall pass you by.” I felt warm with the pastor’s remarks and I was like a child born again.
“Pastor,” I said, “I have a request for my favorite hymns that I will be too grateful for the choir to sing for me before I am hanged.”
The pastor closed his eyes as a consequence of my answer, and placed the bible closer to his chest.
“What hymns do you want, my son,” the pastor said, his voice soothing my bruised soul, “I’m at your service.”
I thought at his answer for a moment and then said, “The first hymn I want should be, ‘Farther Along (By And By)’” The old pastor’s eyes brightened at my request, and he lifted his right hand to make the sign of the cross on his chest.
“Be not afraid,” he responded, “God is with you.”
Surprisingly, I was losing my voice when I spoke to him about my second request.
“Just before I’m killed,” I said in a low voice, “let the congregation sing for me the hymn, ‘Be Still My Soul’.” At the end of my request, I saw tears filling the eyes of the pastor. I was touched but I was dried with emotion that I found myself unable to respond likewise.
Pastor Weagba had been with me for the last thirty minutes. The evening shadows were approaching and the time for family visitation was fifteen minutes away.
I knew I had to die, but to die on a crime I did not commit was too hard for me. And just before Pastor Weaga departed, a warder sent the news that my children were waiting to see me.
It was the time that I began to weep, like I never wept before.
Tears alone could not solve my problem but it was apparent that the surprised appearance of my two children was something I never imagined since I had had the impression that their mother’s family would not have allowed them to come bid me farewell.
But I knew that blood is thicker than water and therefore despite my initial resentment that was mixed with frustration and hopelessness, the best that could ever have happened to me was the presence of the only two people in life who, no matter what, believed that their father was an innocent man. Pastor Samuel Weagba might have apparently realized that I needed that brief respite with the children and therefore he excused himself, which I was totally against.
“My son,” he said his voice very low, “I realize there are people who still believe in your innocence and I am taking leave of you so that you can meet them.”
“Father,” my strained voice echoed in my ears, “my final journey is not far away and while I appreciate the presence of my children, I need additional comfort that only God can offer.”
The pastor regarded me in silence for some seconds and folding his hands around the Bible, said, “Sometimes the body of Christ demands the ultimate sacrifice,” and some tears filtered into the old man’s eyes, “but I will be with you, like Christ said, till the day comes when the truth can be made known to the world that has condemned you.”
Fighting back tears I folded myself in my corner and surprisingly gained a measure of comfort as the good man shrugged his shoulders and with a careful nod of his head, strolled out of the room. The warder shut the door behind him. Few seconds later, the same warder reappeared with the announcement that he had made earlier and ordered me to follow him. We entered an adjacent room where there was a glass-window. I was still shackled when I entered the room and my eyes fell on my fourteen year old daughter April, 14, and directly beside her were Jim, 12 and my late wife’s younger sister Dawn, 16.
For several minutes we stared at each other. I lowered myself onto the chair and lifted my shoulders. Neither of the children could stand my awkward position likewise their young aunt. I knew I had to be brave enough to comfort them that despite being in chains. Dawn and April then raised the popular Gospel song in Monrovia, with the title: Lord Give Me A Day, and as the two young women’s voices echoed throughout the building, it was as if a church choir had come to visit. The brief meeting was so emotional that I could only reassure them that they had offered daddy the best comfort he had needed together with that of Pastor Weagba.
April said, as I held her fingers through the open window available for me, “Daddy we have asked God to send you back to us because we love you.” Their comforting words filled me like a knife in my heart, and we took consolation in tears. Though their visit time was short and therefore before departing, April, Dawn and Jim informed me that they had sent a letter to the president of Liberia to pardon and save my life.
“We came up with the letter,” Dawn said, “and we got support from our local community church.”
“How did you send the letter?” I enquired.
“We sent it to one of the newspapers,” April added, “we told the president to give you back to us.” My children’s action was encouraging and I commended them for their efforts, particularly so with the involvement of the churches in the community, where we had worshipped on Sundays.
Our brief meeting was characterized by emotional tears and we were able to ease each other’s pain and I briefly explained to them the visits of Pastor Weagba and the positive impact that it was having on me.
THE DAY of my execution arrived and I was ready for the journey. Alone I had rehearsed the four most beautiful hymns that I needed before the end of my life and it had given me so much hope that anyone seeing me would not believe that I was a condemned man. The four songs were ‘Farther Along (By and By), Be Still My Soul, How Tedious And Tasteless The Hours Is, and the fourth one was Lord Give Me A New Day.
The first stanza of the lyrics of Be Still My Soul went like this:
Be still, my soul: the Lord is on thy side.
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain.
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change, He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul: thy best, thy heavenly Friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.
