The Deeds of Mercy
If there is anything that reveals the apparent contradictions of the mystery we call forgiveness, it is this thorny “offense.” Most of us find it difficult to let go even of relatively small grudges, yet restoration or reconciliation – call it what you will – demands not only that, but the active attempt to embrace a person whom it would be far easier to avoid. when miami naTive chris Carrier was ten, a former family employee abducted him, assaulted him, shot him in the head, and left him to die in the Florida Everglades. But that isn’t the end of the story: Friday, December 20, 1974, was no ordinary day. It was the last day of school before the Christmas holidays, and we got out early.
I stepped off the bus at 1:15 p.m. and began to walk home. An older-looking man who happened to be walking towards me on the sidewalk appeared to recognize me. Just two houses away from home, he introduced himself as a friend of my father. He told me he was hosting a party for my father and asked if I would help him with some decorations. I agreed and walked back up the street with him to the local youth center where he had parked his motor home. Once inside the vehicle, I put down my things and made myself comfortable.
The Miami I knew quickly disappeared as he drove north. In an area removed from suburban traffic, he stopped on the side of the road. He claimed that he had missed a turn. He handed me a map, instructing me to look for a certain number, and went into the back of the motor home “to get something.” As I studied the map and waited, I felt a quick sting in the shoulder, and then another. I turned around to see him standing behind me with an ice pick in his hand. Then he pulled me out of my seat and onto the floor. Kneeling over me, he stabbed me in the chest several times. I pleaded with him to stop and promised him that if he would let me go, I wouldn’t say anything.
I was immeasurably relieved when he stood up. He told me that he was going to drop me off somewhere, after which he would call my father and let him know where I was. He allowed me to sit in the back of the motor home as he drove. Yet I was painfully aware that this situation was beyond my control. When I asked him why he was doing this to me, he said that my father had “cost him a great deal of money.” After driving for another hour or so, he turned onto a dusty side road. He told me this was where my father would pick me up. We walked out together into the bushes and I sat down where he told me I should sit. The last thing I remembered was him walking away.
Six days later, the evening of December 26, Chris was found by a local deer hunter. His head was bloody and his eyes were black. He had been shot through the head. Miraculously, there was no brain damage, but he didn’t remember being shot. In the years that followed, Chris struggled daily with the insecurity of knowing that his abductor was still at large.
Everywhere I went, the fear of what was around the corner, what was lurking in the shadows, haunted me. I was alarmed by every noise and motion. Was that a dog? What was that – is it really just the wind? What was that creak in the next room? Was someone coming in our back door? For three years I spent every night without fail in a sleeping bag at the foot of my parents’ bed. Chris also had to come to terms with the physical limitations caused by his injuries: he was now blind in one eye and could no longer take part in contact sports. And as any teenager would, he worried about his appearance.
Chris resented public mention of his survival, and remembers wondering how this “miracle” could have left him so miserable. Then, at the age of thirteen, he underwent a change, and began to see his nightmare differently. He realized his injuries could have been much worse – in fact, he could have died. He also recognized that staying angry would never change anything. He decided to stop feeling sorry for himself, and to get on with his life instead.
Then, on September 3, 1996, Chris received a telephone call that changed his life once again. It was a detective from the Coral Gables police department, and he was calling to notify him that an elderly man at a local nursing home, David McAllister, had confessed to being his abductor. (He was, though in the eyes of the law there was never enough evidence to bring him to trial.) David had worked as an aide for an elderly uncle in the Carrier family, but had been fired on account of his drinking problems. Chris visited David the following day.
It was an awkward moment, walking into his room, but as soon as I saw him I was overwhelmed with compassion. The man I found was not an intimidating kidnapper, but a frail seventy-seven-year-old who had been blind for the last half-dozen years. David’s body was ruined by alcoholism and smoking –he weighed little more than sixty pounds. He had no family, or if he did, they wanted nothing to do with him, and no friends. The only material possessions he had were some pictures that kids in a nearby elementary school had drawn for him. David had a roommate, but they didn’t even know each other or communicate. Here was a man who faced death with only his regrets to keep him company.
