- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 12, 2006

To err is human, to forgive divine, wrote the poet Alexander Pope. I could not agree more. To forgive is divine. It is also next to impossible.

Yet, even in today’s world, torn as it is by tales of eye-for-an-eye retribution, some people manage to forgive with amazing grace.

Two news stories offer contrasting, yet similarly illuminating lessons in the value of that most demanding virtue, the virtue of forgiveness.

One lesson comes from the Amish of rural Pennsylvania. The other comes from a couple of street gangs in a public housing development in Washington, D.C.

On Oct. 2, a deranged gunman burst into a one-room schoolhouse in the Amish community of Nickel Mines, Pa. He lined up 11 young girls and shot each of them before taking his own life. Witnesses say the oldest girl, 13-year-old Marian Fisher, bravely said, “Shoot me first” in an attempt to buy time for the younger students. Then her 11-year-old sister, Barbie, who would survive with wounds to her shoulder, hand and leg, said, “Shoot me next.”

Yet, the girls’ families and the rest of their Amish community responded to that breathtaking violence with acts that can only be called extraordinary, at least by those of us who are not Amish. As they grieved, the Amish mounted a horse-and-buggy caravan to visit the family of the shooter with offers of food and condolences. In their Pennsylvania Dutch dialect, all deaths are “Gottes Wille,” God’s will, the Amish said. The killer’s family members are victims, too.

As painful as most of us would find it to recover from such a tragedy while bearing such a charitable attitude toward the perpetrator or his family, the Amish of Nickel Mines offer an inspiring illustration of how it can be done. So does the other lesson of forgiveness, just a couple hours of driving to the south in the nation’s capital.

Back in January 1997, Washington found it had not become too jaded after years of gang-related violence to be shocked by the abduction and murder of 12-year-old Darryl Dayan Hall. It was the seventh homicide in two years in the Benning Terrace public housing development on the city’s Southeast side. The neighborhood braced itself for a violent retaliation. Hall’s killers were tried and convicted, but the expected street payback never came.

Instead, soon after Hall’s death, some local ex-offenders and other men who had been working with at-risk youths took to the streets. They talked leaders of the two rival “crews” into a mediation session.

The truce talks were held on neutral turf, the downtown offices of the nonprofit National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this month as a conservative alternative to the civil rights movement to which its founder, social activist Robert L. Woodson Sr., once belonged.

The meeting began with a prayer. The ground rules included no guns, no profanity and no name-calling. But those were easy concessions compared to the big one that the gang bangers had to make: No retaliation. There can be no break in the cycle of violence without forgiveness.

Now, almost a decade later, the truce has worked. Until recently, at least, there has been no resumption of gang-related homicides in Benning Terrace and the National Center has helped establish other “Violence-Free Zones” in high schools and neighborhoods in other cities across the country.

“A couple of years ago, the Department of Education commissioned a study to find a common profile of high school killers,” Mr. Woodson said. “They didn’t find a common profile, but they did find that the predators almost always told others what they were going to do before did it.”

The key to Mr. Woodson’s program are “youth advisers,” usually young men, sometimes ex-offenders, who establish lines of communications with at-risk teens, listen for the “buzz” that indicates violence may be in its early developing stages and act to stop trouble before it happens.

That’s one of the many lessons I’ve learned from Mr. Woodson’s organization as I’ve followed his work with community groups. If the violence with which he deals were inflicted on black Americans by white bigots, we undoubtedly would see a stampede of media accompanied by the Revs. Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and others arriving to demand federal investigations of the “hate crimes.” But white bigots don’t have to kill black youths today. Other black youths are doing a horribly effective job of that on their own.

Poor urban neighborhoods like Benning Terrace don’t usually have a lot in common with rural areas like Nickel Mines. But these days, they both offer a valuable lesson in how to bring peace through forgiveness. Otherwise, as we can see elsewhere in our war-torn world, the violence never ends.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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