An unlikely friendship

By Paige Butzlaff, pen pal with Death Row Support Project (DRSP) of the Church of the Brethren

Writing comes naturally to me, and writing letters is a hobby I have loved since I was a young girl. When I was 16 and in high school, I discovered DRSP and chose to sign up without knowing what kind of impact it would have on me. I was paired with a man at the San Quentin State Prison by the name of Noel: a man a couple of decades older than I am, and one I (wrongly) assumed I couldn’t relate to. Flash forward to today: It’s been over a decade since I started writing to Noel. We’re pen pals, friends, and yet strangers who have never met.

It has truly been a remarkable experience writing to Noel. We know so much about each other, but I still have not yet seen him in person. Noel is faithful, strong, resilient, compassionate, thoughtful, and patient. He trusts in himself and his good heart and believes he will be set free. I wholeheartedly believe that too. I don’t need to know the elusive “why?”  that put him in prison. It never mattered to me, to be honest. What mattered was his heart and the way he talks about his life—a life that is just as valuable as any other.

We have both changed over the years and I have blossomed into the adult I am now. My naiveté gave me the grace to ask questions and accept differences. Noel had mentioned he was looking for a romantic partner, but I didn’t feel put off by that. My intentions going into this pen pal experience were to build a unique friendship and to help someone in need of a support system, and that has never changed. I have always appreciated Noel and valued our friendship so much, even after all these years and multiple address changes.

Miscommunication can happen easily through pen and paper, and it was something that, at one point, created a little uneasiness in our friendship. During one particular time, Noel felt abandoned by me because I had become engaged to a man I didn’t tell him about. There were certain things I refrained from telling Noel simply because I like having some privacy. My relationships with men were something that felt private to me, even though I would briefly mention things to Noel to give him updates on my life. My understanding from some of his letters was that he felt jealous and upset by my relationships, but I always assured him that I hadn’t changed and I would continue writing.

Regardless of what Noel envisioned me to be once we started writing, I am certain he still values our friendship as highly as I do. He stopped writing to me for a couple of months to “give me space” after our miscommunication. I told him how saddened I was to not receive his letters anymore. I told him how much I looked forward to them. I communicated to him about how I needed to live my life authentically, and that meant I would continue doing what makes me happy. He accepted what I had to say and wanted to continue our special friendship. He supported me and still does to this day. Noel will always be cheering me on, even from the sidelines.

Seeking empathy helped me step into his shoes—shoes shackled with chains. I now realize how deep his loneliness must be, how frustrating relationships are for him because of his forced limitations in prison, how people may come and go in his life and he may not know why, and how sad and hopeless it might feel to never have the life you imagined for yourself. I am hopeful Noel will be released soon and truly live his life to the fullest, with or without a partner and family of his own. But I can confidently say that we are family, through thick and thin. I’ve told Noel that I see him as a wise uncle figure, but most importantly I see him as a lifelong friend. I’m honored and proud to say that he is not just a pen pal, but a true friend for life.

This testimony was originally featured in an email newsletter by the Death Row Support Project, connected to the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy of the Church of the Brethren. Learn more about the Death Row Support Project at or support its ministry today.

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)