A Sermon preached by the Rev. Nils Chittenden
Sunday, SEptember 17th, 2017
Today’s readings are all about forgiveness. So when I sat down to prepare my sermon I thought it would be a good idea to read some stories of forgiveness. As it happens, one of the first I read was such a powerful account that I thought that it would speak for itself without any further comment from me. So, here, in an extract from a magazine which covers theology and spirituality, called ‘Plough’, is the story of Steven McDonald, who passed away last year.
“When NYPD officer Steven McDonald entered Central Park on the afternoon of July 12, 1986, he had no reason to expect anything out of the ordinary. True, there had been a recent string of bicycle thefts and other petty crimes in the area, and he and his partner, Sergeant Peter King, were on the lookout. But that was a routine – all in a day’s work. Then they came across a cluster of suspicious-looking teens.
“When they recognized us as cops, they cut and ran. We chased after them, my partner going in one direction and I in another. I caught up with them about thirty yards away. As I did, I said to them, “Fellas, I’m a police officer. I’d like to talk with you.” Then I asked them what their names were and where they lived. Finally I asked them, “Why are you in the park today?”
“While questioning them I noticed a bulge in the pant leg of the youngest boy – it looked like he might have a gun tucked into one of his socks. I bent down to examine it. As I did, I felt someone move over me, and as I looked up, the taller of the three (he turned out to be 15) was pointing a gun at my head. Before I knew what was happening, there was a deafening explosion, the muzzle flashed, and a bullet struck me above my right eye. I remember the reddish-orange flame that jumped from the barrel, the smell of the gunpowder, and the smoke. I fell backward, and the boy shot me a second time, hitting me in the throat. Then, as I lay on the ground, he stood over me and shot me a third time.
“I was in pain; I was numb; I knew I was dying, and I didn’t want to die. It was terrifying. My partner was yelling into his police radio: “Ten Thirteen Central! Ten Thirteen!” and when I heard that code, I knew I was in a very bad way. Then I closed my eyes…”
“Steven didn’t remember what happened next, but when the first officers to respond arrived on the scene, they found Sergeant King sitting on the ground, covered in Steven’s blood, cradling him in his arms and rocking him back and forth. He was crying. Knowing that every wasted second could be fatal, the men heaved Steven into the back of their RMP and rushed him to the nearest emergency room, at Harlem’s Metropolitan Hospital, twenty blocks away.
“Immediately EMT’s, nurses, and doctors went to work. For the next forty-eight hours, he hung between life and death. At one point, Steven’s chief surgeon even told the police commissioner, “He’s not going to make it. Call the family. Tell them to come say goodbye.” But then he turned a corner.
“Steven spent the next eighteen months in the hospital, first in New York and then in Colorado. It was like learning to live all over again, this time completely dependent on other people. There were endless things to get used to – being fed, bathed, and helped to the bathroom.
Steven had turned many emotional and medical corners, facing up to the fact that life would henceforth be utterly changed for him and his pregnant wife, Patti Ann. He turned some spiritual corners, too. This is how he described what happened next:
“…about six months after I was shot, Patti Ann gave birth to a baby boy. We named him Conor. To me, Conor’s birth was like a message from God that I should live, and live differently. And it was clear to me that I had to respond to that message. I prayed that I would be changed, that the person I was would be replaced by something new.
“That prayer was answered with a desire to forgive the young man who shot me. I wanted to free myself of all the negative, destructive emotions that his act of violence had unleashed in me: anger, bitterness, hatred, and other feelings. I needed to free myself of those emotions so that I could love my wife and our child and those around us.
“Then, shortly after Conor’s birth, we held a press conference. People wanted to know what I was thinking and how I was doing. That’s when Patti Ann told everyone that I had forgiven the young man who tried to kill me.”
