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07-21-2006 Word among us

From Hatred to Mercy
A Ministry That Asks: What do you do when a loved one is murdered?
by Jan Petroni Brown

In a perfect world, Marietta Jaeger Lane and Bill Pelke would probably have never met, let alone felt called to found an organization that promotes radical—some would say illogical—mercy. She was a Michigan mother busily caring for her five children; he was a Vietnam veteran who worked as a crane operator in Portage, Indiana. But when unthinkable tragedy shattered their lives, each one was thrust into a painful but ultimately healing journey from revenge to forgiveness.

Today, with other family members of murder victims, they travel far and wide to share their hard-won wisdom. They organized their first such Journey of Hope in 1993, when 120 people boarded buses for a sixteen-day speaking tour to fifteen cities in the American Midwest. Since that time, the group has addressed audiences in more than forty states and ten countries.

Theirs are wrenching stories of pain and loss—but stories that are told with peace and compassion. If Journey of Hope members are credible when they urge forgiveness as a way of life, it is because they themselves have been purified of hatred and the desire for revenge.

Many who hear Marietta Jaeger Lane’s story tell her it has helped them to give up their own hatred and revenge for offenses, both big and small. “They say, ‘If you could forgive in such a terrible situation, then maybe I can begin to work with God on the areas in my life where I’ve been kidnapped from the safety of God’s tent.’”

A Mother’s Nightmare. When Marietta uses tent imagery, it is not just a figure of speech. Her youngest child, seven-year-old Susie, was snatched from a tent in the middle of the night during a family camping trip in Montana.

With a cut in the tent canvas and Susie’s scattered stuffed animals as the only clues, the FBI joined local police and countless rescue volunteers in a frantic search for the little girl. A week later, a man called and demanded ransom; he mentioned an identifying mark on Susie that had not been revealed in the media coverage.

The Jaegers remained at the campsite for weeks, as authorities scoured the area. One “terribly intense” day, watching sheriff’s deputies repeatedly drag the river, Marietta was flooded by emotions she had never felt before. “Rage and desire for revenge came roiling up through all my lifelong inhibitions,” she said. Visions of vengeance flooded her mind.

“I could kill him with my bare hands and with a smile on my face,” she told her husband as the couple prepared for bed that night.

And yet, Marietta sensed that she had a choice: to forgive or be consumed by hatred. After a night-long “wrestling match with God,” she gave in and prayed, “I give you permission to change my heart. I can’t do it alone.”

Two days later, she was introduced to Fr. Joseph Mavsar, the pastor at a nearby parish. The priest had just returned from his native Slovenia, where he had gone to offer forgiveness to the man responsible for the massacre of his parents and siblings. Fr. Mavsar was “a beacon, a gift from God,” says Marietta. “He helped me to see that the forgiveness I was working toward was possible, with the grace of God.”

Murder and Mercy. Marietta began praying for the unknown kidnapper; she imagined him fishing and asked for a good catch. Often, she wondered whether she was betraying Susie by trying to forgive the man who had harmed her. “But you know what happens when we start praying for somebody,” says Marietta. “God changes our own hearts. The more I prayed for this man, the more I realized how very important it was for him to experience the love of God.”

At 2:00 one morning, exactly one year to the minute when the Jaegers had discovered Susie’s disappearance, the kidnapper called Marietta. Intending to taunt and torment her, he was reduced to tears when she told him—with genuine concern—that she had been praying for him. They talked for over an hour as he voiced his desire to “have this burden lifted.”

That conversation and a subsequent call finally led the FBI to the abductor, who eventually confessed to Susie’s murder and four others. (Confirming the chilling details of a dream she had had, Marietta learned that her daughter had been molested and strangled—probably within a week after being kidnapped.) A few hours after his confession, he hanged himself in his jail cell.

“That was not what I wanted,” Marietta says. “If I had to accept Susie’s death, I had hoped I would see this very sick man restored.”

Two Mothers Meet. The murder victim relatives who speak at Journey of Hope events represent many different backgrounds and walks of life, but they proclaim a common message. Their stories—shared at colleges, churches, and other places—highlight the transforming power of love and also encourage dialogue about the death penalty.

As she experienced such a dramatic healing in her own life, Marietta Jaeger Lane felt compelled to extend forgiveness more outwardly. She sought out the mother of Susie’s killer and found a devout Christian who was reeling from the discovery that, in his mental illness, her oldest son had several personalities. The man she had known was loving, attentive, and hardworking.

“We embraced and wept in each other’s arms,” says Marietta—“two heartbroken, grieving mothers who had lost their beloved children.” The women became friends and have prayed together at each of their children’s graves.

