From the prison cell to the pulpit

Convicted of second-degree murder 20 years ago, parolee has become priest

James Tramel awakened Sunday in a prison cell. He went to sleep Sunday night in the rectory of a church he will help lead.

It was a day of transformation for Tramel, 38, who is believed to be the first prison inmate ordained as an Episcopal priest. He was convicted more than 20 years ago of murdering a homeless man in a park.

At the Berkeley church where he will live and serve as an assistant pastor, parishioners view him as a walking testament to the power of redemption.

“God came through!” said Linda Finch Hicks, a 51-year-old member of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, an exquisitely refurbished Victorian structure in West Berkeley.

“A lot of people have been working on this for a very long time. This is what church is about — Jesus gave us an opportunity for redemption, and it’s real.”

Arriving at the church at 11:30 a.m. after a meeting with his parole officer, Tramel paused and said, “I’m just overwhelmed and deeply grateful to be here. It’s a bittersweet feeling — I’m thinking a lot about the (victim’s) family. I’m sure it’s a very tough day for them.”

The church has received angry letters and calls from people who don’t believe a convicted killer should minister, said Jay Johnson, Tramel’s spiritual adviser and a church associate.

But Episcopalians across California have rallied for Tramel’s release, which was granted last week when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declined to review an October 2005 parole board decision.

“Are there concerns? Of course. Have those concerns been allayed? Of course,” Johnson said. “This isn’t about covering over what happened. This is about how we can move forward from that day, doing the work of atonement and forgiveness.”

There were no reservations in the parish hall when Tramel, wearing a black suit and white clergy collar, was greeted by about 50 parishioners shouting “Welcome home,” cheering and tearfully hugging him.

Many had visited him at California State Prison, Solano, in Vacaville in recent years, while others had heard him occasionally conduct sermons by telephone. A computerized voice would interrupt him every few minutes, announcing, “This is a collect call from an inmate at a California state prison.”

Tramel won over the church with his humility, his ability to listen and by writing to children in the congregation, openly talking about his crime, parishioners said.

“I know he is destined for great things, and it’s going to be a privilege to watch that unfold,” said Laura Peterson, 42. “We knew it was an unusual case, but we see this as a real story of hope.”

“It’s so amazing to finally be here,” Tramel told those gathered in the parish hall, who included his mother, sister and fiancee. He recited a verse and related the story of a prisoner nicknamed “Hound Dog” who had prayed for his release. “On both sides of this, we’ve been faithful, and I think God has provided.”

Tramel was 17 and a promising prep school student in Santa Barbara when he and a classmate, David Kurtzman, were arrested in the stabbing death of a transient who was sleeping in a park. Described by police as a “thrill kill,” the August 1985 murder attracted national attention.

Kurtzman stabbed Michael Stephenson, 29, but Tramel was deemed a ringleader and did not report the crime. He was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison for second-degree murder.

Stephenson’s father said last week that he was disappointed in Schwarzenegger’s decision to allow Tramel’s release just a year after turning back the same recommendation by the parole board.

Schwarzenegger has paroled far more prisoners than former Gov. Gray Davis, who allowed the release of just five in five years. Schwarzenegger has paroled more than 100 inmates charged with violent crimes, including 23 convicted of first-degree murder.

“If he wants to do his preaching,” Edward Stephenson said, “there are plenty of people behind bars he can preach to.”

Tramel, who was born a Southern Baptist, earned an undergraduate business degree in prison before applying in 1997 to study for a master’s degree in theology from the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, an Episcopal seminary.

Johnson taught Tramel’s first class — in theological ethics — shipping him lectures on tape. Tramel completed his assignments on a typewriter and mailed them in. Every few weeks, he and his teachers convened for a conference call.

During one prison visit, Tramel wanted Communion. He and Johnson bought Ritz crackers and Welch’s grape juice from a vending machine in the visiting room. “It was really quite moving to do it that way,” Johnson recalled.

In 1999, the registrar at the seminary asked another student, Stephanie Green, to visit Tramel. Green agreed, and the two are now engaged.

Now an associate at the Berkeley church, Green stood during services on Sunday and thanked the congregation for its support.

“The deepest lesson,” Green said later, “is that even in the lowest moments, when we lose sight of God or feel that God has lost sight of us, God is among us. My hope is that James’ story, and our story together, will be a symbol of hope for others about the possibilities for the renewal of life.”

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
San Francisco Chronicle, USA
Mar. 13, 2006
Demian Bulwa, Chronicle Staff Writer

Religion News Blog posted this on Monday March 13, 2006.
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