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    The Breaking the Cycle team in Ramsey New Jersey

    The Courage to Forgive

    An Interview

    By Hashim Garrett and Charles Williams

    January 12, 2016

    A retired police chief and an ex–gang member have teamed up to address dozens of school assemblies in New York and New Jersey. Their message to young people: forgive. Plough asked them to reflect on their unlikely friendship – one all the more striking in a year when police shootings and #BlackLivesMatter continue to make headlines.

    Plough: How come a former cop and a former gang member are on speaking terms?

    Charles Williams: Clearly we used to be enemies on different ends of the gun, even if we didn’t know each other. As a young officer with the New York City Housing Authority police department in the 1980s, I was assigned to patrol in the South Bronx just when the crack epidemic hit. My job was to restore or keep peace, while Hashim, with all due respect, was out to cause havoc and chaos. Had we crossed paths back then, we both would have pulled our guns. And if one of us had made the wrong move, there’s a good chance we could have killed each other.

    Even as I say that now, I get emotional because the man sitting next to me is my brother, my best friend. How did we get here? Hashim and I are very different, but we have at least two things in common: we’re both human beings, and we’ve both experienced the power of forgiveness.

    Hashim, what’s the story from your side?

    Hashim Garrett: I grew up in Brooklyn. After my parents separated, I lived with my mother and her boyfriend, who had a drinking problem. While under the influence, he would become abusive and would bang on the metal door of our home. Hearing him, I would lie on the floor of my room crying and praying: “Dear God, please make him stop, in Jesus Christ’s name” – even though I was born Muslim.

    The Breaking the Cycle team in Ramsey New Jersey The Breaking the Cycle team in Ramsey, New Jersey, 2014. Photograph courtesy of Breaking the Cycle
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    I was bullied at school, so when I was thirteen I decided to befriend my bullies and joined their gang. Sometimes I would shoot people for money, sometimes just for the thrill. At age fifteen, I found a new group of friends – they were big guys, age eighteen to twenty-one. In that gang, the dirty work was reserved for me, since if we were caught, I as a juvenile would be eligible for a reduced sentence. After a while I realized I was being used and began to object when asked to do things. Ultimately, they decided that they would get rid of me.

    On May 7, 1990, my so-called friends knocked on my door and asked me to come outside. I should have known something was wrong, because one of them said, “Yo, when you come out, don’t bring the guns.”

    We go up to the corner and we’re talking, the six of us. My friends went across the street to the store – everything seemed normal. Then a kid whom I don’t know passes me, and I hear my friend shout: “Look out, run!” I take off. I peep over my shoulder and that kid is standing a few feet behind me with a submachine gun.

    I’m running and thinking to myself, “Why are my pants making this funny movement?” All of a sudden, something hard hits my back. As I lie there, I’m thinking, “Just close your eyes and put your head down, because if you move, he’s going to walk up and kill you.” After a few seconds, he runs off. All of my friends are gone. Why can’t I move, why can’t I feel my legs?

    It was half an hour before the ambulance took me, and I’m bleeding out of twelve holes: six bullets went in, and six bullets exited. I remember looking up at the sky: “God, please don’t let me die.”

    I was in hospital for a month and a half. The doctors told me I would never walk again. (To this day I am paralyzed from the waist down.) I cried like a baby, I was angry, and all I could think about was killing the kid who shot me.

    Eventually the police caught him and showed me his picture. “All you got to do is sign here, and he’s going to go to jail.” I’m from Brooklyn, and we don’t snitch. I said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” So they let him go, although the detectives were angry since they knew that I was lying. After the shooter was released back onto the streets of Brooklyn, he shot somebody else I knew.

    While lying in the rehabilitation facility, I did a lot of soul-searching. One day my mother handed me a Bible. She told me that she didn’t have any answers to make me feel better, but maybe this book would help. Reading the Bible made me realize that I didn’t need to walk in order to be healed. I needed God’s mercy and his spiritual healing. I felt like I didn’t deserve to walk again. I was evil, and I must pay for my terrible deeds. My prayer was that God would have mercy on me on the Day of Judgment.

    In a way, the day I was shot was the best day of my life, because it was the day I began to be freed from anger and hate. My father was so angry about my injury that he asked me if I wanted him to kill the shooter. I told him no. I needed God to forgive me. I realized that it was my fault that this happened to me. I also realized that I was very fortunate to be alive, so I didn’t want to go back to making poor decisions.

    In the early 2000s, friends encouraged me to start speaking to teenagers about gangs. Through this work, in 2006 I was invited to join the Breaking the Cycle anti-violence program founded by Bruderhof pastor Johann Christoph Arnold and New York police detective Steven McDonald, who in 1986 was also shot and paralyzed, but from the neck down – he needs a respirator to breathe.

    Dozens of times, I watched Detective McDonald and Pastor Arnold talk to students about forgiveness, and that built up my courage to talk about forgiveness too. It was amazing to me how week after week, Pastor Arnold would get up in front of hundreds of high school students and tell them how forgiveness can help them – despite the fifty-year age gap. Until then, I had always thought forgiveness was a sign of weakness and that kids wouldn’t respect that message. But coming from him, they embraced it and appreciated it.

