A Circle of Forgiveness
Rev. Dr. Emily Brault is a Unitarian Universalist minister who works as a Chaplain with the Oregon State Correctional Department. Prior to her current position working with incarcerated women, she worked at a juvenile correctional facility. This is one story of forgiveness that has inspired her along the way.
While I was working at a juvenile correctional facility, I met a 15-year-old boy. We'll call him Jeremy. Jeremy was in prison for breaking into a church and stealing money. It was a random church. He didn't know anybody there, had never gone there, but it was an easy mark and he "needed" the money. Who knows what for.
Toward the end of his sentence, Jeremy had the chance to participate in a Restorative Justice Circle. It turned out that some of the people at the church wanted to meet him. They wanted to hear his side of the story—why did you do it? Why us? And they wanted to tell their side of the story, too—how did Jeremy affect the church? How did he affect the people in the church?
I was one of the people who helped Jeremy get ready for his circle. At first, Jeremy didn't understand why the people would be mad at him. He said "it's not like I stole from somebody, in particular. The church can always get more money. It's not like it's somebody's money." I tried to explain it to him like this: Imagine that you have two piles of money. One pile is for yourself, for things that you want—maybe a bike or a stereo. And the other pile is for your grandpa. Maybe you are saving money for your grandpa because he needs surgery or he needs glasses, and you've been saving money for him for a long time. So now imagine these two piles of money, and I'm going to take one of them from you. Should I take your money, or should I take the money that you have been saving for your grandpa? Jeremy decided I should take his money. When I asked him why, he said, "Because I can always get those things later, but my grandpa needs my help." "Well, Jeremy," I said, "when you stole from the church, you stole money that people gave so they could help other people. So you didn't just steal from one person. You stole from a pile of money that was meant to help many people, maybe people like your grandpa."
Jeremy was very nervous about meeting the people that he had stolen from, but he wanted the chance to apologize to them. He was very scared about what they would say, though. Would they hate him? Would they yell at him? He had no idea how they would react. But he wanted to apologize, and he had the courage it took to listen to whatever the people of the church needed to say to him.
I met with Jeremy the day after the Circle. He was so happy and energetic. "When I got there," he said. "I was really nervous. All these people were there. The pastor was there, and like five different people from the church. And we all just went around the table and talked. They told me how I had hurt them and how they were still struggling with feeling safe in their church. Some of the people cried. I felt so bad. I cried, too. I told them everything. What I was thinking, why I did it. And I apologized. I apologized for being selfish, and for thinking only of me, and for never thinking about how I might affect other people. I wish I could take it back. I wish I could live that night over and make different choices. But I can't. All I can do is say, 'I'm sorry.' And after it was over, some of the people gave me hugs. I don't think I've ever cried so much, Chaplain! I can't believe they gave me a hug. And they forgave me."
Jeremy was a different person after that. Something changed in him—something big and important. He talked about his experience in that Circle for months. He talked to other guys in the prison. He talked about choices and responsibility, he talked about how our actions affect others even when we don't know it, and he talked about how grateful he felt that he had a chance to say he was sorry and start again.
I lost touch with Jeremy after he got out, but he will always impress me. I hope that church was as transformed by the Circle as he was. May we all have the courage to face our hurts with gentleness and hope.