Outside the Monrovia press had been making brisk business about my final execution. Some of the newspapers ran large banner headlines that screamed my last journey. Some said: CONVICTED KILLER BOWARD TO DIE; THE END OF A KILLER; and KILLER’S DAUGHTERS BEG FOR MERCY. One of the paper’s that delighted in sensationalism, with a bid of scorn, ran an editorial that went like this:
Deserving Last Day
‘In the end we are thrilled that James Boward will see the end of the journey he began. Ending his own life on a ladder must serve him a lesson, if after he is gone, he could learn from the pain that a woman who loved him went through.
‘It is not often times when a woman has done all she can for the comfort of a man that the fool in him would turn against the very breast that provided him milk.
‘For all we know, James Boward has been a wanderer, moving from place to place and country to country only to be rescued by the good heart of a woman, whose only crime was living him. Though we feel it would be a worthy lesson to keep the convicted murderer in jail for the rest of his life, but knowing that there could be a possible chance for some leaders in the future to set him free, and for him to enjoy the life that the woman who had loved him, could not enjoy, because of his cowardice, the idea he was to be hanged is an encouraging reprieve for us.
‘We know Mrs. Boward would not come back. We know her absence has created a huge vacuum and we also know that her two children, by the end of the hanging would become orphans.
‘It may seem cruel for justice to demand the life of the only parent available but the children would not appreciate in the end the news that it was their father who denied the love of the mother they once loved.
‘We are in sympathy with the children but we cannot share any tear for James Boward, for having had his days in court before his peers, we can only wish him adios, Jimmy.’
It was evident that I had no sympathy in the media. Murder was a serious business and anyone found involved was condemned to be taken out of the living. I contented myself with what had happened in the last couple of weeks and was convinced that even if I was put to death, as a retribution for my former wife’s murder, there could be justice somewhere for me, and my wife in the great beyond. I was not particularly fond of the idea that I had to die, for I exhausted the little effort and finances at my disposal. What I had left was the future of my children that cried out to the president of Liberia to have mercy on me. That cry, as far as I was concerned, had come and gone and it was time for me to go.
Five special police officers came to me and rushed me into a waiting police jeep and it sped towards the famous South Beach where several government officials were executed by a military junta in the 1980s. I had come to this particular area since the famous Barrack Young Controllers had built a mini-football stadium there. The officers did not utter a word as the jeep raced to my destination. I could not see outside as the jeep’s sped windows were all rolled up and locked.
In about three minutes we arrived at the destination and my heart leaped in my mouth, meaning fear of death began to take me captive. Upon arrival, Pastor Weagba was waiting for me, and he rushed to my side, as soon he saw me. However, one of the police officers violently pushed the old man away, and he lost his balance and went down. I screamed but I could do nothing else. Another police officer hurriedly went to the old man’s rescue and later lifted his Holy Bible, after it had fallen, and was open in the middle.
With some difficulty the old man rose, and moved towards me, and grinning, said, “My son, today the Lord shall show you His love.” His voice was cool and reassuring and it sent a smile across my face.
I knew it was too late, but then I realized that with God all things were possible. But questions flooded my mind: What did the old pastor mean? Had he seen some vision about my release? If yes, how could that be? True, it was not for me to doubt what God had revealed to His servant and therefore I kept my posture and followed the instructions of the officer nearest to me.
Of course, there was a large gathering of people that did not want to be left out of the drama and therefore I swept my eyes across the multitude to at least take a glance at my children but it was no avail.
Remembering the old pastor’s reassuring message, I began to sing the song, Lord Give Me A New Day, because yesterday brought me lots of problems. By now the time was up and the chief warder walked me directly under the machine that was supposed to kill me. That moment was tense and I began to lose my grip on any hope of being physically saved. I began to sing the first two stanzas of the hymn ‘How Tedious And Tasteless The Hour Is.’
I sang the first and second stanzas:
How tedious and tasteless the hours
When Jesus I no longer see;
Sweet prospects, sweet birds and sweet flowers,
Have all lost their sweetness to me;
The midsummer sun shines but dim,
The fields strive in vain to look gay.
But when I am happy in Him,
December’s as pleasant as May.
His Name yields the richest perfume,
And sweeter than music His voice;
His presence disperses my gloom,
And makes all within me rejoice.
I should, were He always thus nigh,
Have nothing to wish or to fear;
No mortal as happy as I,
My summer would last all the year.
I waited for the time. My hands were already bound behind me and all the formalities had been concluded but then I saw Pastor Weagba making his way through the officers and coming towards my position. I was confused because he had completed his prayers and had called on the Lord to show His mightiness. My mind was still in such a confused state, when the pastor, smiling reached me with his two hands to embrace me.
“The Lord has done it,” the pastor said, “you are free my son the president has announced your pardon.”