This week marked the sixteenth anniversary of an unforgettable family tragedy. My mom’s first cousin Jeff was driving with his five children when a pickup truck suddenly crossed the grassy median and hit them head-on at 60 miles per hour. All five of the children were killed instantly, and Jeff suffered serious injuries. I was in my senior year of high school at the time, and I remember seeing my mom cry when she got the phone call.
Carolyn, the mother of the family, had been in town running some errands, and her family had been on their way to meet her. I cannot imagine the unspeakable grief of a mother losing all five of her children in one instant.
But even while her husband was still in the hospital, Carolyn visited another hospital room: the room of the driver who had hit her family’s car. His name was Mr. Helm.
Carolyn took my Great-Uncle Jason (the grandfather of the children who died) to visit Mr. Helm. Together they told him that they forgave him and were praying for him. They did not press charges. They did not seek revenge. They chose to forgive. When cousin Jeff recovered, he, too, offered forgiveness to Mr. Helm.
My mom flew across the country from Virginia to Washington State to attend the funeral of my second cousins. Five crosses now mark the graves of Carmen, 12; Jana, 10; Carinna, 8; Jerryl, 4; and Craig, 2. For years, the picture of their five beautiful faces hung on my mother’s refrigerator. The picture served as a reminder to my family of incredible suffering and radical forgiveness.
This week also marks the three-week anniversary of an ongoing hostage crisis in Haiti. Seventeen mission workers are being held captive, including five children. The ages of those children are 8 months, 3 years, 6 years, 13 years, and 15 years.
Great-Uncle Jason, the grandfather of the five children who died in that car crash so many years ago, is now waiting and praying for news of another grandchild. His 27-year-old grandson traveled to Haiti to serve and was taken hostage the next day. But Great-Uncle Jason is again responding with unbelievable faith and forgiveness. Watching him offer forgiveness to the hostages brings tears to my eyes.
What kind of radical faith can bring people to say such things? To offer forgiveness to those who are holding hostage and threatening the lives of their loved ones? What kind of faith brings a mother to forgive the man whose truck killed all five of her children? How can my Great-Uncle Jason, who has already buried five grandchildren, hold onto hope as he awaits news of yet another grandchild?
And yet, this is the faith that we are all invited into. My family are Mennonites, but it is not only Mennonites who are called to forgive their enemies. If we call ourselves Christians, then we are part of a faith that calls us to forgive. We follow a savior who called us to love our enemies and to do good to those who persecute us (Matthew 5). Every time we pray the Lord’s prayer, we pray, “Forgive us our sins as we also forgive those who sin against us.”
Our savior left us countless examples of forgiveness. Perhaps the most powerful example of all came as he was hanging on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
But do we forgive like this? Do we actually forgive those who sin against us? Would we choose forgiveness if we were in my Great-Uncle Jason’s shoes? Or if we were Jeff and Carolyn, the parents who lost five children in one moment? Or if we were the parents or grandparents of one of the other hostages in Haiti?
This week as I reflected on these tragedies both past and present, the Lord brought it closer to home for me. Sunday, October 31st was the ten-year anniversary of a devastating fire in the first slum community that I lived in. When the flames were finally put out, all that was left was a smoldering neighborhood and 200 families who were suddenly homeless.
Do I forgive the perpetrators of this devastating fire from ten years ago?
Forgiving is not the same thing as condoning sin or enabling abusers. However, our Lord has instructed us to forgive. Forgiveness helps free us from our anger, bitterness, and prisons of hate. But it is only with the help of the Holy Spirit that forgiveness can be possible.
Now as I live in another slum community in one of the largest cities on earth, I am grateful for my Christian Mennonite heritage which taught me to love Jesus, care about the poor, and seek to love my enemies. I know I cannot do this perfectly, but that is why we need grace. Each and every day we must cling to the grace offered by our Lord Jesus and know we are forgiven.
And it is because we are forgiven that we can then offer forgiveness to others.
Lord, help us on our journeys to forgiveness. Give us Your heart to forgive those who have wronged us. Help us to be agents of love and reconciliation to those around us, that the world may see and stand in awe of You.
*This article has been modified to remove references to the sending agency of the workers held hostage in Haiti. On November 9, 2021, the author, along with A Life Overseas, learned of a history of sexual abuse coverup in that agency. We grieve when any person is abused and are deeply sorry for any pain caused by the references in the initial article.
Rahma (not her real name) and her husband and two boys have lived and served in a slum in Jakarta for the past ten years. She enjoys learning piano, playing in the rain, and devouring Amy Carmichael books. You can learn more about the organization they serve with at servantsasia.org.