You are here: on tour / Annual Journeys / 1999 Tennessee / 04-14 Faith Matters
Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Forgive so killing cannot beget killing


By: David Waters
Faith Matters
April 14, 1999
 
    Arkansas killed another killer this week.  The state lethally injected Marion ‘Mad-Dog’ Pruett, who went to his grave asking for forgiveness.
    Meanwhile, the former governor of Arkansas, the master of seeking forgiveness, contiunued to inject himself lethally into world affairs by killing to stop another killer, Slobodan ‘Mad-dog’ Milosevic.
    This last year of the bloodiest century ever could become a killer year for killing.  Bodies are piling up in the Balkans, the Middle East, Africa, not to mention inside our own death chambers.
    Legal observers say 100 or more inmates may be executed in American this year.  That would be a record.  If we have learned anything in this century, it’s this: Violence begets violence.
    Thankfully, people continue to cross our paths to show us another way.
    People like Bill Pelke or Portage, Ind., a retired steelworker, Vietnam veteran and grandson of a murder victim.
    Pelke, who is speaking tonight at Christian Brothers University, is here to talk about his grandmother Ruth.
    In 1985, Ruth Pelke was stabbed 33 times by two teenage girls.  She was 78.
    Ruth Pelke was more than grand to her grandson Bill.
    Except for the year he spent in Vietnam, Pelke spent every birthday, Easter Sunday, Thanksgiving, and Christmas with his grandmother.
    “Nana was the most loving and faithful person I’ve ever known,” he said.  “She had us in church four times a week.”
    Ruth Pelke loved to tell Bible stories to children.  Grandson Bill loved to listen.  Other kids did, too.  That’s what got her killed.
    On May 14, 1985, four teenage girls went looking for money to play video games.  They knocked on Ruth’s door and asked for Bible lessons.  She let them in.  Then they  knocked on her head with a vase.
    Two girls took turns stabbing Ruth.   The girls found $10 and left Pelke’s grandmother dying on her dining room floor.
    The two girls pleaded guilty.  One was sentenced to 60 years in prison.  The other, 15-year-old Paula Cooper, was sentenced to death.
    Bill Pelke already had been sentenced.
    “Every time I thought about my grandmother after she was killed, I thought about how she died, about how she was butchered on her dining room floor.  It was so painful,” said Pelke.
    Pelke thought Cooper’s death sentence would ease his pain.  It didn’t.
    One day at work, about 18 months after his grandmother died, Pelke was sitting in a crane at Bethlehem Steel.
    He began to think about all of the death he had seen – the deaths in Vietnam, and the death of his grandmother.
    Images began to flicker in his mind.
    He saw Paula Cooper’s grandfather crying in the courtroom and saying over and over, “They’re going to kill my baby.”
    He saw Cooper crying.
    Then he saw his grandmother crying.
    He remembered the stories his grandmother used to tell him about Jesus’ love and compassion.
    He remembered that Jesus told His disciples they would be forgiven as they forgave.
    He remembered that Jesus told Peter to forgive seventy times seven.
    He remembered that Jesus, dying on the cross, asked God to forgive those who crucified Him.
    Pelke sat in the crane crying and praying.  He asked God to give him the stength to forgive.
    “I have seen a lot of death, I thought.  Too much.  I didn’t want any more,” Pelke said.
    “As I sat there, I realized that I no longer wanted Paula to die.  God touched my heart and it was automatic.  I wanted to forgive her.”
    At the time, Paula Cooper was the youngest woman on death row in America.  An Italian TV crew was working on a story about her.
    Pelke was invited to Rom to talk about the murder.  He stayed a few weeks and talked to everyone he could about compassion and forgiveness.
    Soon, there were 2 million Italian signatures on a petition asking Indiana officials to commute Cooper’s death sentence.  In 1989, Pope John Paula II appealed to the governor of Indiana, who commuted Cooper’s sentence to 60 years in prison.
    Pelke wasn’t finished.  “My grandmother taught me that forgiveness is a way of life,” he said.
    A few years ago, Pelke founded an organization called “Journey of Hope…From Violence to Forgiveness.”
    Each year, Pelke and dozens of other murder victims’ family members travel to talk about their experiences of forgiveness.
    This month, they are in Tennessee.
    “Some people think we must not have loved the people we lost, but killing someone else just causes more victims and more violence,” he said.
    Pelke corresponds with Paula Cooper in prison.  He was allowed to see her once.
    “She knows she can’t take it back and she has to take her punishment, but she’s very remorseful,” Pelke said.  “She asked me if she could pray for my family.  I pray for hers.”
    Pelke met Cooper’s grandfather a few years ago.  They looked through the family photo album,  laughed and cried.
    “Forgiveness is very liberating,” Pelke said.
    “Now, when I think about my grandmother, I don’t think of how she died.  I think of how she lived, and how she wanted me to live.”
    If we should have learned anything in this century, it’s this: Faith begets hope, and healing.