Photograph by Joel Dinda.

Strangely, those who suffer the worst things in life often forgive most readily. Bill Pelke, a Vietnam veteran from Indiana whom I met at an anti–death penalty event, lost his grandmother to a brutal murder, yet found closure in seeking reconciliation with the teenager who killed her.

Bill’s grandmother was an outgoing woman who gave Bible lessons to children in her neighborhood. One afternoon in May 1985 she opened the door to four girls from the local high school several blocks away. Before she knew it, her attackers had knocked her to the floor. Minutes later, the house ransacked, they fled the premises in her old car, leaving her on the floor, bleeding to death from multiple stab wounds. Bill remembers:

The girls were caught giving joy rides to friends in the stolen car. Later they went to trial. Sentencing came fifteen months later: one girl got thirty-five years, two got sixty years, and the last, Paula Cooper, got death. I was satisfied that at least one of them would be executed: I felt that if they weren’t, the court would be saying my grandmother wasn’t important, and I felt that she was a very important person.

About four months after Paula was sentenced, I broke up with a girl I had been dating. I was trying to get the relationship back together and was very depressed. I couldn’t find peace about anything.

Then one day at work, while operating an overhead crane (I worked for Bethlehem Steel), I was thinking about why things hadn’t worked out, also with my grandmother, and I just started praying. “Why, God? Why?” Suddenly I thought about Paula – this young girl, the youngest female in the country on death row – and I pictured her saying, “What have I done? What have I done?” I remembered the day Paula was sentenced to death; I recalled her grandfather in court, wailing, “They’re killing my baby.” He was escorted from the room. There were tears rolling down his cheeks. . . .

I began to think of my grandmother, her faith, and what the Bible has to say about forgiveness. I recalled three verses: the one which says that for God to forgive you, you first need to forgive others; the one where Jesus tells Peter to forgive “seventy times seven”; the one where Jesus says, when he is being crucified, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” Paula didn’t know what she was doing. When a girl stabs a woman thirty-three times, she is not in her right mind.

Suddenly I felt I had to forgive her. I prayed, right there and then, that God would give me love and compassion for her. That prayer changed my life. I no longer wanted her to die in the electric chair. What would an execution solve for me or anyone else?

Bill added, “When I had gone to the crane I was a defeated person: forty-five minutes later I emerged a completely different man.”

Bill visited Paula several times after her trial and sought to pass on his grandmother’s faith to her – not by preaching, but simply by showing her compassion. He is no longer haunted by the image of his beloved grandmother lying butchered on the dining room floor – a room where the family had gathered for many of its happiest occasions. Naturally he still feels pain, yet this pain is mixed with a determination to make sure that other people are spared the agony of bitterness that he had to work through. “As long as I kept hating those girls, they continued to control my life. Once I chose to forgive them, I became free.”

A committed activist in the growing restorative justice movement, Bill spent years travelling up and down the country with an organization called “Journey of Hope: from Violence to Healing.” He is also a member of Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation. “Forgiveness,” he says, “is the only route from violence to healing. It spares you the corrosion of hatred and gives you freedom again to be at peace inside your own skin.” (In June 2013, thanks in part to Bill’s efforts, Paula was released from prison after serving twenty-seven years.)

Most of us do not have to deal directly with murder; and many of the things we obsess over are even laughable by comparison. Still we may have a hard time forgiving. Especially if our resentment has grown over a long period, it will take time and effort to root out. And whether the hurt is real or imagined, it will eat away at us as long as we nurse it.

Not that we should swallow our hurts. On the contrary, people who push their grievances down into their subconscious in an attempt to forget them only cripple themselves. Before we can forgive a hurt, we must be able to name it. Sometimes it may not be possible (or helpful, even if it is possible) to confront the person we are struggling to forgive, and then the best solution is to share our pain with someone else we trust. Once we have done this, we must let go. Otherwise we may remain resentful forever, waiting for an apology that never comes. And we will remain separated from God.

As long as we hold a grudge against someone, the door to God will be closed. It will be absolutely closed, with no way to him. I am sure that many prayers are not heard because the person praying has a grudge against someone, even if he or she is not aware of it. If we want God’s peace in our hearts, we must first learn to forgive. (J. Heinrich Arnold, Discipleship)

Naturally we must seek to be forgiven too. After all, each of us is a sinner in God’s eyes, even if our “goodness” prevents us from seeing ourselves in that light. A legend about Brother Angelo, a monk in Francis of Assisi’s order, illustrates the problem beautifully.

On Christmas Eve, Brother Angelo cleans his simple mountain hut and decorates it for Mass. He says his prayers, sweeps the hearth, hangs a kettle over the fire, and then sits back to wait for Brother Francis, whom he expects later in the day. Just then three outlaws appear at the door, begging for food. Frightened and angry, Brother Angelo sends them away empty-handed, scolding and warning them that thieves are damned to hellfire.

When Francis arrives, he senses that something is not right. Brother Angelo then tells him about his visitors, and Francis sends him up into the mountains with a jug of wine and a loaf, to find them and ask their forgiveness. Brother Angelo is indignant. Unlike Francis, he cannot see the wild men as brothers – only as outlaws. He sets out obediently, however, and by nightfall (having followed the men’s footsteps in the snow) he finds them and makes amends. Some time later, the legend goes, they leave their cave and join the order.