Monday, October 23rd 2017

Forgiving the Unforgivable: My prison reckoning

When I first met my “enemy,” I recognized him instantly. Then I leaned within inches of his face to hear his apology

prison.jpgBY TOM HUDGENS, episode 3 (of 5) — It took a half-hour to drive to Chesterson Unit, the prison in Huntsville, Texas that has housed my sister’s killer, John Black,* for thirty years.

Rick Warr, the mediator with the Criminal Justice department, picked me up at my hotel. We drove through the main entrance, past cornfields and cattle, and eventually reached the sprawling prison buildings, all made of yellow brick.

My meeting with Black — more than a year in the making, logistically, and many more than that, spiritually — was to take place at 10:00 a.m.

We were taken to a stark, fluorescent-lit room used for officer trainings, where we waited for an endless 30 minutes. An inmate brought a tray with three pitchers — water, sweet iced tea, fruit punch.

Eventually, in walked John Black, followed by a guard. In a flash, I recognized him from the grainy newspaper photos I had seen years ago:  The same tall, thin frame, slightly stooped. He wore baggy, white elastic-waist pants, pajama-like, and loose pullover. His dark brown hair had a touch of gray. He wore thick glasses. He looked nervous.

I stood up and reached to shake his hand.  “Hello John,” I said. “I’m Tom.”

We sat across from each other at a folding table. Rick Warr sat at the head, between us.

Black took out a letter. He apologized that it might be inadequate. He read in a soft voice with little intonation, in halting, staccato bursts. I leaned in just inches from his face to hear him:

maximum-security-prison.jpgMaybe it is best to simply be blunt and confess openly that I am guilty of the crime I am in prison for.  Your sister was truly an innocent victim . . . I know that moment in time has forever affected and changed many lives, yours, your family’s, my family’s, my own . . .

I cannot count the days (months, years) I spent wishing and hoping and praying that I could somehow go back and change what happened . . .  Difficult though reality may be, it is where we must live.

My crime against your sister was not something I had planned . . .  She was a total stranger to me and it was pure chance that led our paths to cross that night.  Her death was a tragic mistake, a terrible crime . . . and yet, her death has become the motivating factor behind the change in my life . . . I don’t mean the circumstances of where I now live, but in who I am today as a human being . . .

Let me just profess my faith to you, Tom, as a Christian.  I believe wholeheartedly that Jesus died for the sins of this world and that includes my sin against your sister.

. . . It was in the County Jail prior to my trial that the real horror of my crime came home to me, and led me to fall down on my knees seeking the Lord.

It is because of your sister that I gave my life to Christ, and now fully understand how very precious and valuable life is.

. . . I do believe [God] is ultimately in control of our destiny and it is a fact that He works through people.  Your sister, even in death, is a part of this because she is a part of who I have become.  She remains a beacon, and helps to keep me focused on the right path before me.  She is a constant reminder of the evil I have done, but she is also a very real influence to do something positive with the life I have.

Tom, I don’t know much about you, other than what I glean from your letter, but you opened the door to this communication and I hope it will not be closed once our meeting has ended.

. . . I, too, desire to live in a world where people can talk to one another. There was a time when I did not know how to communicate . . . I think, through you, your sister still has something yet to say to me.

I can only pray that through our meeting, God will somehow give you a peace and sense of healing and comfort that can only come from Him . . . It is my hope that through (this meeting) . . . we will both be able to grow and learn and become better human beings.  I know I have no right to expect it, but I do hope and pray that, maybe, one day, you might be able to find it in your heart to forgive me for what I have done.

Sincerely, John P. Black: #927B64; April 29, 2008

Toward the end, his eyes filled with tears, and he wiped them with his sleeve.  My own eyes welled up, too.

Now, it was my turn to talk.

*Some names have been changed to protect family members

Tom Hudgens lives and works in Marin County, CA, and attends retreats at Spirit Rock. This series was adapted from an article Hudgens wrote for Spirit Rock’s newsletter.

NEXT: Getting to know my sister’s killer

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3 Comments on “Forgiving the Unforgivable: My prison reckoning”

  1. I keep trying to wait to say something until everyone else has spoken -- but I never was long on patience. Wow. I'm reading John P. Black profess his faith in his letter... and because of his crime, I want to deny him that peace of mind. I want to say, "Yeah -- he's born again...aren't they all." That's how small I can be. And then, at the same time, I look at his words and know that he wrote and re-wrote that letter a million times before it ever made it to Tom's hands. How many nights and days did that man write that letter in his heart and in his head before the desire of forgiveness entered Tom's heart/mind/soul...and poised both of them at the same table. I look at those cages and know that the boy that went to our group is in one of them.

    My apologies for not waiting -- just wanted to touch back. Thank you for sharing this.


  2. SuAnn. I also had a similar reaction at first. But then I thought: "People use what ever language and images they can to express the mystery of inner transformation." While I question the "jesus died for my sins" idea, John's later words do speak of a possible realization of something transformative that may be going on in him. I cannot judge that. I'd have to see what he does with his life, how he behaves with others in jail. It could very well be that the Spirit will work through him even though I use different language than he does.

    Tom, I am very inspired by this series, and more so, by your journey that inspired it.


  3. Forgiveness is a very powerful issue, that has quaked me beyond words. It is challenging to forgive others who choose to just invade others and use them. As well as invade them and be irresponsible for there damages too. I must relocate so not to be around them, but they have cost so much to experience trauma, sobo pigs they are of the dark side with there black magic.

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