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•To connect with the Peace and Justice Commission of Allen County, call 747-7422.
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The Peace and Justice Commission of Allen County sponsors “Heal the Land” services at the sites of local homicides.
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Urging victims’ families to forgive killers

Month in and month out, J. Patric Driscoll finds himself on Saturday mornings praying at the sites of Fort Wayne homicides.

The Fort Wayne man is a founder of the Peace and Justice Commission of Allen County, a nonprofit group that sponsors “Heal the Land” services to reclaim for good the sites of shootings and stabbings.

Even before the pace of such violence quickened in recent months, Driscoll, 62, had met and spoken with scores of family members of homicide victims – and even a few relatives of perpetrators.

He had come to the conclusion that scant resources existed to help such people navigate the thorny journey of losing a loved one to a violent death. There also are few resources to help people – and he realizes this is the hard part for many people to understand – through a long prison sentence or even execution for the crime.

“The thing that gets overlooked is not only is the person who is killed the victim but also the family of the person who is killed and the family of the one who does the killing,” Driscoll says.

So, Driscoll hopes to develop an additional focus for the commission, which grew out of the Peace and Justice Committee of Associated Churches of Fort Wayne and Allen County but is now independent of it. He would like the group to support the families of those involved in killings.

And, especially, he would like the group to help those families understand the need for, and power of, forgiveness.

That seems to go against people’s instincts, but it is necessary, Driscoll says.

“It allows for more healing in the families,” he says, “to remove the idea of vengeance.”

Toward that goal, the commission last month cosponsored a local visit by members of Journey of Hope … From Violence to Healing, a national nonprofit organization that spotlights and supports murder victims’ families who have chosen to forgive. The group also advocates against the death penalty.

Members, including founder and Indiana native Bill Pelke, told their stories March 10 at Plymouth Congregational Church-United Church of Christ.

Pelke, whose grandmother was killed in an attack in her Gary home by four teenage girls in 1984, says his life changed Nov. 2, 1986, when he realized he needed to forgive them to heal from the brutal event.

“It changed my whole life,” Pelke says of the decision, speaking during a telephone interview from his retirement home in Anchorage, Alaska.

“When Jesus said forgive 70 times 7, he meant that forgiveness should be a way of life, and I’ve tried to live that way since Nov. 2, 1986.”

Although Pelke originally supported the death penalty for the attack, he later fought to commute the sentence of the accused ringleader, Paula Cooper, and he has visited her in prison several times, including a trip this year.

She will be released, possibly as soon as June. Pelke supports her release.

“She’s not the same person she was 25 years ago, someone who was raised with a lot of hate and anger,” he says.

The woman got involved with a prison ministry group and was baptized Christian several months ago, he says.

“She’s at the right place (to be released), spiritually and mentally,” Pelke says. During their most recent visit, he adds, Cooper told him “there were a lot of people in her life she needed to forgive and that she learned a lot about forgiveness from me.”

Pelke says his grandmother’s Christian faith and his own – he is a member of the United Methodist Church – ultimately motivated his choice.

She loved sharing her faith, he says, and was known for having Bible studies in her home. Indeed, she had opened the door to her attackers thinking they were there for a class.

Pelke says he came to believe his grandmother would not have wanted Cooper’s elderly grandfather – who was taken from the courtroom after breaking down when he heard the death sentence pronounced – to have to endure having his granddaughter put to death. He says he has confidence the two would have bonded as fellow grandparents.

But ultimately, Pelke says, “forgiveness is kind of a selfish act.”

“Jesus didn’t preach forgiveness to benefit the bad guy. He did that for us” who have been wronged, he says.

“A lot of times, right after (a killing), people don’t want to think about forgiveness. They think they’ll be doing the guy a favor,” Pelke says.

“Heck, you can spend your life angry and mad. But if you live with that long enough, that hate and anger can destroy people. It can destroy not only you but the whole family.”

Driscoll, who is Roman Catholic, agrees. He says some may think that forgiving somehow diminishes the love for the person who was killed, but he says it can be a sign of how much that person was loved.

But it takes “a total re-education” to walk the path, and it must be done at one’s own pace, he says.

“It’s like grief. It doesn’t just go away. It takes time, and you can’t force it.”

But he thinks there is a role the commission can play in supporting those willing to try to forgive and in focusing the rest of the community on that idea instead of retribution.

He says the commission is working on a second visit by Journey of Hope in October and trying to connect with families and assemble a group of people qualified to help with counseling.

“We’re looking forward to facilitating things to connect people – churches and anybody who wants to be a part,” he says, adding he sees the effort as necessary because of the growing number of people in the community affected by killings.

“We have in our community, as small as we are, what seems … like random slaughter that doesn’t make sense to anyone, on any level. We have kids killing kids,” he says.

“Many of those who are affected know what’s happening, but they don’t know what to do about it. It doesn’t have to sit and fester. It can be channeled.

“If someone did that to my grandmother, my first response would be to take them by the throat,” Driscoll adds, referring to the situation Pelke overcame.

“I believe I still might react that way. But I no longer feel that’s the correct response.”

rsalter@jg.net

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