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From Trauma to Forgiveness

About a week ago I commented on the Treyvon Martin/George Zimmerman case and tried to look at it from both sides. I also brought up the fact that I lived in a neighborhood where I was often afraid to walk down the street alone. I was “jumped” in front of my own house once for a lousy $2 as three teens tailed me from the grocery store.

The truth is that I still have nightmares about it.

What’s more is that I remember when I walked to middle school and back each day, I had to travel through a particularly bad neighborhood. There were a few “crews” as we called “gangs” back then in the 80s. Drugs, violence, you name it were all hallmarks of the walk home. As I left my Catholic middle school I often thought “Maybe today is the day I get jumped?” Or worse. I got used to walking fast and it was all uphill.

Some of the gang members knew me from when I went to public school from Kindergarten through 6th grade. I loved that school. When Middle School arrived it seemed as if everything had changed. The middle school in the neighborhood had a bad reputation.

And that scared the hell out of my parents. So they sent me to the parish grammar school instead for 7th and 8th grade. And that pretty much made me a target walking home in a shirt and a tie each day. Might as well have had a sign that said “Come and beat the heck out of me for whatever loose change I might be carrying.” What was worse was that I was at best a “tolerated guest” at the Catholic School and didn’t even have allies to walk home with most of the time.

The anxiety would build until I arrived home and got behind that door–and even then I worried at night about someone breaking into the house.

I was taught that fear, taught to be afraid of my neighborhood. And there is good and bad in that. Because let’s face it there are good and bad people of all races. Even in good neighborhoods it is good to notice your surroundings and be aware.

But we can also overdo it.

I remember the “two dollar” incident as if it were yesterday. One guy grabbed me and threw me against a car. The laughing started then. Then someone grabbed my hand and another went through my pockets. I got pushed around and then they ran when they got the money away from my clenched fist. It sounds simple–but the truth is that it was all rather frightening.

I have been wondering why I still have the nightmare and why I had one when this story that has captivated the country hit center stage. What are all of these memories now stirring in me about? Why have they rushed to the surface now some 30 years later? I began to feel silly about holding on to this, but I also knew that there must have been something significant about this for me to keep having these subconscious thoughts. I even went to facebook and tried to see if I could find one of the people who was part of the incident. And when I did I became even more worried.

So I went to Christ the King Chapel, our campus church at Canisius and simply asked God what all this was about. And when I did I re-lived that fearful moment in Examen. I saw my own fear. I heard the laughing again. I looked into the eyes of the one who was known to me, who set me up for the others. And then I imagined that it was much like that night in the garden when Jesus was betrayed by one he knew well. And I saw Jesus standing there with me shaking his head at the absurdity of it all.

And as they scattered, I too, was left alone. I found myself pushing Jesus away and embracing my own hatred. While I wasn’t hurt much physically, the emotional scars were deep and I was just so, so afraid it would happen again.

Something inside me in the darkness of that chapel finally saw Jesus on that cross and I said the words:

“Father, forgive them.”

And I realized that I was safe now, perhaps safer than I have ever felt. Forgiveness is truly freeing and I don’t think I ever truly forgave those three from that moment.

The tears came and then I heard the chapel door open. It was one of our public safety officers who was checking on the building and locking the doors for the night. She was a woman and for some reason she made me feel somewhat safer because she was. Some students were meeting me in the undercroft, the church basement soon and I let her know that. We introduced ourselves and as she left I found my students entering for our prayer service.

I never really finished that prayer, much like I never really finished freeing myself from that memory. This week I served some folks who looked very much like those three who took advantage of my weakness those 30 years age. I was able to look them in the eyes and see their pain, their dignity, their poverty and yes, their fear disguised as bravado.

I was not afraid of them. I’m sure that many of them were not exactly stellar citizens. I’m sure it was easier for them to band together with others than to stand apart and face the fear of walking their dangerous neighborhood alone, where the fear of being killed is actually a real one. And so I gave them each something to eat and talked with them and hoped that just maybe for a moment I could be someone that they need not fear and that had no need to fear them.

And I realized then how strong God made me back then, how brave I was to simply walk home alone each day. And how God continues to make me strong today for those who are too weak to walk alone. For those who have no voice. For those who don’t have enough to eat. For those who live fearful lives.

Eventually I resumed my prayer days later and realized that I had been sitting by the foot of the cross in that chapel.

Staying by our cross and facing it, even the ones from old neighborhoods, or playgrounds, or bedrooms, or schoolhouses is indeed very hard for each one of us. But Christ calls us to stay with Him at His cross, to face our fear and to go the extra yard of sitting with Him in His pain just as God always stays with us in ours.

That’s how we overcome those wounded moments.

And each time we do, God raises us to new life.

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