    Would you say that you had forgiven the person who shot you?

    Hashim: Yes, although I never spoke to the kid and told him I forgave him. Being around Pastor Arnold gave me a clearer vision of what forgiveness means and what role it needs to play in my life. I had to forgive the shooter and forgive my parents. And I had to forgive myself – that’s the hardest.

    I am blessed to have a beautiful wife and two beautiful children. Being a spouse with a disability is a test. I can’t play in the ocean with my children, I can’t teach them how to ride a bicycle. However, my children do know that their father loves them very much. When I am home, I play with them, hug them, bathe them, feed them, read with them, and most importantly, we pray together.

    With my wife Mia – I am unable to dance with her. For her, having a husband with a disability is not easy. She once wrote this about our marriage:

    Ninety-five percent is blissful: our relationship is normal, wonderful – what you would expect from any healthy marriage. Then there is the other 5 percent, when I’m reminded of my husband’s injury. There are moments when I feel completely overwhelmed by this, and the 5 percent feels insurmountable. But I remind myself to keep things in perspective, that I too have scars, emotional ones, yet my husband loves me.

    I pray and ask God for renewed strength, and God always answers. I married Hashim for four reasons: I love him, he fears God, I believe in the purpose that God has for his life, and Hashim has ambition. How ironic that I would be a stay-at-home mother to our children, and Hashim, with a spinal cord injury, would be the sole provider. Hashim wants to be used by God; I feel privileged to witness this every day.

    As a Muslim, my faith in the Creator helps me realize that what I’m doing is bigger than me. My goal is to spread a message of reconciliation. Since the Creator has all things in his hands, I don’t need to worry whether or not I see the fruit of my labor. My job is to sow the seeds.

    portrait of Hashim Garrett Hashim Garrett; Photograph courtesy of John Noltner.
    Hashim Garrett speaks to students Photograph courtesy of Breaking the Cycle.
    Hashim Garrett with his wife Maya and their children Hashim Garrett with his wife Mia and their children; Photograph courtesy of Hashim Garrett.
    Johann Christoph Arnold at Breaking the Cycle assemble Johann Christoph Arnold founded Breaking the Cycle with Steven McDonald, a New York City police officer, in 1999; Photograph courtesy of Breaking the Cycle.
    Related Article Restorative Justice – by Ted Lewis Read
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    Chief Williams, how did your story intersect with Hashim’s?

    Charles: I also am one of the people whose lives have been changed by hearing Pastor Arnold and Steven McDonald. In 2002, I attended one of their presentations on forgiveness as chief of police of Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York. On the one hand, I was mesmerized. “Wow, what a great message – teaching kids how to deal with conflict in a nonviolent manner.” On the other hand, I felt I could never forgive someone who shot me. It seemed impossible, too heroic.

    Afterward, as I was describing the event to a colleague, it suddenly struck me that the reason I couldn’t imagine how Steven McDonald forgave the shooter was because I myself had someone I needed to forgive, but couldn’t: my mother.

    Throughout my childhood, my mother was a raging alcoholic. As a six-year-old, I would watch her throwing furniture, fighting off my father, and screaming. One day in elementary school, I came home to find her passed out in a chair. Next morning she was still there, surrounded by burns in the carpet from her cigarette – we could have died in a fire during the night.

    Growing up, I felt that my mother loved alcohol more than she loved me. She didn’t care what I looked like, what I smelled like, if my clothes were clean, or if my homework was done. I hated that woman.

    I hated her as a kid, I hated her in high school, I hated her when I was dating, I hated her in college, and I hated her while at the police academy. I thought nobody could tell. But it had effects. I was not a good husband; I separated from my wife. I could have been a better father, and I could have been a better cop.

    But through hearing Detective McDonald and Pastor Arnold, my life changed. I decided to forgive my mother. I drove down to Long Island, back to my hometown, and called my mother when I was about fifteen minutes away. I got her answering machine. I thought, “Perfect – now I have an excuse not to do this.” I almost turned around. But something deep inside told me, “No – now is the time.” So I left her a message, and she called back.

    I went into the house and sat down opposite her. It wasn’t easy. And yet something happened. This person in front of me – this person who had made my childhood a nightmare, who in my mind’s eye was a crazed monster with a wild look in her eyes – instantaneously changed into a frail, sickly, old woman on oxygen, dying of emphysema. She became the mother I had never had.

    She said, “I want to make it right.” I told her, “Mom, I forgive you. You don’t have to make anything right.”

    Now, it wasn’t like a movie. My mother never apologized, and we didn’t hug. It just ended. I felt fifty years of hate and anger ­dropping off of me.

    As a result of these experiences, both of you joined the Breaking the Cycle team, sharing your stories with thousands of young people. How do they react?

    Charles: After an assembly we’re surrounded by kids who want to tell us their stories – what’s going on with them at home or in school. We’re strangers, of course. But the reason they want to talk is that in our presentation we open up, we show that we’re vulnerable. A young girl told us she had walked down the corridor and heard us speaking – she wasn’t supposed to be there. But she was intrigued and drawn in. After the assembly she came down to Hashim and me and said, “You guys saved my life. I was going to kill myself today.”

