29 January 2012


My friend invited me to teach Vacation Bible School (VBS) at her church 10 years ago when I lived just outside of Baltimore. I had worked in youth ministry during college, so I naturally volunteered to help with the youth. She laughed and said, "No way. I'm putting you with the 4-year-olds."

The 4-year-olds?!?!

"There's no way you'll be able to handle the youth. They're from the streets," she said.

Now, I wasn't completely naive to the realities of urban living. I knew the youth and I would have very little in common. I definitely grew up in South Carolina's suburbia with kids calling me OREO because of my voice, my interests and my neighborhood. And The Wire wasn't even on television back then, so she was right that I had no real frame of reference for life on the streets. But these are church youth, I thought. How bad can it be?

But she refused to budge, so I reached into my Old MacDonald bag-o-tricks and tried to remember every delightful e-i-e-i-oh from my childhood. I put on my happy face and read through the lesson plans to prepare for the cute little tots. We were going to be talking about forgiveness, using the story of the prodigal son returning home.

The kids were sweet. We had games and music and plenty of Hi-C and animal crackers, so they were happy. I started a little rhythmic call-and-response with them after learning the lesson:

"When your brother or sister hits you, what do you do?"

"Forgive!" we all shouted together.

"When another kid calls you a name, what do you do?"


"When someone takes something from you, what do you do?"


That's when a sweet little girl jumped up-and-down raising her hand.

"And what about when someone drives by your house shooting at your window?" she asked.


I sat there staring at this sweet child in pink with barrettes dangling from her braided head. This sweet child whose only knowledge of anything driving by should be the delightful melody of "Pop Goes the Weasel" announcing that a van filled with ice cream is just around the corner. This sweet child who was waiting for my cue so that we could all shout out "forgive" together.

And I was silent. All of a sudden the easy answer wrapped up so politely in this VBS lesson plan seemed so hard to say.


As a group, we all talked a bit more about the drive-by shootings. The kids shared how they would drop to the floor, wait for their parents to crawl towards them and all huddle together. They had their drive-by plan down to a stop, drop and roll kind of science. In just four years.


Bishop Desmond Tutu says there is “no future without forgiveness.” It is truth. But just like so many other truths, it's easier to say than it is to embody. It's easier to shout in a sing-song way with 4-year-olds than it is to toss back at gang-bangers as bullets fly through your window.

It must be practiced. Daily. Practiced until it is our way of living. Practiced until it's natural. Practiced in the face of great difficulty until it's easier.

I write about a trip to Uganda in my book and share the stories of some of the most beautiful young women I've ever met.

I asked one girl for her prayer request, and she asked me to pray that she might forgive the LRA soldier who raped her.


I go on to write in the book:

I don’t want to paint a pretty picture of forgiveness—especially in a war-torn place. I think even the simple declarations of forgiveness and prayers for forgiveness that we heard in Gulu were steps on a very long road. This road will probably be filled with a lot of painful debris—memories that will embitter and frustrate once again. There are likely many hardships and unexpected bumps that may make the course of forgiveness seem frightening at times. This process may take longer than any of the forgivers imagined when they first chose forgiveness.

In the end, though, it’s the most beautiful road if you choose to take it. And the first sign of beauty begins in the choosing.

May we choose to practice forgiveness. Not the easy, polite church school answer kind of forgiveness, either. May we choose the messy hard road of forgiveness and release.



Heather Truett said...

What part of SC did you grow up in? I grew up outside of Columbia in a part of town that was mixed redneck and ghetto. Crazy, huh? I honestly felt more accepted and respected by the black girls and was often called "Black white girl." We're two sides of the coin, huh?

Ciona said...

