August 20, 2023
EDITOR'S NOTE: On July 21, 2023, the State of Alabama executed inmate James "Jimi" Barber after a controversial series of legal decisions that culminated in a U.S. Supreme Court ruling. You can click here to read the Associated Press report. Barber's execution also was opposed by Sarah Gregory, the granddaughter of Dorothy Epps, the woman whom Barber killed in 2001. In the past three years, after almost two decades of grieving and grappling with Barber's brutal murder of her grandmother, she came to forgive and even befriend Barber before his execution, in a life-changing personal journey. That journey began when she first heard Bruce Springsteen's song "Letter to You."
Sarah Gregory recently reached out to the Letters To You website and asked us to share this firsthand account of her moving, inspirational story with our readers. We are deeply honored to have been asked by her to do so.
As a longtime Springsteen fan, I know personally how deeply Bruce's music can affect one's life, and of course I've read and heard many similar accounts from other fans over the years. If you've read this far, I'm sure that you have had similar experiences and encounters, as well. Nevertheless, it's been quite some time since I've read anything as powerful as what Sarah has written below. (Incidentally, I find it especially fitting that we're posting this on the anniversary of Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band's now-legendary A Night for the Vietnam Veteran concert, because I strongly believe that the connection of the music to "lives on the line" is just as high here.)
Again, it is an honor to make Sarah's story available for you to read, as she requested. Like so much of Bruce Springsteen's music, her story shares truths, offers inspirations, and lays down challenges that often are difficult to find elsewhere, if they can be found at all.
"Letter To You" changed not only my life, but as I have come to see in recent months, the lives of many others. In 2001, my grandmother was murdered by a friend of our family. I spent many, many years in substance abuse trying to forget my anger and pain. I was able to get sober in 2013 and began to work on myself, yet I could not let go of the pain from her loss and the rage I had toward the man who inflicted such violence. I had tried for years but could not allow myself to even say his name. On what would have been her 94th birthday, July 29th of 2020, I wrote about her and even to her on Facebook. I wrote, in part, “My heart wants to rid myself of the weight of this feeling (hatred.) You forgave everyone, believed in everyone, believed everyone could change, and saw the good in everyone. For me to hate is to disrespect the values you instilled in me. Lord, help me to forgive the unforgivable. Help me release him from the power he has had over me for almost twenty years.”
God answered my prayer only a few months later. I was sitting in my car listening to E Street Radio and "Letter to You" came on. I broke down and cried during the entire song. That night, I sat down and prayed for guidance. I did as Bruce Springsteen sang, I took all my fears and doubts, all my happiness and pain, dug deep in my soul, and signed my name true…I felt the pain ease as I sent a letter to Jimi Barber, the man who took my grandmother's life.
I had no idea that writing that letter would lead to one of the most beautiful friendships in my life. I had no idea God would take my pain and show me His grace. We continued writing, then speaking on the phone, until it turned into a weekly occurrence, and after that even more often. Bruce's music was a dominant figure in our relationship. In one of the first letters I received, Jimi sent a song he had written many years before. He told me to “sing this in your head to the tune of 'My Hometown' by the one and only Boss!” Over the years, he and I shared many Springsteen songs with each other. We discussed our interpretation of each song and what that song has meant in our lives. One of the saddest songs, given the circumstances, that we discussed often was "Nebraska." Yet it is now one of my most cherished songs and memories, for a reason I will share shortly.
Jimi became the person who supported me when I needed it the most. He helped me navigate dealing with my son, who suffers from severe mental-health challenges. He prayed for me and with me, and he was (after my husband) the person with whom I could not wait to share things. Jimi gathered all the men on Death Row at the Holman prison to rally behind my son. Multiple times they would all pray for us while I was on the phone. It would bring me to tears. Prior to the execution, I received a beautiful handmade box made of tiny pebbles that all the men gathered to thank me for showing them that forgiveness and redemption is not only possible, but beautiful and life changing.
On July 20, 2023, my friend was executed in Alabama. I did attend, but not with hate in my heart. I was the bridge between the two families, and I was there to ease his fears as much as I could; the fears of someone I now call my friend. None of this would ever have occurred if I had never heard "Letter to You."
I was able to visit Jimi and his family for almost seven hours on July 19th and 20th. This was one of the most meaningful, beautiful, and heartbreaking moments of my life. As I approached the prison, I felt sadness seeing the conditions he had lived in, yes due to his own actions and consequences thereof, but I still felt sadness. Cold, dark, isolated cells surrounded by multiple fences, barbed wire, and a sense of evil in the air. Once I entered the gates and was escorted to the visiting room, my eyes saw him for the first time in over twenty years. I saw the man who caused myself and my family the greatest pain one could endure. Yet as I saw him, my heart felt happy. I immediately looked into the eyes of my friend and saw regret, love, and admiration in return. It looked as though not a day had gone by. Yes, years had changed us both, but he still was the same man I remembered.
Once the door opened to the visiting area, I was immediately greeted by the other visitors in the room. First Jimi hugged my mother, who had managed to slip in without her ID being checked. She was denied her visit pass due to being a direct victim of his crime, but I was approved. Jimi said he had prayed that somehow God would allow one hug from her, and He did. Jimi then turned to me and the hug we shared was the deepest and most sincere embrace. It was absolute forgiveness. I looked around the room and everyone was in tears. However, within three minutes the guards had checked the ID’s and quickly removed both my mother and me from the prison. I was very upset because I had too much to say to him. Once again, God stepped in and I was called by the warden to return, without my mother.
