Forgiveness. In spring of 2015 our lead pastor at Summit on 16th UMC asked several of us to share a personal story of transformation as the sermon for each week. I told my story on May 17th, 2015, and it goes something like this:
MY JOURNEY TO FORGIVENESS
My story is about a journey I took from darkness into light, from despair to hope, and from hatred to forgiveness.
When I was nineteen, I transferred to The Ohio State University from a small college in Iowa. One day early in Fall Quarter, I was walking in the morning to Spanish class where we were going to have a quiz. I had left early so that I’d have time to study the vocabulary list before class. As I walked, I recited the list in my head and was watching the sidewalk at my feet, not paying much attention to my surroundings, although at one point I saw a young man approaching me who looked like any other college kid. There was no one else on the street.
Next thing I knew, the guy bumped into me, holding a gun to my stomach, saying “Turn around and don’t scream, or I’ll shoot!” I obeyed. At that point I seemed to shoot up into the air about six feet over our heads and I saw myself from above: a young hippie college girl with long hair, wearing a khaki Army hat and backpack, denim work shirt and leotard, and raggedy bell-bottoms with big holes in the knees that dragged on the ground over my older brother’s hand-me-down work boots.
When I came back down to Earth, I became “Nancy Drew, Girl Detective,” a famous character in a series of girls’ books when I was growing up, who was always able to solve mysteries and help the police catch bad guys by collecting clues for them. So that’s what I set out to do: collect clues, as a way of staving off my panic at what was going to happen to me.
The guy wrapped his arm around me and tucked the pistol in my right armpit, saying call me so-and-so, giving me what turned out to be a false name. I’ll call him Mr. Y. He led me to his car, making sure I couldn’t see the license plates, and we drove off. I didn’t know Columbus at all at that time. I hadn’t even been there two weeks and barely knew how to get from my off-campus apartment to my classes. I didn’t know any other neighborhoods. I tried to remember street names that we passed. I did notice the last street name, where he slowed and parked. He took my work shirt off and tied it around my eyes so I couldn’t see anymore. Then he led me up a shaky fire escape to a second floor apartment where he violently assaulted me and held me hostage for seven hours.
At one point I thought I would never make it out of there alive. Then I realized that that kind of thinking wouldn’t help me and I went back to gathering clues, noting the things he had on this dresser—wigs on stands, ladies’ perfumes, a small TV. The movie posters on his walls. The color of his couch and bedspread and carpet. Anything that I thought Nancy Drew, Girl Detective, would take note of, to tell the police. Even though I was afraid of the police because at that time, in 1971, the police disliked hippies almost as much as they hated criminals.
Strangely enough, there were interludes of friendly conversation between beatings, between pistol whippings and having the gun, which he showed me was loaded, held to my temple. During one conversation I told him that I was a Quaker and explained what that meant, and I said that I would never turn him in to the police. I even swore an oath that I wouldn’t do that. Now, just as in the Bible, but even more so, Quakers are not allowed to swear oaths. In fact, Quakers don’t even have to take oaths on the Bible in a court of law. They can affirm their intention to tell the truth instead.
At the moment that I swore this oath to Mr. Y., I felt my Quaker faith, and my Christian faith, dissolve completely. I was bereft.
But still, I wanted to survive. We talked about how we both liked the musician Marvin Gaye, a very popular and famous R&B musician of the time. I tried to find any common ground that I could with Mr. Y, so that I could convince him to take me back to campus, or anywhere close to there, and let me go.
He finally got bored with beating me, or talking to me, or both, and decided that he would take me back to Ohio State. He drove us back, parked, and then we walked across the Oval to Denney Hall, where the English Department offices are, which I was familiar with since that was my major and I had classes there. It was late by then, although it was still light enough on the Oval that people could have seen my bloodied face and the gun sticking out of his waistband, but no one seemed to notice. These were the days of very little security and he dropped me off at the door of Denney and I walked right in, with a huge sigh of relief that he didn’t follow me, although he kept my backpack with my address book in it and the numbers of my family and all my friends.
Denney Hall was almost deserted, but as I wandered around crying and not knowing what to do, since I had promised not to call the police, I ran into a girl in my Junior English Honors Seminar who I had also met at my cousin’s party the weekend before. She was aghast when she saw me and said, “What happened to you?” I explained and told her I couldn’t call the police and she said, “Well, I can!” And she went to the pay phone down the hall and called them.
The process with the police was almost as bad as the assault itself and I will not go into it, except to say that my Nancy Drew tactics were indeed successful and they led to the police catching Mr. Y, who had assaulted at least seven other young college women that the police knew of. I also found out from the police that Mr. Y was a notorious gang leader. They were really happy to have him in custody. He was definitely a Very Bad Guy, in capital letters.
Several of the gang members made threatening phone calls to my family and friends. I was in hiding with a new friend who wasn’t in my address book. They were trying to try to keep me from showing up at the preliminary hearing, the first stage of the trial process. But I showed up anyway, with my parents and my family lawyer.
That night Mr. Y. hanged himself in jail.
I felt responsible for his death.
For years afterwards I could not forgive either Mr. Y or myself. He had done the unforgiveable to me and I had also done the unforgiveable to him. He had lost his life in the process, and I had lost my faith.
It was a dark, dark time in my life, with no light at the end of the tunnel. I could not pray for myself because I had thrown away God and her Grace. I was not worthy. I *wouldn’t* pray for Mr. Y because of what he had done to me.
I waited and suffered, and suffered and waited, for long, long years of darkness and pain and loneliness. There seemed to be no movement in the darkness that had its tight hold on me. But I was wrong…
I don’t remember when the darkness inside my heart began to get brighter, but it did. Talking to friends about everything that had happened helped, and so did sitting quietly with myself. I started to get interested in Jesus again. I believe that my faith was being restored by the grace of the Holy Spirit. I looked for a church that would help me understand God and Her works and finally found Summit.
We are told in Genesis that God created all people in Her own image. I began to realize that God loved this so-called “bad guy” just as much as She did me. God loved Mr. Y when he was a criminal just as much as She had loved him when he was a tiny baby. I also began to know that God loved me as much now as She had before I had made and broken the oath not to turn Mr. Y in to the police.
God had forgiven us both. We both stood in God’s light. Now it was time to turn Her forgiveness into my forgiving both Mr. Y and myself. It was difficult, but I remembered that Jesus says to love your enemy. Growing up as a Quaker I had heard this a lot, but I hadn’t applied it to this situation, where my enemy was Mr. Y and myself.
I looked back to the Bible where Jesus says, in Matthew Chapter 5, verses 43 and 44, to “pray for those who torment you and persecute you … [and] you [will] become children of God in heaven.” I sat quietly with this Scripture, contemplating it, praying over it, until it came alive for me. And I began to forgive Mr. Y and myself. It was the beginning of a journey to forgiveness that I am still on, to this day.
Don’t get me wrong. Forgiveness is a struggle. My journey cannot be accomplished without Grace and the knowledge that each and every one of us is made in God’s image and that we are all forgiven. As I look at you this morning, I see the image of God everywhere and I pray that the Holy Spirit will always give me the Grace to continue to do so and to forgive myself and others as God has already done.
Hallelujah! Praise be to God!