That's so funny, Heather! I remeber you wanted black girl hair . . . :) i moved around SC quite a bit but mostly lived in Greenville. My father was the first black pastor in a predominantly white congregation (2500 members) since Reconstruction in SC Methodism. So the parsonage was in a predominantly white community, of course. I want to write more about this: how we assign language, actions and interests to race, and it's all really a fallacy. Did you read the article I linked?

a single step said...

thank you for writing this. love you.

karma1965 said...

forgiveness is kinda selfish, like love is...it really does a lot more for the forgiver, than the forgivee..two of my favorite paradoxes in virtue...

Ciona said...

so true, babe. so true.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your writings. Great insight and food for thought.

Connie said...

This must be a God-thing, Ciona!!!! It must be the message of the day, week, month, year! (I am really identifying with Karma

I went to a funeral yesterday! A funeral, YES, and the preacher preached about forgiveness. Yes, at a funeral of a Christian, baptized, wonderful woman! I didn't get it at first! I was pretty sure he was off-base! Then, a lady in the family stood up in the middle of the sermon and hugged another lady in the family!The entire family clapped and praised God. (I guess the pastor remembered that funerals are for the living!)He further stated, "Forgiveness gives freedom...and you will be shocked to discover that the person you are freeing is YOU! AND," he said, "the person you can't forgive has gone on with his/her life, happy and free, while you are stuck in unforgiveness!" He said it was so simple, yet so difficult. He was right!

Forgiving for his, my offender's, sake seemed like cheap grace to me but forgiving for God's sake and for my sake seemed so valuable!

During that sermon I TRULY forgave, not the fake stuff I said I had forgiven because it is what Chistians are to do, but authentic forgiveness. I forgave all the hurt and pain I inflicted on myself because I couldn't forgive the original person inflicting it on me. I left that funeral, (one that I didn't want to go to, by the way, because since my mother died, I just don't like funerals) and I walked away FREE! You see, forgiveness doesn't truly originate with us and the strange thing is that the person who hurt me the most taught me this long ago! (Oh, the irony!) Only God can truly forgive because only He is perfect! The rest of us are flawed, some more than others, but all imperfect nonetheless! And in The Lord's Prayer, the one Jesus taught, there is a little dangling codicil that says "Lord,...forgive us as we forgive others..." So if we don't forgive others, then God won't forgive us and every time we utter this prayer, we acknowledge this fact! So I think when we forgive, it is merely an act of humility and recognition of our own imperfection before God which prompts us to see others as we see ourselves, flawed but valuable! It grants us the grace we seek from God as we show that same grace to others.

I work with children and Jesus says, "unless we become as one of these..." So, bullets flying! Abuse! All sorts of pain! Tough stuff but children are amazingly resilient! Jesus was well aware! Kids can forgive just by our telling them to IF we love them more than the pain! Love erases pain! It's us, adults, who find it so taxing to our souls to forgive because I think the older we get, the more experienced we get and the more we know, the more right we believe we are and the more right we are, the more wrong others are! Sometimes we are just too right to love or be loved enough to be healed! Kids, on the other hand, are the "ambassadors of Quan" (hope I spelled that right, Cuba Gooding)! They just love because they are blank tablets learning everything, knowing nothing but the most important thing which makes them know everything! (Oh, the irony!)

So I'm going to try to be like a child long enough to become real once again, like I used to be before I became fake. Like the Velveteen Rabbit, I want to be an authentic child of God, one who loves enough to be forgiven!

Thanks for your beautiful article!Another confirmation from God that it is time to heal...Love how you see the world!

Kathy L. Gilbert said...

So beautiful, you have a lot to teach me about life and writing!

Anonymous said...

I thank God for this article, and know that as minister of the Gospel forgiveness is God's will. God loved us enough to send his son to the Cross for our sins, and then say forgive them for they know not what they do. Peter asked Jesus how many times should I forgive my brother until seven? Jesus answered not until seven, but until seventy times seven. The only way to be happy in Jesus is to trust and obey.

raphael said...

Wow. The things we learn from children!

Anonymous said...

Ciona, you've captured the challenge to any ministry of reconciliation. Hope in the urban and suburban areas is in teaching the children of God, all ages. Teach us! Love you.

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