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An aerial view of central park and the skyline of New York City

Why I Forgave

Steven McDonald

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  • Michele Partain

    Prayers and love to the wife and son who are now dealing with a new loss in their lives. Ma God bless you, surround you, and comfort you, and give you grace and blessings beyond measure.

  • Dan Lill

    I wonder if this forgiveness can also be applied to God when pure accidents happen. Can a parent who loses a young child somehow find solace and meaning by forgiving God - not that He was the cause but that it happened at all? I know of the struggles of several parents currently experiencing that loss.

  • Nicole Solomon

    We are so sorry to hear of his passing. He was a courageous man that taught many of us the gift of forgiveness (if only we could learn it as well as he did!) Thank you for sharing his life and his legacy with us.

  • Elisa

    Thank you for this beautiful article. I had the pleasure of hearing him speak at my high school graduation in 1988 and his words resonated deep within my heart. How he can forgive someone for doing this horrendous act to him and affect his family, but as true is his word God is everything and without Him it just makes this life that much harder. Thank you Mr. McDonald and your lovely family for sharing your story with us from that moment until your last. God bless!

  • metin erdem

    Dear Steven McDonald, I can understand you better why you forgave the teenager who shot you.Yes the anger is wasted emotion. You could not hate those young people , because you faith in God. You just feel sorry for them. You love your enemy. The forgiveness is really about our own healing. And you broke the cycle of the violence through forgiveness. Thank you, you told us why you forgave the children who shot you . You showed us that the love is stronger than the hate. You showed us the love and peace of God in our hearts. Thank you and we will miss you. May you rest in peace. I wish I could meet you somewhere but it could not happen , may be we may meet in heaven. May be this is the way how God wants from us.

  • Leticia Velasquez

    Officer McDonald was a living icon of forgiveness for our family for three decades yet we never met him in perons. I can only imagine the millions who feel as we do, the good he did through not allowing bitterness to take root in his heart is immeasurable. I imagine he is running through the golden streets of the Heavenly Jerusalem with his perfect resurrectded body, but he was always free in his heart. So many of us are free in our bodies but paralyzed in our hearts by anger and unforgiveness. Remember forgiveness takes effort and sometimes you have to ignore your emotions and "fake it till you make it". God knows its hard but He will give you the grace you need to forgive IF you allow Him. Sometimes I have to forgive through gritted teeth, but the act is all God requires, He provides the grace to mean it and then feel it. God bless you Steven McDonald. See you in Heaven!

  • Rosie Dennie

    I just want to say thank you to the injured young man..i quote.."It's human to err..but divine to forgive"..Your story touched my heart..God bless you..

  • Erna Albertz, Plough.com

    Thank you for reading. Steven writes that the suffering he endures has strengthened his faith and brought him nearer to God. What effect have obstacles or hardships had on your life?

Detective Steven McDonald of the New York City Police Department, who died January 10, 2017, was shot in the line of duty in 1986 and paralyzed from the neck down. Confined to a wheelchair and breathing machine, he forgave his teenage assailant. His story is told in Johann Christoph Arnold’s book Why Forgive?. The program Breaking the Cycle brought McDonald and Arnold together to speak at New York-area school assemblies about nonviolent conflict resolution. They also made three trips to Northern Ireland to talk about forgiveness and reconciliation, together with Father Mychal Judge, who was killed in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

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.

I often tell people that the only thing worse than a bullet in my spine would have been to nurture revenge in my heart.

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, Conor. 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.

Steven and Patti Ann McDonald, Father Mychal Judge, and Pastor Johann Christoph Arnold in Northern Ireland.

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.

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.

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 the 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 struggled every day. My wife wanted to know why a teenager had to do this to me. Growing up, my son saw other fathers and sons playing and wanted to know why he couldn’t have that experience with his dad. 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 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.

God has turned something terrible into something beautiful.

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 have spoken at hundreds of 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. 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.

Steven McDonald, Christoph Arnold and Father Mychal Judge NYFD chaplain Fr. Mychal Judge, Detective Steven McDonald, and author Johann Christoph Arnold of Breaking the Cycle take their message of forgiveness and nonviolent conflict resolution to Northern Ireland.
Related Article Steven McDonald’s Story – by Johann Christoph Arnold Read
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