When I first spoke to David, he was rather callous. I suppose he thought I was a police officer. A friend who had accompanied me wisely asked him a few simple questions that led to him admitting that he had abducted me. He then asked, “Did you ever wish you could tell that young boy that you were sorry for what you did?” David answered emphatically, “I wish I could.” That was when I introduced myself to him. Unable to see, David clasped my hand and told me he was sorry for what he had done to me. As he did, I looked down at him, and it came over me like a wave: Why should anyone have to face death without family, friends, the joy of life – without hope? I couldn’t do anything but offer him my forgiveness and friendship.
In the days that followed this dramatic meeting, Chris began to visit David as often as he could, usually bringing along his wife, Leslie, and their two daughters. The two men spent hours talking, reading, and even praying together, and as they did, the old man’s hardness gradually melted away.
Throughout that week I shared with him about the victories of my recovery, and about my life since the horrifying day he had tried to kill me. I’d graduated from high school, from college, and then from grad school. I had married; I had a beautiful wife and family. I shared these things with him so that he could understand, in the way the ancient Israelite Joseph tried to get his brothers to understand, after they had abandoned him, “That which you intended for evil, God has used for good.” I let him know that he had not ruined my life, in the end, and that there was nothing between us now.
Three weeks later, just hours after Chris had tucked his ailing friend into bed for the night, David died. Chris says it wasn’t hard for him to forgive, though the reporters who later took interest in his story still don’t understand how or why he did it. They admire his ability to forgive, but cannot understand what compelled him. They always go blank when the subject of forgiveness comes up, he says, and seem more comfortable focusing on the drama of his abduction and the details of his torture. But Chris knows why he forgave David:
There is a very pragmatic reason for forgiving. When we are wronged, we can either respond by seeking revenge, or we can forgive. If we choose revenge, our lives will be consumed by anger. When vengeance is served, it leaves one empty. Anger is a hard urge to satisfy and can become habitual. But forgiveness allows us to move on.
There is also a more compelling reason to forgive. Forgiveness is a gift – it is mercy. It is a gift that I have received and also given away. In both cases, it has been completely satisfying. when infamous “pick-ax murderer” Karla Faye Tucker was executed on February 3, 1998, in Huntsville, Texas, small clusters of death penalty protesters held a candle-light vigil. But many more of the hundreds gathered outside the prison were there to cheer her death. A cardboard sign waved by one man said it all: “May heaven help you. It’s sure as hell we won’t!”
Inside the prison, however, a man named Ron Carlson was praying for Karla – not in the witness room for her victims’ families, where he could have been, but in the one set aside for the family of the murderer. It has been two years since I met Ron and heard his remarkable journey from hatred to reconciliation, but what he told me sticks in my mind as if it were yesterday: Shortly after I came home one day at five after a hard day’s work – it was the 13th of July, 1983 – the phone rang. It was my father. He said, “Ronnie, you need to come over to the shop right away. We have reason to believe your sister has been murdered.” I was floored. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t even believe it when I saw her body being carried out of an apartment on television.
Deborah was my sister, and she raised me. My mother and father divorced when I was very young, and my mother died when I was six. I had no brothers – just one sister – so Deborah was very special. Very special.
Deborah made sure I had clothes to wear, and that there was food on the table. She helped me do my homework, and slapped me on the hand when I did something wrong. She became my mother.
Now she was dead, with dozens of puncture wounds all over her body, and the pick-ax that made them had been left in her heart. Deborah was not one to have enemies. She had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time. The murderers had come over to steal motor–cycle parts from the house where she was staying, and when they discovered Jerry Dean – the guy she was with – they hacked him to death. They were high on drugs. Then they discovered Deborah, so they had to kill her too…
Houston was in an uproar. Headlines screamed the gory details of the crime, and the entire city lived in fear. A few weeks later the murderers – two drug addicts named Karla Faye Tucker and Daniel Ryan Garret – were turned in by relatives. Subsequently tried and convicted, they were both sentenced to death by lethal injection. (Daniel later died in prison.) Still, Ron felt no relief: I was glad they were caught, of course, but I wanted to kill them myself. I was filled with sheer hatred, and I wanted to get even. I wanted to bury that pick-ax in Karla’s heart, just like she had buried it in my sister’s.