Strength from Above. This urge to extend compassion can lead to expressions of forgiveness that are more public. Bill Pelke, cofounder of Journey of Hope, helped to lead an international campaign to save the life of the fifteen-year-old girl who had killed his grandmother. As a result of Pelke’s work, more than two million people signed petitions protesting her execution in 1989, and Pope John Paul II asked that her life be spared. The effort was successful: Paula Cooper’s sentence was commuted to sixty years in prison.

When Bill Pelke speaks of his decision to forgive—and even love—his grandmother’s killer, audiences wonder how he found the strength. This was especially evident at one of his first talks, to students at the Gary, Indiana, high school that Paula Cooper had attended.

“You must have a big heart,” said one girl after hearing his message. “I have a big God,” Bill replied.

“Father, Forgive Them.” Only a “big God” could have brought Bill to the point of forgiving such a brutal crime. Ruth Pelke, the grandmother he knew as “Nana,” was a gentle woman who had trustingly opened her door to Paula Cooper and three other ninth-grade girls. Pretending to be interested in Bible lessons, the teens just wanted money to play arcade games. Once inside, they stabbed the seventy-eight-year-old woman over thirty-three times, took ten dollars, and drove off in her car.

In the months that followed, Bill felt that God was calling him to forgive the girls, especially Paula, who was considered the ringleader. It was beyond him. Painful images prevented him from feeling any compassion, he says. He kept picturing Nana “butchered on the dining room floor—the same dining room where our family gathered every year for Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, and birthdays.”

Bill’s moment of conversion came a year and half later, as he began his three-to-eleven shift at work. Sitting fifty feet aloft in a crane cab, he visualized the photo of his grandmother that had accompanied the newspaper accounts of her murder. It showed a silver-haired woman with a sweet smile and wearing a light blue dress. This time, though, he saw something distinctly different in the familiar picture. Tears were flowing from Nana’s eyes and down her cheeks. “At first I thought they might be tears of pain,” he says, “but I immediately realized they were tears of love and compassion for Paula Cooper and her family.”

In his book Journey of Hope, Bill writes: “As I sat in the crane, I pictured an image of Jesus crucified on the cross. I pictured the crown of thorns dug into his brow. I envisioned his bloody hands and feet and the nails driven through them. I recalled what he said: ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.’ I began to think that Paula Cooper didn’t know what she was doing when she killed Nana. A person who knows what they are doing does not take a twelve-inch butcher knife and stab someone thirty-three times.”

With tears “flowing like a river,” Bill begged God for the strength he needed to forgive. From that moment on, it was as if a weight was lifted from his heart. He was finally able to picture his grandmother not as she had died but as she had lived—“what she stood for and what she believed in, and the beautiful, wonderful person that she was.”

A Way of Life. The message of Journey of Hope is not simply for people whose lives have been touched by violent crime. The speakers’ dramatic stories have moved countless others to examine the place of forgiveness in their own lives.

As Bill Pelke explains, his “epiphany” moment on the crane involved far more than the act of forgiving Paula Cooper. The call to forgiveness extended beyond the extraordinary hurt he had received. All of a sudden, he says, he saw that it made no sense to continue a ten-year grudge that had been ignited by a coworker’s insensitive remark.

“I tell people that forgiving Paula Cooper gave me a new philosophy of life—forgive a neighbor who complains about the noise, a driver who cuts you off.” Hanging on to anger and resentment is deadly, says Bill, “like a cancer.”

Marietta Jaeger Lane agrees. “Those who retain a hateful, vindictive feeling only end up giving the offender another victim. Vengeance, hatred, resentment, grudge-bearing, even deliberate indifference, are death-dealing spirits that will take our lives as surely as Susie’s was taken from her.” Besides, she says, “Jesus made it very clear that if we don’t forgive those who harm us, God cannot forgive us our sins. We agree to that ‘contract’ every time we say the Our Father.”

Impossible by our own strength alone, forgiveness—from the smallest offense to the biggest—truly is possible with God. Yes, it’s costly, says this mother who will always bear the wounds of having lost a child. “But every time we meet Jesus at the cross, every time we have to crucify our feelings and desires, we will experience resurrection with him—a new life, rich and full beyond our wildest dreams.

“I do not believe for a moment that it was God’s perfect will for our family to endure this tragedy. But after thirty-three years, I’ve come to understand that God is redeeming Susie’s suffering and death by using it as a teaching on the possibility and importance of forgiveness. As people hear and respond to that call, Susie’s death becomes a gift of life.”

Jan Petroni Brown is a freelance writer, college instructor, and mother of three in Houston, Texas. A Montana native, she remembers praying for the safe return of Susie Jaeger in 1973. For more information about Journey of Hope: 1-877-924GIVE (4483); www.journeyofhope.org.