Manya Brachear from the Chicago Tribune contacted MVFHR a few weeks ago, and this piece, "Radical forgiveness in the Easter season," was published yesterday. The online version includes several photos.
Their loved ones were murdered. Suddenly. Horrifically. Needlessly. Yet none of them wanted the killers to die too.
Inspired by their Christian faith, they fought capital punishment in Illinois, and on March 9, they saw that goal fulfilled and the death penalty abolished.
Christians view Easter's triumph of life over death as a particularly poignant reminder of what Christ's resurrection means for humanity, the scope of God's love and our own capacity for forgiveness.
But the journey has not been the same for everyone. One woman has finally summoned the strength to utter the name of the man who killed her sister 21 years ago and pray for him on Easter for the first time. Another woman, remembering the childhood lessons of Easter, immediately forgave her father's killers, but she can't forgive God six years after the murder.
'Safe in God's arms'
On Palm Sunday, April 8, 1990, Jeanne Bishop was standing in the aisle of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, holding a palm and a choir folder when the call came in that her sister Nancy, brother-in-law Richard and their unborn child had been slain by an armed intruder.
Weeping in the church office, she started to question God.
"I know Nancy would have been praying from the moment she walked into her home and saw his gun," she said. "I wasn't so angry at the killer. I get that people have free choice and choose to do evil. I was more mad at God for not hearing her prayer and answering it and saving her life."
But when details from the Winnetka crime scene emerged a week later, Bishop's anger subsided. As her sister lay dying, she had scrawled a heart and the letter """U""" in her own blood.
"I knew they were safe in God's arms at that moment," said Bishop, 51. """In her dying moments, she is thinking of love, giving a message of love. She's not thinking bitterness and revenge. God had to be so present with her at that moment. She was going to the love that created her, sustained her and gave his son for her. That was such a big help for me."
Bishop, a Cook County public defender, had always opposed the death penalty. The death of her sister energized that opposition. She couldn't support putting more families through the same grief. After all, the killer, 16 at the time, was somebody's son, Bishop thought.
Until this year, she had never once allowed the name of her sister's killer to cross her lips. But when she visits her sister's grave on Easter Sunday, she will pray for David Biro, who is now 37 and serving three life sentences.
"Easter is always such a reminder that violence and death are not the last word," she said. "They don't have power over us. Love and the love of God is the most powerful force on Earth and are eternal. This year as never before, I'm seeing that I not only need to love Nancy and Richard and the baby, I need to love the person who took their lives, love them the way God loves them. That's so brand new to me and makes me see so many things differently. … I feel a stone has been rolled away from my heart."
'So much doubt'
Hannah Yoo isn't sure her father went to heaven. She scorns God for that uncertainty — if there is a God. She's not even sure about that anymore.
But because her Christian upbringing reinforced forgiveness every Easter, Yoo, 28, has been able to absolve his killers. She sought support from death penalty opponents Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation and soon became a spokeswoman.
"It came naturally to me," said Yoo, a tax attorney who now lives in Chicago's Gold Coast neighborhood. "Christ died for our sins. The whole thing about Easter is he paid the price so we could be forgiven for everything. … If I hadn't embraced that doctrine and embraced that truth, I don't think I would have been able to forgive the murderer as easily as I have."
But Yoo can't forgive God for taking her father, Kenneth — the one family member who, as far as she knows, had not accepted Christ as his savior. In Seoul, South Korea, on family business, Yoo's father was stabbed in the neck, chest and back in the parking lot at Olympic Stadium in May 2005.
"I don't know where his soul will be,""" Hannah Yoo said. """My last conversation with him about his salvation didn't give me any assurance."
Since her father's murder, Yoo's faith has not been the same, she said.
"I haven't been able to go to church or listen or sing the praise songs without breaking down," Yoo said. """I read the Bible every day when I was a child. I don't know how I went from there to having so much doubt."""
Though Yoo can't shake her doubts about God and other people, the one thing she does not question is the value of sacrifice — both for strangers and those she loves.
"The characteristic I respect the most is being able to sacrifice and give and not expect anything in return,"" she said. "On Easter, God didn't have to do that, but it's a beautiful story of how he loved us so much that he gave the ultimate sacrifice — his only son. … I grew up with that and always aspired to be like that. I've held on to that."
As Yoo goes through the sacred motions of Easter this year with her mother at a church in Mount Prospect, she will continue to mourn her father. But she will celebrate the legal victory of life over death, in the form of Illinois' decision to ban the death penalty.
'Coming back to life'
Gail Rice lost her brother Bruce VanderJagt to 10 shots in the head and torso with an assault rifle on Nov. 12, 1997, in Denver. But when Rice became a voice against the death penalty, she eventually lost a close bond with his wife and daughter.
Many death-penalty opponents face rejection for taking a stand that can be so misunderstood.
"I certainly would have done anything I could to prevent (his murder)," said Rice, 63, of Palos Heights. "I am fully in favor of having the strongest possible punishment short of the death penalty to anyone who kills police or correctional officers."
A longtime prison literacy volunteer, Rice already opposed the death penalty. She had seen the different kinds of justice doled out to the rich and poor and wasn't convinced that the death penalty could be administered fairly.
When she lost her brother, who was a Denver police officer, she decided to choose love and forgiveness rather than revenge. But that choice didn't necessarily come from compassion for the woman who was the killer's accomplice, Lisl Auman. (The killer, Matthaeus Jaehnig, committed suicide at the crime scene.
"You forgive for yourself," said Rice, a member of Hope Christian Reformed Church in Oak Forest. "I don't know if (Auman) would care at all whether I've forgiven her or not. All I know is that it's given me the ability to lead a different kind of life than if I was holding on to hatred."
Timid at first, she became a strident voice for Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights, another group that opposes the death penalty.
This Easter is a celebration of restoration on many levels, Rice said. Victims' families can move on with their lives. Convicted men and women can spend the rest of their lives seeking justice, mercy or both. Rice said she is particularly pleased that state money set aside to cover capital punishment litigation now will be donated to hire more police officers and support victims' families.
"Easter is about restoration," she said. "With the death penalty abolished, murder victims' family members will really be freed to get on with their life. They won't be going back and forth , carrying this false hope that can only be cured with this execution.
"Because of it, people are going to live. People are going to find hope. People are going to find it easier to forgive. People are going to be able to love and not hold on to hate. Easter is about coming back to life."