The power of forgiveness can transform even the most broken among us if we embrace it.
On his Facebook page, my friend Steven recently posted the following item. In these trying and contentious times, it is a message well worth heeding:
All I can say is 11/13/13 was a very emotional and joyous day and today I am grateful: to have awakened in my own bed, to have awakened to a wonderful and amazing wife, to have been greeted by an excited and loving dog, to have been greeted by a son jumping in his bed making sounds to get my attention so we can have our morning hugs and talks, to have looked out my window seeing a sliver of a moon set and the sun rise and the mountains awake, and, to have time this morning to be grateful for everyone in my life and to be grateful for every experience I have had and to thank God for a life of hope and love.”
A day earlier Steven sent me a message on Facebook that helps put November 13, 2013, in context. It reads as follows:
“Being up most of the night, I heard a faint whisper around 4:30. I popped out with a small bag of personal items. The man at the podium, one of the more hated officers, greeted me. Said he didn’t know I had a date, and that he appreciated knowing me. He opened two steel doors and I walked out of the concrete building. I met another officer who lead a long line of guys through more gates. I was the last one and as it was pitch black and I was walking through gates that I never walked through the reality set in, I began to cry, but the hardened prisoner still held back. I dressed out, got my 200-dollar gate money, stood in front of a huge gate, officer said state your name, number, mother’s maiden name and where I am going. I responded, he said good luck and these gates opened, and I walked through a free man. The rest of the day saw great emotional outbursts I never cried so much … 7 years ago I walked out of prison.”
Steven had been in prison for 17½ years, very nearly half his life, for a “crime” that would have been prosecuted in no other city than where it happened, San Francisco. Steven was a naïve, young, small town sailor on leave in the big city when his fate took a dark turn. He has every reason to be bitter.
He is not.
“I felt my life was over, nonexistent,” Steven would later tell me. “I was a 18-year-old kid who was scared, alone, and hopeless. I had no contact with my parents or anyone else. The military at the time just abandoned me.”
One morning, which started as grim as any other, several nuns walked through the cellblock asking if anyone wanted to attend church services. Although not Catholic or particularly religious, Steven “couldn’t resist their precious, happily glowing nature.”
He attended the service, which he found to be “beautiful.” At this service, he learned that these were Sisters of Charity, from the same order as Mother Teresa, working out of San Francisco. Impressed, Steven started going every Saturday. To this day, he credits those sisters not only with his newly found faith but also with his sanity.
In March 1996, drunk and most likely drugged, Steven killed a man in self-defense after a desperate fight. Convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to prison for 17 years to life, Steven had every reason to believe the maximum would prove more likely than the minimum.
Steven was a naïve, young, small-town sailor on leave in the big city when his fate took a dark turn in 1996. He has every reason to be bitter. He is not.
His distant, working-class family could offer little help, and the political connections of Steven’s victim scared away all would-be good deed doers.
Almost all. A San Franciscan activist named Peter kept pressing to get his story out. Through a providential connection—I could write volumes about that alone—Peter found me while I was doing research for a book on California. Steven’s case embodied everything that was wrong with the state, and so I wove his story through-out my 2007 opus, What’s the Matter With California.
Many readers found Steven’s story as compelling as I did, and a community of support sprung up around Steven. As his first parole date approached in 2009—13 years after his arrest—I continued to write articles in his support, thinking that Steven’s impeccable prison record and the obvious injustice of the incarceration would compel the parole board to set him free.
Here, I was the naïve one. To satisfy its various constituencies, the San Francisco DA’s office sent a prosecutor several hundred miles to Steven’s hellhole of a prison to retry the case against a man whose every plea of injustice would only extend his stay. Parole denied.
When de Tocqueville visited America nearly 200 years ago what struck him most forcibly was the willingness of Americans to associate freely and spontaneously to solve community problems.
In speaking with other members of Steven’s community, we decided that the best way to spring Steven was to hire the state’s best parole attorney, someone who knew what strings to pull and, perhaps, what palms to grease. When I put out an appeal for donations, I was overwhelmed with checks, small and large, at least half of which I sent back. The strategy worked, and Steven was freed.
Two members of that community, long-time Kansas Citians Pam and David Holt, had recently retired to a small mountain town in Colorado. They volunteered to sponsor Steven, and he was able to escape the increasing toxic state of California for the airy heights of Colorado. There he found a good job, a great church, and a wonderful life with his lovely wife and son.
In the opening of his message to me, Steven quoted historian Daniel Boorstin: “Freedom means the opportunity to be what we never thought we would be.”
For Steven, these are words to live by.