Ron says that he was a problem drinker and drug abuser before his sister’s death, but that after he buried her, he became more heavily involved than ever. Then, about a year later, his father was shot to death. I was often drunk, and I’d get high on LSD, marijuana, whatever I could get my hands on, as often as I could. I also got into a lot of fights with my wife. I was very angry. I even wanted to kill myself…
Then one night, I just couldn’t take it any more. I guess I had come to the point where I knew I had to do something about the hatred and rage that was building in me. It was getting so bad that all I wanted to do was destroy things and kill people. I was heading down the same path as the people who had killed my sister and my dad. Anyway, I opened a Bible, and began to read. It was really weird. I was high – I was smoking doobies and reading the word of God! But when I got to where they crucified Jesus, I slammed the book shut. For some reason it struck me like it never had before: My God, they even killed Jesus!
Then I got down on my knees – I’d never done this before – and asked God to come into my life and make me into the type of person he wanted me to be, and to be the Lord of my life. That’s basically what happened that night. Later I read more, and a line from the Lord’s Prayer – this line that says “forgive us as we forgive” – jumped out at me. The meaning seemed clear: “You won’t be forgiven until you forgive. I remember arguing to myself, “I can’t do that, I could never do that,” and God seemed to answer right back, “Well, Ron, you can’t. But through me you can.”
Not long after that I was talking on the phone with a friend, and he asked me if I knew that Karla was in town, at the Harris County Jail. “You ought to go down there and give her a piece of your mind,” he said. Now this friend didn’t know where I’d been going spiritually, and I didn’t tell him. But I did decide to go see Karla. When I got there, I walked up to her and told her that I was Deborah’s brother. I didn’t say anything else at first. She looked at me and said, “You Why Forgive?
are who?” I repeated myself, and she still stared, like she just couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Then she started to cry. I said, “Karla, whatever comes out of all this, I want you to know that I forgive you, and that I don’t hold anything against you.” At that point all my hatred and anger was taken away. It was like some great weight had been lifted off my shoulders. Ron says he talked with Karla at length, and that during their discussion he discovered that she, too, had recently come to believe in God, and that her faith had changed her whole outlook on life. It was then that he decided he would have to return and find out more about her:
At first I had just wanted to go in, forgive her, and move on, but after that first visit I needed to go back. I wanted to find out if she was really sincere about this Christian walk she claimed to be on. I also wanted to find out why people kill, why they murder each other. I never found that out, but I did find out that Karla was real. I also found out, through her, that people can change and that God is real. Karla’s mother had been a prostitute and a drug addict, and she’d introduced her daughter to all that when she was very young. Karla started shooting drugs when she was ten. It was only in prison that she turned her life around – through a ministry at the Harris County Jail that reached out to the women, gave them free Bibles, and helped them find something to live for.
Ron visited Karla on death row every second month or so for the next two years, and he also wrote letters to her. They were soon close friends. He remembers: People just couldn’t understand it. They said something was obviously wrong with me – that I should hate the person who killed Deborah, not reach out to her. One relative told me I was disgracing my sister’s memory, the way I was acting, and that she was probably rolling in her grave. Another made a public statement the day Karla was to be executed about how happy he and his family were to know that she would soon be dead. He said, “We have a saying in Texas – ‘What goes around, comes around.’”
Karla herself was mystified by Ron’s attitude toward her. Talking with a Dutch television crew who interviewed her shortly before her execution, she said: “It’s unbelievable. Amazing. Forgiveness is one thing. But to go beyond that and reach out to me – to actively love me…?” If anything, she found it easier to understand the thousands of Texans who wanted her dead:
I can understand their rage. Who wouldn’t? It’s an expression of their hurt and pain. And I know people don’t think I deserve forgiveness. But who does deserve it? I’ve been given a new life, and the hope – the promise – that this is not the final reality. Karla went to her death bravely, smiling as she made her last statement – “I am so sorry…I hope God gives you all peace through this” – and humming as she was strapped to the gurney and pumped with lethal chemicals.
As for Ron, he insists that it was useless to execute her: “It does no good whatsoever to kill anyone. It does not make our streets safer. It just makes more victims. Sure, I miss my sister. But I miss Karla too.”
CREDIT TO THE WRITER Johann Christoph Arnold