“Steven and his assailant, whose name was Shavod Jones, could not have been more different. Steven was white; Shavod was black. Steven came from the middle-class suburbs of Long Island’s Nassau County; Shavod from a Harlem housing project. Their brief encounter might have ended right there. But Steven wouldn’t let it. Knowing that his attacker had just altered the course of both of their lives, he felt an uncanny connection to him:
“Strangely, we became friends. It began with my writing to him. At first he didn’t answer my letters, but then he wrote back. Then one night a year or two later, he called my home from prison and apologized to my wife, my son, and me. We accepted his apology, and I told him I hoped he and I could work together in the future. I hoped that one day we might travel around the country together sharing how this act of violence had changed both our lives, and how it had given us an understanding of what is most important in life.”
“Eventually the exchange fizzled out. Then, in late 1995, Shavod was released from prison. Three days later, he was killed in a motorcycle accident. Others might feel Steven’s efforts to reach out to his attacker were wasted, but he himself doesn’t think so:
“I was a badge to that kid, a uniform representing the government. I was the system that let landlords charge rent for squalid apartments in broken-down tenements; I was the city agency that fixed up poor neighborhoods and drove the residents out, through gentrification, regardless of whether they were law-abiding solid citizens, or pushers and criminals; I was the Irish cop who showed up at a domestic dispute and left without doing anything, because no law had been broken.”
“To Shavod Jones, I was the enemy. He didn’t see me as a person, as a man with loved ones, as a husband and father-to-be. He’d bought into all the stereotypes of his community: the police are racist, they’ll turn violent, so arm yourself against them. And I couldn’t blame him. Society – his family, the social agencies responsible for him, the people who’d made it impossible for his parents to be together – had failed him way before he had met me in Central Park.”
“Life in a wheelchair is hard enough for an elderly person to accept, but to be plucked out of an active, fun-loving life in your prime is devastating. Add to that a tracheostomy to breathe through and total dependence on a nurse and other caregivers, and life for Steven was pretty confining at times. He was matter-of-fact about this:
“There’s nothing easy about being paralyzed. I have not been able to hold my wife in my arms for two decades. Conor is now a young man, and I’ve never been able to have a catch with him. It’s frustrating – difficult – ugly – at times.”
“So why did he forgive? Again, he himself said it best:
“I forgave Shavod because I believe the only thing worse than receiving a bullet in my spine would have been to nurture revenge in my heart. Such an attitude would have extended my injury to my soul, hurting my wife, son, and others even more. It’s bad enough that the physical effects are permanent, but at least I can choose to prevent spiritual injury.
Again, I have my ups and downs. Some days, when I am not feeling very well, I can get angry. I get depressed. There have been times when I even felt like killing myself. But I have come to realize that anger is a wasted emotion…
Of course, I didn’t forgive Shavod right away. It took time. Things have evolved over fourteen years. I think about it almost every day. But I can say this: I’ve never regretted forgiving him.”
“Steven’s wife, Patti Ann, feels the same:
“It’s been hard, very hard, for me to really forgive the boy that shot Steven. But I learned long ago that in order for us to get along as a couple, I had to let go of my anger. Otherwise Steven and I wouldn’t have been able to go on ourselves. Because when something like that festers inside of you, it just destroys you from the inside out.”
“Steven was a sought-after speaker at schools in and around New York City, holding entire auditoriums captive as he retold his story. To him, the cycle of violence that plagues so many lives today can be overcome only by breaking down the walls that separate people and make them afraid of each other. The best tools for this, he would say, are love, respect, and forgiveness.
“Quoting Robert F. Kennedy, Steven liked to point out that “the victims of violence are black and white, rich and poor, young and old, famous and unknown, but they are, most important of all, human beings whom other human beings have loved and needed.” And somewhere in each address, he would find a way to refer to Martin Luther King – a man who gave him unending inspiration:
“When I was a very young kid, Dr. King came to my town in New York. My mother went to hear him speak, and she was very impressed by what she heard. I hope you can be inspired by his words too. Dr. King said that there’s some good in the worst of us, and some evil in the best of us, and that when we learn this, we’ll be more loving and forgiving. He also said, “Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it’s a permanent attitude.” In other words, it is something you have to work for. Just like you have to work to keep your body fit and your mind alert, you’ve got to work on your heart too. Forgiving is not just a one-time decision. You’ve got to live forgiveness, every day.”