by Sheli Massie
I did not grow up in a home where forgiveness was given or shown. We were your poster family for authoritarian Catholics. I don’t even know if that is a thing. I just know that my faith was built on the cornerstone of shame and guilt. Grace was only the name of the grandma on a National Lampoon’s Christmas vacation. Never an action and never an option. My skinned knees in green plaid skirt would sit at the dinner table and stay silent until I was invited to speak. The bible was read. Or a “Daily Bread” devotional that was over our heads was read and all five of us were drilled until one of us cried or excused ourselves in embarrassment to the bathroom when we could not explain what the reading was about. Scorned because we had not listened well enough or shamed because we just were never enough. This is the faith I was raised with.
So it comes as no surprise that the only forgiveness that I remember experiencing was when one of my brothers would be forced to apologize to another child or sibling for something they had done or hadn’t done. Publicly ridiculed until an apology was given. And apologies from others were demanded not received as a gift. Again Grace was still just a character. And mercy was a distant cousin who never made her way into our world until much later in life.
I remember one summer when my brothers were playing tag through the neighborhood, chasing each other in sweatpants and baseball t-shirts stained with last nights third base line. My brother was climbing the metal fence along the west side of our house as fast as he could, trying to escape the boys taunting and chasing him. At the time he was a child that my mother would refer to as “husky” so running and climbing were not his favorite or most practiced activities. Needless to say, sweet brother got caught on the top of the fence by his pants. He hung there exposing his Underoos and losing his pride all at the same time. What had started as an innocent game of tag had ended with such shame that my brother can still hardly talk about it today. Later that evening my father “demanded” again an apology from these boys, yelling and threatening that they take on the humiliation that my brother was already carrying.
Thirty years later, I can say anything that I have learned as a parent with five children of my own is to “be what I needed years ago”. In this house we say we are sorry. We admit when we are wrong and ask for forgiveness. We receive apologies and hold them as sacred exposed vulnerable space. We admit our faults and when we have lost our shit we own it. Our children see us as broken but always working towards healing.
Last summer a horrific tragedy happened to my second daughter. Then 15. she had been bullied for years for her lack of social skills and then her sexuality. But what ensued that summer was nothing we saw coming. It ripped our family and community apart, exposing our own fears and views of what justice really looks like.
Two days after it happened, our world fell apart I was laying on the hospital floor on the Peds unit of a hospital in one of the most white-privileged suburbs of Chicago while an armed police officer stood his guard at my daughters door. I heard the Holy Spirit whisper to my heart:
Forgive the one who did this.
He is broken, forgive him.
He was not born this way, forgive him.
Someone hurt him, forgive him.
If I am honest, I was pissed with the Holy Spirit. In fact, pissed does not even come close to the state of my shattered heart. Who was the Spirit to tell me how to react, how to move forward, how to breathe through this? Who was the Spirit to ask such thing?
How were we ever going to survive this?
I wanted to DEMAND an apology. I wanted to scream and yell and cry. (Don’t worry, I did.) But that weight of hate was something that I was not being asked to carry. I was being asked to forgive. To see the brokenness in another person and lay my pride aside in order to heal.
Someone asked me recently what justice looks like to me.
It looks like healing.
It looks like an open table.
It looks like listening.
It looks like seeing.
It looks like wisdom.
It looks like forgiveness.
Sheli Massie is a story keeper, seeker of justice, healing and hope in a broken world. She lives outside of Chicago with her five children, one grandlove and a husband who has fought for her for twenty years. She believes we all have a story inside if we are brave enough to tell it.