Strength to Forgive
I am a New York City Police Officer. On July 12, 1986, I was on patrol in Central Park and stopped to question three teenagers. While I was questioning them, the oldest, a fifteen-year-old, took out a gun and shot me in the head and neck.
Thanks to the quick action of my fellow police officers, I was rushed to a hospital. A few days later, once it became clear I was going to survive, a surgeon came into my room and told my wife, Patti Ann, and me that I would be paralyzed from the neck down for the rest of my life. He told my wife I would need to be institutionalized. I was married just eight months, and my wife, twenty-three years old, was three months pregnant. Patti Ann was crying uncontrollably at the cards she had been dealt, and I cried too. I was locked in my body, unable to move or to reach out to her.
Our faith suddenly became very important to us: the Catholic mass, prayers, our need for God. It was God’s love that put me back together. And it came from many different corners. Christians of every orientation, Jews, Muslims, and people of no faith at all were rooting for me.
A week after I was shot, the media asked to speak to my wife. Though still in shock, Patti Ann bravely told everybody that she would trust God to do what was best for her family. That set the tone not only for my recovery but also for the rest of our lives. When things like this happen, people sometimes distance themselves from God. Patti Ann taught me that you don’t do that. You trust God. She trusted, and here I am.
I spent the next eighteen months in the hospital. While I was there my wife gave birth to our son, Connor. At his baptism I told everyone I forgave the young teen who shot me. I wanted to free myself of all the negative, destructive emotions that this act of violence awoke in me-the anger, the bitterness, the hatred. I needed to free myself of those so I could be free to love my wife and our child and those around us.
I often tell people that the only thing worse than a bullet in my spine would have been to nurture revenge in my heart. Such an attitude would have extended my tragic injury into my soul, hurting my wife, son, and others even more. It is bad enough that the physical effects are permanent, but at least I can choose to prevent spiritual injury.
A year or two later, Shavod Jones, the young man who shot me, called my home from prison and apologized to my wife, my son, and me. I told him that I hoped he and I could work together sometime in the future. I hoped that we would travel around the country together to share our different understandings of that act of violence that changed both our lives, and the understanding it gave us about what is most important in life. In 1995 Shavod was released from prison. Three days later, he died in a motorcycle accident. But Shavod Jones is with me wherever my story is told. We have helped many people, the two of us.
Before I was shot I had not been very committed to my faith. The shooting changed that. I feel close to heaven today in a way I never knew before, and it makes me very happy. I know it may be hard to understand, but I would rather be like this and feel the way I do, than go on living like I was before.
Of course, I have my ups and downs. Some days, when I am not feeling well, I get angry. I get depressed. There have been times when I even felt like killing myself. But I have come to realize that anger is a wasted emotion. So I forgive that young man all over again, and every time I tell my story, I think of Shavod, and I forgive him.
People often ask if I forgave Shavod right away, or if it took time. It has evolved over fourteen years. I think about it almost every day. I was angry at him, but I was also puzzled, because I found I couldn’t hate him. More often than not I felt sorry for him. I wanted him to find peace and purpose in his life. I wanted him to turn his life to helping and not hurting people. That’s why I forgave him. It was also a way of moving on, a way of putting the terrible incident behind me.
We still struggle every day. My wife wants to know why a teenager had to do this to me. My son is growing up; he is now fourteen years old. He sees other fathers and sons playing and wants to know why he couldn’t have that experience with his dad. So we still struggle. I have learned that prayer is something we do in our time and the answers come in God’s time. And prayers are not always answered the way we think they should be.
Months and years have come and gone and I’ve never regretted forgiving Shavod. Back then we never imagined it would carry any importance in other people’s lives. We did it for ourselves. But ever since people have wanted to hear about this act of forgiveness. It helped us, but more importantly but it has helped others as well. Popes, presidents, heads of state, and ordinary people have invited us into their offices or homes to tell our story. We don’t always have the right words, but I believe it is our act of forgiveness that speaks to them.
I’ve been able to reach out to children in particular, because it was a child of my city that did this terrible thing to me. I often speak at schools about nonviolence, and I know from responses I get that many of the children have embraced my message and internalized it. Instead of responding to violence with more violence they have decided to choose forgiveness and love.
So God has turned something terrible into something beautiful. I think God wants to use both our abilities and our disabilities. He needs our arms and legs and minds and hearts and all that we have, to let others know that he is alive and well and loves us and wants us to love each other.
Right now the towns around me are filled with families who lost loved ones on September 11. There are broken hearts all over the place. I myself lost many dear friends. They are part of us, but through our pain we feel God reaching out to us. Even in this difficult time-especially in this difficult time-he is offering us the peace of forgiveness.
My story is told in Johann Christoph Arnold’s book, Why Forgive?, but I think the most timely story in the book is that of Gordon Wilson, whose daughter, Marie, was killed when terrorists blew up a building in Northern Ireland. They both lay trapped under the rubble of the collapsed building, holding each other’s hands. Just hours later Gordon told reporters, “I have lost my daughter but I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge. That will not bring her back.”
I don’t think anyone’s suggesting that those who organized the attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon go free with an act of forgiveness. They should be arrested and receive a just punishment. As an American who served in the U.S. military I want to stand up and protect America, to rally around the flag. There’s a place for that.
But where are the answers, if you just deal with it on a human level? Why were they hurt, and why are they dead, these friends we miss so badly now? It’s hard to find those answers. But on a divine level I know that all these women and men who were taken from us so brutally are experiencing eternal happiness and are waiting to meet us.
Forgiveness is a topic that people need to hear about today more than ever. As human beings we need forgiveness, whether we are giving it or asking for it. And people make up countries. So that means countries need forgiveness, can offer forgiveness. Forgiveness is really about our own healing. We may experience slight offenses, or they may be profound. But in the end it is our choice, and it is the survival of our own souls that is at stake.
Take a look at your life. How would you describe it? Contented? Rushed? Exciting? Stressful? Moving forward? Holding back? For many of us it’s all of the above at times. There are things we dream of doing one day, there are things we wish we could forget. In the Bible, it says that Jesus came to make all things new. What would your life look like if you could start over with a clean slate?
Living with hope
If you are looking for peace, there is a way to balance your life. No one can be perfect, or have a perfect life. But every one of us has the opportunity to experience perfect grace through a personal relationship with God through His Son, Jesus Christ.
You can receive Christ right now by faith through prayer. Praying is simply talking to God. God knows your heart and is not so concerned with your words as He is with the attitude of your heart. Here’s a suggested prayer:
Lord Jesus, I want to know you personally. Thank you for dying on the cross for my sins. I open the door of my life to you and ask you to come in as my Savior and Lord. Take control of my life. Thank you for forgiving my sins and giving me eternal life. Make me the kind of person you want me to be.
Does this prayer express the desire of your heart? You can pray it right now, and Jesus Christ will come into your life, just as He promised. Is this the life for you?
If you invited Christ into your life, thank God often that He is in your life, that He will never leave you and that you have eternal life. As you learn more about your relationship with God, and how much He loves you, you’ll experience life to the fullest.
Reprinted from the Bruderhof Forgiveness Guide. Used with permission.