    “Forgiveness in Charleston isn’t absolution for four hundred years of racial violence in America,” ran one recent headline, referring to victims’ families who forgave the killer in the Emanuel church shooting. Your response?

    Hashim: It makes sense to me when people go, “If someone hurts my family, then I will retaliate. If I forgive them, how will they feel my pain?” It seems like letting them off the hook. One reason forgiveness is criticized, I think, is that it takes courage to forgive. It doesn’t take courage to be violent; cowards can strike back. But to remain nonviolent you must be brave.

    Charles: Those who criticize forgiveness don’t understand that it doesn’t mean condoning the act. For me, it simply meant letting go of the pain, anger, distrust, and betrayal of the past, all of which was negatively affecting my present. Through forgiving, I was leaving the past where it belonged. And forgiveness really has nothing to do with justice. People easily confuse the two, thinking that if they forgive the perpetrator, he won’t be held accountable. But justice is up to the courts of law, and ultimately, justice is up to God. That has nothing to do with me, nor does it have anything to do with forgiveness.

    But how does forgiveness apply to justice in a broader sense – such as the issue of police misconduct? In recent months, there’s been extensive coverage of police killings of people such as Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Walter Scott, and Freddie Gray.

    Hashim: I can’t pretend that there aren’t problems in our society that need to be addressed, laws that need to be changed, and policies that need to be reformed and improved. But I also think it is important to realize that we can’t be so judgmental. For me, it’s important to share this message with my community. We can’t judge all police officers based on the ones that we see on the news making poor decisions. That is one thing I have learned from working with Chief Williams and Detective Steven McDonald. It’s difficult for me now to look at the news and go, “All cops are bad because that one cop did something bad.” I know good police officers.

    Chief Williams, how is forgiveness relevant to the law enforcement profession?

    Charles: Looking back, the issue that my brothers and sisters in law enforcement face is not taking things personally – because if someone’s trying to hurt you, how do you not take it personally? Here’s a common mistake: if I had been called to a really bad domestic dispute, or if someone had physically fought me, and if I didn’t let the anger and stress go, then I would carry it into my next vehicle traffic stop. The next interaction could turn very negative. Just imagine carrying that anger and stress for fifteen years straight as a police officer.

    The answer is to forgive after every call. When you talk to individual officers, they get it, though I don’t know how much they can put into practice because of the culture: many police-related organizations don’t want anything to do with forgiveness because they think it’s weak. But that’s not true; forgiveness is about not letting a bad experience cause you to make a potentially deadly error in your next interaction.

    When the two of you speak together in schools, what do the students ask you?

    Hashim: I don’t think I’ve ever had a kid come up to me and say, “I don’t like police officers.” In fact, they rarely mention law enforcement as a problem. Their biggest problems are being bullied, or being afraid to walk home because of gangs. Or, “I don’t think my mom and dad love me.” I find that no matter what school district we go into, self-hate is ­universal – whether in the form of cutting, or suicide, or gang violence. You can’t love yourself if you’re going to go out and kill; you can’t love yourself if you sit in your bathroom cutting your wrist.

    What changes in teenagers’ concerns have you noticed during nine years of doing this work?

    Hashim: Social media, of course, plays an increasing role. So many kids seem to feel alone, even when sitting in a room with a hundred kids. Ultimately, the solution to online bullying remains the same. If someone is trolling you, the answer is still forgiveness. Suicide is not the answer. Have the courage to forgive them.

    After we’re done speaking, many kids come up and say, “Can I shake your hand?” It strikes me that they want to feel a real connection.

    Charles Williams Charles Williams; Photograph courtesy of Breaking the Cycle.
    Charles Williams talking to a student Charles Williams talks with students; Photograph courtesy of Charles Williams
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    Charles: In the same way, at the end of every event we offer students copies of Pastor Arnold’s book Why Forgive?, which includes Hashim’s and my story. Usually they want us to sign the books for that physical ­connection: “Yeah, that’s the guy I saw. There’s his handwriting.”

    Hashim: We’ve had parents contact us after one of our events saying, “I don’t know what you said, but my kid came home and talked to me today. He didn’t just say, ‘Oh, school was fine,’ and go in his room and close the door. He sat down, showed me Arnold’s book, and told me about this assembly. Thank you.” When I hear about kids ­reconnecting with their parents, I know we’ve made progress.

    I remember being that fifteen-year-old kid lying in the hospital who didn’t want to live anymore, who wanted to hurt those who had hurt him. That helps me not to be judgmental. You can judge the act, but not the person. I don’t know what was going on in Adam Lanza’s life when he entered the school in Newtown, Connecticut, with his guns. But what if someone could have spoken to him earlier about forgiveness, in a way he could connect to? Maybe that would have made a difference.

    Why Forgive? Book Cover Read fifty stories of forgiveness, including Charles Williams’s and Hashim Garrett’s, in Johann Christoph Arnold’s book Why Forgive? (Plough, 2010).
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