I choose forgiveness: A mother’s case for bringing lessons from South African apartheid healing to communities affected by gun violence

Written for The Good News Experiment by Lisa D. Daniels,
Founder and Director of The Darren B. Easterling Center for Restorative Practices in Chicago

Nominated for The Good News Experiment by Monalisa Smith,
Founder and President of Mothers for Justice and Equality in Boston

“So, your Honor, I ask you to please show this young man leniency as you decide his sentence.”

These were the closing words of my victim impact statement to the judge presiding over the sentencing of the young man who was found guilty of the murder of my youngest son, Darren Easterling.

I wrote them with the heart of a mother who knows that none of us is perfect. I spoke them with an unwavering belief that none of our lives should be defined by our worst mistakes.

That applies to Darren, not only my loving son, but an affectionate father, funny brother, talented athlete, good friend and a 25-year-old who had a drive to be so much more than the headlines that instead emphasized his own poor choices that cost him his life in Park Forest, IL on July 22, 2012. That belief also applies to the young man who was found guilty of Darren’s murder.

I had told the judge that there were two things I knew for sure. The first was that no matter what choices Darren made, I knew that he didn’t deserve to die that day because of the worst decision of his life. The second thing I knew was that the young man I was facing in the courtroom didn’t deserve to spend years in prison for having made the worst decision of his life that day. He deserved another chance.

“Because the truth is that things could have gone differently that day and this young man could have just as easily lost his life and Darren would be sitting in that seat needing someone to speak on his behalf,” I had said. “I am a mother and I know the heart of a mother. So I will speak from a mother’s heart for a child who made a horrible, horrible choice.”

That day, I chose forgiveness. Today, I continue to choose forgiveness.

It has been almost six years since Darren’s passing. While those words of mercy came immediately for me, my family and I still reel from the collateral damage that has been done — and continues to be done — in our much loved city of Chicago. Together, we belong to neighborhoods that experienced 650 murders last year. And I have intimately gotten to know over the last several years that when harm is done, it’s not just done to an individual but to an entire community of people who are left to pick up the pieces.  

Photo of Lisa D. Daniels, Courtesy of The Darren B. Easterling Center

Photo of Lisa D. Daniels, Courtesy of The Darren B. Easterling Center

I recently listened to an audiobook with words that rang so loudly for me that I was compelled to order the physical copy to study it further, highlight it, write in it and probably do all of those things over again. “The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World” by Desmond Tutu and his daughter Mpho Tutu digs deep into the unexpected healing that took place after the bloodshed from apartheid in South Africa. The Tutus’ recommended path — or “four pillars” — include telling the story, naming the hurt, granting forgiveness and reconciling or relinquishing the relationship. From my experience in losing Darren, I know this path toward forgiveness to be true. From my experience with local women at our Center for Restorative Practices in Darren’s name, I know this path toward healing to be true.

The more I listened, the more I thought about the communities in the city of Chicago that have been so drastically divided over violence — from perpetrators and law enforcement to community leaders and family members living with shame, guilt and the loss of a child to violence or prison.

I feel an urgency today to emphasize that these steps toward healing and forgiveness are so vitally important. Without them, there is no way for change to happen in Chicago. We’ve become numb to these experiences until they hit our doorstep. And even when they do, there seems to be this acceptance that this is just where we are; these are just the times we are in.  

In October 2017, I had the honor of attending a national conference on “Empowering Women to Action” by Mothers for Justice and Equality in Boston. As I sat shoulder to shoulder with these strong women who also experienced unimaginable loss, I realized that we’re all one. We’re all connected. I think that the sooner humanity begins to recognize that we are more alike than we are different, we’ll see a shift in the way that we behave and the way that we treat each other.

To spark a shift, in July, the month of Darren’s passing, The Darren B. Easterling Center for Restorative Practices will host a Truth and Reconciliation summit inspired by the best practices of South African apartheid healing. The Center will open its doors to individuals who have been impacted by violence and offer keynote speeches and breakout sessions with opportunities for the people of Chicago to learn and live out the Tutus’ four pillars of forgiveness. In addition, the Center is planning an ongoing forgiveness curriculum for mothers who have lost children to violence.

In the days following inspiring marches and walkouts in our cities and across the country, please join me in acknowledging that continued momentum in our beloved communities cannot happen without this healing. Please join me in choosing to forgive and be forgiven.

Lisa D. Daniels is Founder and Executive Director of The Darren B. Easterling Center for Restorative Practices in Chicago. For more information on the Center’s curriculum, Truth and Reconciliation Summit or annual benefit, please visit dbefoundation.org

Monalisa Smith is Founder and President of Mothers for Justice and Equality in Boston. For more information on MJE’s services including its national conference, please visit mothersforjusticeandequality.org

For more information on The Good News Experiment, to follow honorees’ stories or nominate an exceptional neighborhood innovator, please visit andreacalebooks.com/blog