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The Essence of Forgiveness: A Remarkable Encounter in Heathrow

Easter is not complete without loving the one who made it possible—Judas. Forgiveness becomes possible when we transcend appearances and realize that those people who represent the Judases in our lives and those qualities within ourselves that seem to have betrayed us have been the divine process growing us into Christs. It’s all Love.
-Walter Starcke


In the first few years after the 9-11 attacks, I found myself traveling very extensively to Europe and parts of the Middle East. Needless to say, this was a tense and unsettling time for me as an American. Europeans were judgmental and confrontational. And there was an unavoidable wariness in my dealings with Muslims. I was quick to denounce the actions of my government and they were quick to assure me that they drew a distinction between people and their leaders, but it there was still an unease that none of us could manage to avoid.

One day, in early 2006, when the war in Iraq was at perhaps its lowest point, I found myself at Heathrow airport several hours in advance of my flight. My partner was returning to the States while I was traveling on to Germany, so I saw her off, then enjoyed a more leisurely experience through the airport than is typical. I was waiting for the Heathrow Express to take me between the international and domestic European terminals. A few seats down from me sat a dark-skinned, older woman. Her black robes and headscarf told me she was Muslim.

As the train pulled in to the station the conductor announced that, due to a security scan, the train would sit idle for a few minutes after the departing passengers had left and that we should all please wait until the security check was complete before boarding.

As the train doors opened, woman next to me rose and started to board. I stopped her and explained that we needed to wait just a bit. She thanked me and we began to chat.

In short order our conversation turned to the events of 9/11. How could we avoid discussing the elephant in the train station? She was Muslim, I was American. The world was trapped in a conflict that seemed to cleave along the lines that divided she and I: culturally, geographically and spiritually.

Then she told me one of the most remarkable stories I have ever heard.

She lives in Islington, one of the rougher parts of London, to say the least.

On 9/12/2001 she was attacked and beaten by three young, white British men. They nearly beat her to death. They broke her spine in two places and ruptured a kidney. She was airlifted to Germany and underwent three surgeries, and was left permanently disabled.

While in hospital, the police came to her with books of mug shots. She easily identified her attackers: all three lived within a few blocks of her and were all known to the local police. They had extensive, if minor, criminal records. They were all arrested and charged with assault, attempted murder and hate crimes. The day after 9/11, these three boys graduated from petty criminals to true, violent menaces.

At their trial, this woman, from her wheelchair, testified that she had forgiven these boys and asked that the court do the same. She said that sending them to prison would harden them into true criminals but that it was not too late for them to redeem their lives. She asked the court for mercy in her name.
The judge was angry with her for “wasting the court’s time” and upset with the potential for setting such a dangerous precedent, but did as the woman asked and gave the boys suspended sentences.

Now all three of the men have completely turned their lives around. They all have jobs and have become members of their local community. Two are since married and have begun families.

But best of all, every day at least one of them stops by to check on her. They bring her food, she spends time with their families, and they all call her “Mum.”

Hearing this remarkable story, I cried openly as we walked together through the halls of Heathrow airport. I had never heard a more powerful testimony on the power of forgiveness or the potential of unconditional love to heal and transform.

Who knows how many lives that woman ultimately touched by her act of forgiveness?

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