My mind was still reeling from having just returned from seeing Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church where three innocent little black girls had died when their church was bombed on September 15, 1963. The National Civil Rights Museum filled with artifacts, photos and stories, and across the street in The Ingram City Park, Ronald Scott McDowell’s steel statues of vicious attacking dogs, policeman’s powerful water hoses and billy clubs, which had all had been used to prevent blacks from registering to vote in Alabama, also troubled me. But what was even more troubling to me were local senior black Birmingham residents sitting on park benches willingly explaining what it was like when this occurred to them in their city. Even as a Christian of long standing, I did not understand how there was not even a hint of anger or animosity within or among them. Apparently, they had completely forgiven their oppressors.
Upon our returning to our home at Jenner’s Pond in Pennsylvania, my wife and I attended the West Grove United Methodist Church on Sunday morning where coincidentally the Lead Pastor, Monica Guepet delivered a sermon entitled, Forgiving and Remembering. She began by explained where the phrase, forgive and forget, had originated and stated that the words forgive and forget are not found together in the Bible. I had already known this, but what I had not known or understood is what she made clear next; it was not only alright, but helpful and necessary for humans to remember their story and name their hurts whether they had occurred intentionally or unintentionally. She credited Desmond Tutu and his daughter, Mpho Tutu in their book, The Book of Forgiving published in 2014 for helping her and other readers to understand and practice forgiving, noting that we all have the choice for revenge or forgiveness. After apartheid was resolved in South America in 1993 the Tutu’s sought to find a way for blacks to not rise in revenge. From Archbishop Tutu’s position in the Episcopal Church citizens were led to forgive and build relationships with their former oppressors. Nelson Mandela, who had been in prison for 27 years simply because he was black and spoke up for equality, was released and elected president. He provided a leading example too!
Guepet said that forgiveness is not easy, it may seem almost impossible, but with God’s help and the help of others, it is possible. It worked in South Africa in families, societies and the country too! In fact it was working in Birmingham, Alabama where I had just experienced it.
Following are helpful descriptions of what What Forgiveness Is Not from the Tutu’s book that were printed in Pastor Monica Guepet’s bulletin that morning. Forgiveness is not easy – It requires hard work and a consistent willingness. Forgiveness is not weakness – It requires courage and strength. Forgiveness does not subvert justice – It creates space for justice to be enacted with a purity of purpose that does not include revenge. Forgiveness is not forgetting – It requires a fearless remembering of hurt. Forgiveness is not quick – It can take several journeys through the cycles of remembering and grief before one can truly forgive and be free.
I bought a copy of Tutu’s book to see the Revenge and Forgiveness Cycles for myself which was especially helpful to me in realizing how the black residents of South Africa and Birmingham choose not revenge but forgiveness. This copy of the cycles is from their book.
Personally, although I have experienced the need for forgiveness and forgiving, I have never experienced the cruelty of racial injustices and of course do not know how I would react if it occurred to me, but I believe I would rely on the lesson indelibly imprinted on my mind and heart by Guepet’s Forgiving and Remembering sermon after we returned from touring The 16th Street Baptist Church, and struggling to try to understand how Birmingham Alabama blacks unpretentiously, quietly, wholeheartedly and unquestionably displayed forgiveness to us and many other tourists. She broke down Tutu’s forgiveness path into four steps—Telling the Story; Naming the Hurt; Granting Forgiveness; and Renewing or Releasing the Relationship.The crowning touch for me came when Guepet reiterated the third step in Tutu’s Forgiveness Cycle in which I was able to get in touch with recognizing my own as well as others Shared Humanity.
No one, not me or you or anyone else, even Jesus Christ had or has a corner on forgiveness. It’s a gift provided within and hopefully among us before we were even born. We may choose to use this God gift for our own as well as others well being, health and welfare. It’s a gift which Jesus and His followers then, as well as today continue to share. In Church we seek in every way to practice forgiveness in His holy name. Thanks be to my black brothers and sisters as well as Monica Guepet, who helped me understand, accept and practice forgiveness with myself, one another, others and even strangers in the holy name of Jesus Christ. This is good news. Thanks be to God. Amen!
Since that time I have thought, prayed and decided to take Desmond Tutu and and his daughter, Mpho 30 Day Forgiveness Challenge. I’d like to become as good as I can at forgiving. In completing the first day’s assignment, I was encouraged to invite several friends to take the 30 Day Forgiveness Challenge, so that we might talk and help one another by sharing our forgiveness experiences and learning. I’m therefore forwarding the www.forgivenesschallenge.com site in case you wish to try. Please do not feel obligated; however, I hope you’ll at least venture a look at it. By spending 15 minutes a day on it, we’ll be able to share our experiences and learning when we can get together.