Once I returned, we sat and talked. We remembered our lives that we had shared from before the murder, and remembered my grandmother. I spoke to his family, who kept thanking me for forgiving him. One of his brothers, Mark, told me that my forgiveness was the catalyst to not only his own forgiveness, but for his whole family’s forgiveness for Jimi. Many tears were shed, many hugs given, and a lot of healing happened in that cold, secure prison room. That night, my mother and I had dinner with Jimi’s brother, niece, and his spiritual advisor. We supported each other, healed some more, and encouraged each other for what we all knew would be a very tragic next day.
The day of the 20th was the most beautiful and the most heartbreaking day. We all met outside the prison wall at 8:30am. The hugs and the tears were ready before we even entered. Jimi was eagerly waiting as everyone went through the security process again. He was pacing back and forth and talking through the window slots every chance he could. After we all completed the security procedures, Jimi greeted each of us with a long, strong hug. The kind of hug one gives when you don’t want to ever let go.
After everyone received a “Jimi hug,” he asked to speak. At that time, he read his last words since he knew he would not be permitted to speak while in the death chamber. Jimi made almost constant eye contact with me, as though looking for security, strength, and peace as he pushed through reading the hardest speech of his life. His brother Mark walked over and put his arm around me. We held each other the entire time. He thanked me for bringing his family back together and for bringing some sense of peace and light to this whole situation. So, when he held me, I could feel everything he said. Everyone, including Jimi, cried and all our hearts broke in a way that was almost palpable. Then, Jimi said that was enough and made a joke, and we all laughed.
His church-member was permitted to bring a guitar, so after all tears we dried we began to sing. "Mary, Did You Know?" was sung by his niece, in the most beautiful rendition of that song I have ever heard. Other hymns were sung, and Jimi sang Bruce Springsteen’s "Nebraska" directly to me. Bruce’s song "Letter to You" was what had brought us back together, and "Nebraska" was the stark reality that he and I had discussed many times before. I cried as he sang, and he never broke eye contact. It was one of the most touching moments of the visit. He learned that song just for me, and the way he pushed his fears aside to sing this song was the most touching gesture anyone has ever done for me.
Many guards had stopped to witness what they later said was something they had never seen: not only a victim’s family member visiting with the convicted, but together singing, laughing, and hugging. One guard asked if we could sing "Amazing Grace," to which we obliged. Every person in that room sang with all of the emotions we had left. The guard cried, praised God, and sang. It was beautiful. Then we discussed how Bruce’s rendition of "When the Saints Come Marching In" was the most beautiful version we had ever heard. So, we sang that song with all our hearts and Jimi led us all in a train dance around the room for the entire song. We praised God, sang, and cheered and we circled the room. I remember seeing the guards and administration staff looking in complete amazement, many crying.
As time drew to an end, we stopped and took communion. Jimi handed each of us the Bread to represent the Body of Christ. We each hugged him, stood there solemnly, and cried. His spiritual advisor and I held each other, doing what we could to not allow either of us to fall to the ground. After a prayer was completed, we knew it was time to go. I hugged each of the people in the room, and with each person more tears came. Finally, when I got to Jimi I could barely speak. I was sobbing and could only hold him. He asked me to never stop sharing our story, and I promised him I would not. He asked that I tell of our visit, and I promised him I would. I placed my shaking hands on his face and thanked him for saving me. I thanked him for showing me the greatest gift God could bestow upon a person. I thanked him for being my best friend these last three years. He kissed my cheek, we hugged, and I had to leave.
Two of his attorneys were waiting to enter and as I passed them, I hugged them, thanked them for trying to save my friend, and cried. When I returned to my car, all I could do was cry uncontrollably. Every part of my being wanted to run through those gates, hug him again, and not let go. My heart broke for Jimi, for his family, and for his best friend who stayed next to his side until he met God. May God give them all strength and comfort, and may they all be reunited in Heaven.
I did not see my friend again until the curtain of the execution chamber was lifted. There he was, strapped to the gurney, IVs coming out of his arms, and his lower body wrapped in a cocoon of blankets. Yet, he smiled and even told jokes to the men who were in the room with him. He made a brief statement of remorse and love, and forgave the Governor and State for what they were about to do. Then, as the injections began to enter his body, he turned to make eye contact with me one last time. I pray my face provided some sort of comfort to him. He then closed his eyes and met God a short time later.
I now have experienced two murders in my life. Both changed me, both shattered me, and I pray that together both will lead me to be the person I was always meant to be.
Not only did God answer my prayer that July day in 2020, but he also used me as His vessel and showed me the most beautiful gift. I celebrate what God allowed Jimi and me to do together. I celebrate my grandmother and all she means to me. I celebrate and mourn the loss of her and one of the best friends I have ever had. Just think of what God did for me to say, with all my heart…Jimi was my friend. None of this would ever have occurred if I had never heard "Letter to You." Bruce's music has forever changed me. I am a better woman and a better human because of it.
Sarah also would like readers to know that she has chosen to become active in supporting the work of the Alabama-based organization Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty, and would like to encourage others to consider joining/supporting this organization and/or similar groups in their communities. If you'd like to reach out to Sarah for support with any kind of personal struggles similar to hers, or even if you just have a comment or question for her, please email Sarah directly at email@example.com or - if you prefer - you can email her via firstname.lastname@example.org and your message will be forwarded to Sarah on your behalf.