I thought I was a forgiving person. I was quick to say sorry and felt I didn’t hold grudges. But on July 1st, 2010 my phone rang and my entire world changed before I hung up. Eleven years later this statement still holds true. Twenty-four hours before that phone call I didn’t know much about our court system. I didn’t know the roles of a prosecutor or defense attorney beyond watching “Law and Order”. I can tell you that as a young mother I was all for locking up the bad guys in order to keep our streets safe. However, I didn’t give much thought, if any, to what it meant to throw a criminal in prison. I didn’t know the toll it would have on the victim as well as the criminal. I watched a lot of news, so I saw an abundance of crime. Yes, an abundance of pictures showing victims of crime to go alongside pictures of criminals who had caused them harm. I now have a firsthand account of having harm done to a loved one, my Mom, Penny, and what it feels like to be the “victim”. I know firsthand the anguish and hurt in your heart as you sit in a court room and see the person who harmed someone you love show no remorse at all. I now know that when you take a criminal off the street and lock them up, they more than likely will be released back into society, possibly more broken than before they went in. I also now have a firsthand account of redemption and the work it takes to truly forgive someone and what true forgiveness can do for the soul. And finally, how all this ties into a frequently used buzz word we continue to hear throughout the media these days, Restorative Justice.
The grief was like nothing I had ever experienced. A few weeks had passed since a 15 year old had snuck his mom’s car out for a joy ride and had T-Boned my mother’s car, killing her instantly. My sister called to inform me that God says to forgive others therefore she had forgiven the teen. Then an uncle called, he too told me that I was going to have to forgive the boy. I thought to myself, “No one responsible has even apologized, let alone asked for my forgiveness.” I remember firmly stating that the only way I would even consider forgiving him would be after an apology, and then he would need to ask for my forgiveness.
Forgive and forget. I wonder where this comes from. I wish it were so easy. I have learned through my journey that a lot of work needs to happen in order to forgive, and you never forget. I also know from watching this teen in court that it can be difficult to ‘fess up to the harm you caused. It was two years before he even admitted he was responsible for my mom’s death, and finally said he was sorry. I discovered that a bit of weight I had been carrying was lifted simply by hearing him say, “I’m sorry”. It honestly surprised me.
But I pushed that aside and decided not to even think about forgiving him. He may have apologized, but he still had not asked for my forgiveness. I continued being angry and hating him. Then, a few months later, I watched him rise to his feet, make eye contact, and ask us for forgiveness. His reasoning being, he hoped one day to forgive himself. Because he was sentenced as a juvenile he had opportunities for redemption. He was able to show us how he was mentoring other juveniles, how he had a job, and was taking college courses online. He had made the Dean’s list for his college semester grades. This kid was failing school at the time of his arrest, and was a remedial reader at a third grade level. He was working, and working hard in order to show us he had changed. Not only had he apologized, but now he had asked for my forgiveness. He had begun to do some hard work on his end. Now I had to find a way to begin mine.
In my heart I knew I needed to live up to my end of the bargain, but how? I was still filled with hate and anger for him and his family. So I decided to do something I hadn’t done since the very night my mom died. I prayed.
As I prayed it seemed as if every corner I turned led me to something on forgiveness. I randomly opened a magazine to an article on forgiveness. Flipping through TV channels one night I happened to flip to a three part series on real life stories of forgiveness. I walked into a friend’s house and interrupted a deep discussion on the topic of forgiveness. I sat down at church on Ash Wednesday in which the pastor welcomed us to the beginning of Lent, announing that our topic for the next six weeks would be …, can you guess it? Yes , “forgiveness”! The pastor keeps repeating to “let it go”. This statement opens the flood gates to my tears. Could forgiveness be as simple as just letting it go?
The pastor asks me to share my story at the next Lenten service. I begin writing, and it is healing. I wonder if by being able to forgive this kid, could I ultimately be helping him succeed in his life? On the other hand, if I never say a word to him, could that send him down a dark broken path in which he not only harms himself, but possibly another innocent bystander? I distinctly remember writing, “Yes, I can do this. I CAN forgive him.” The words began quickly filling my sheet of paper. I can forgive him if he never uses substances, if he mentors troubled teens, if he volunteers for the disabled, if he delivers food to the elderly , if he never sees his mom again. This last “if” stops me cold. I had placed some blame on his mom too, but when all is said and done, that’s his mother. I couldn’t dictate his life in order for him to earn my forgiveness. It had to be all or nothing. It was in that moment I realized true forgiveness is given with Grace and Mercy. You see, nothing was ever going to bring my mom back. Not this young man spending years locked up. No amount of” ifs” being thrown at him to better himself in my eyes. It was a choice I had to make from deep within my heart. I shared my story at that following Lenten service, ending with the three words, “I forgive you.” My journey to forgive this young man didn’t end there.
I took it a step farther and found a way to meet with him face-to-face. It was no easy feat to make this happen in a court system that has no means to make it happen, but it also could not have been easy for the young man to agree to meet with me . Honestly, I am still amazed by the courage we both had in that moment. I didn’t realize until after our face-to-face that what we accomplished was an actual “Restorative Justice”. The freedom that came from releasing my hurt and anger through forgiveness is why I continue to share my story with others. It has become my truth, and I hope others can find hope for their own hurts that need healing.
I believe it has been only recently that restorative practices have become available here in Michigan. These practices include Victim Offender Conferencing, Peacemaking Circles, and Circles of Support and Accountability to name a few. They are not readily available throughout the state’s court systems, but what if they were? These practices encourage accountability for the person who has caused harm and give the person who was harmed a sense of control. These practices enable a conversation between the two sides which leads to healing for all involved. Holding someone accountable for their wrong-doing and giving the person wronged an opportunity to express how that harm affected them and what needs to happen in order to fix it, can ultimately help to restore community.
Written by Jennifer Dahn (Friends of Restorative Justice)