A lesson in forgiveness

Published 10:32 pm Saturday, December 13, 2014

In 1968, two of our sons, Doug and Jim, were victims in a totally unprovoked and horrific racial incident.

Three months earlier, we had returned to America from overseas, where we had served as missionaries in Pakistan for almost 18 years. We knew nothing about the potential for racial violence.

In Pakistan, our two older sons had freely ridden bikes up and down the Himalayan foothills and interacted with men who carried guns and bullets, all without fear. That freedom changed one afternoon in September 1968, as they were home from my sister’s house in Portsmouth.

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They saw the group of black boys on the street corner. As they came nearer, they heard, “Here come two honkies! Let’s get ‘em!” There was no way to get by.

One boy used a nail-embedded rope to lasso our older son; a bicycle chain followed, making a direct hit across my son’s eyes, cutting into the middle of the left one and the bottom of the right one. Our younger son was not hurt, but still he begged, “Please help me! You have hurt my brother!”

Finally, three sailors stopped and the other boys ran away. The police came. Jim had noticed an athletic shirt and its number. By Monday, a black detective had located and identified the boys at school.

My husband was on a plane for Chicago. I was alone when I got the word our boys were at the hospital. Jim was waiting when I arrived. He told me the story just as Doug was being brought out of the emergency room. The doctor told me he doubted my son would ever see again.

I phoned my family and churches, asking for prayer. The Sunday morning newspaper headlined the incredulous words, “Mother says she can forgive.” It left some people thinking I was not in my right mind; they would have taken revenge.

In court, I made it clear I could forgive this horrendous act only because God in Christ had forgiven me, but society must decide the punishment because “no one wants to live in a place where stepping outside the door could be dangerous.”

Retelling the story still brings a sense of horror and sadness to our family. Such incidents plead for resolution, but it will not come easily. Two of the 10 boys were asked to testify in court. They confirmed our sons did nothing to provoke them. They acted because they were “angry with white people.”

We received a great deal of sympathy and love from the white community, but also from the black community. One group of African-Americans from the high school brought flowers to the hospital, and another brought an offering taken in their church. An African-American businessman gave us $100 a month for several months to help with the hospital and other expenses. He knew we did not have much insurance on the family. We had not needed it overseas.

Other businessmen in the community established a fund to help with future educational expenses. The teachers in his high school bought him a typewriter. Doug was musical but he left his old trumpet behind. Someone gave money for that. Life went on.

The doctor suggested homebound instruction. Doug finished high school and had two years of college. God was watching over a son who would learn to live with only one eye and very reduced vision. Our children would experience sadness, but not hatred.

How does society resolve a race situation like this? Rumor had it our city was braced for a riot, thought it would break out in a different area. Thankfully, it did not happen. Another city official said it was our attitude of forgiveness that stopped it.

Retaliation is the usual reaction. We want what we perceive as justice.

So, how could I forgive?

I was responding to the mandate Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount. He commanded His followers to forgive — to go beyond forgiveness with acts of kindness. If I did not forgive, neither would my Heavenly Father forgive me. Vengeance belongs to God. He will repay. I could depend on that.

Jesus also said, “blessed are the merciful, the pure in heart and peacemakers, for they shall see God.” I believe He expects the same of His followers today.

The Sermon on the Mount is a lesson in how to live and forgive. Jesus did not allow for retaliation, destroying, robbing, or stealing the property of others. To do so was a challenge in Jesus’ day. It is a necessity today if we are to live peaceably with all people.

Myrtle Virginia Thompson is a former missionary and lives in Suffolk. Email her at mvtgrt@gmail.com.