Tonight as we arrived at Rainbow Prison for Women, dozens of bright yellow sunflowers in large white tubs were lined up at the end of the driveway like cones in a race. As the announcement was made on the loud speaker that we’d arrived, each woman was given a sunflower at the check-in window. Just a few yards away where our meeting was held, each one walked in with their bright, bold sunflowers! It was a night set apart with a token of hope in held in their hands, and a story in the shadows that would grip my heart like no other.
I chatted with a new inmate named Susan, a tanned, vibrant 40 year old with an athletic build and sassy short hair resembling a professional tennis player. She shocked me by revealing she had nine children! “One passed,” she blurted out as we were talking. Shocked again, I inquired, “Which one?” She briefly exposed the guts of her heart wrenching story. Her eleven year old twin daughter was tragically raped by a sixteen year old boy and uncontrollably developed a staff infection … and was gone three months later. I was speechless. The gleam in Susan’s eye startled me with hope.
I stood there in utter shock and repulsion, yet her expression held my attention as she continued, “My daughter’s story is one of forgiveness.” Then it happened. A spotlight shined on this moment as I intuitively knew Susan’s daughter’s story had a powerful ending. My plan for the evening talk flashed before me, now including a new slot for her to share her story with us.
Joel, my husband, finished up singing Heart of Worship, and Susan whispered to me, “That song is always special to me as it was played at my daughter’s funeral.” Then she added, “She also requested a special video be played at her service.” Susan proceeded to tell us that her daughter had one obsession the week before her death, and that was forgiveness for the boy who hurt her. An eleven year old who was dying of an infection by a rapist was moved with one final mission before she left the earth. “Mom, I want you to get the family together to make a video of me that I can show in court. This is my last request for all of us to forgive the boy that did this to me.” Her Mom said, “I couldn’t fight it, it was a ‘God thing.” Her daughter made the video for the court asking that the judge not give a long sentence, that she’d forgiven him, and her hope was that he would get help and not spend the rest of his life in prison.
As Susan shared her story I felt the weight of transformation beyond what is normal, natural, or ordinary. We hear stories every week, and some stand out from the others; the fury of this crime had gripped her husband whom she admitted was on a two week watch where someone was with him at all times, to prevent him from taking revenge against the young man who harmed his daughter. Looking around the room as Susan shared this with the other inmates, I asked the rest of the women to pick up their sunflowers and gather together in a circle. Each one took a turn speaking to the Susan, telling her how her bravery, honesty, and hope had helped them that night. Susan said to the women, “You know, there’s a lot that we have to put up with here in prison, but ever since my daughter died and I remember how she forgave, I tell myself when stuff happens, ‘It’s just not a big deal.’ It puts all the other challenges in life in perspective for me … and it will for you too.”
The women stood in silence, some weeping. They held their sunflowers as we prayed asking God for the strength to forgive those who have offended, used, or hurt us remembering the choice of an amazing eleven year old girl. We sensed her presence, her essence and she was very real.
On the way home I remembered a friendship where a wall had come between us. I remembered the buckets of sunflowers and hoped that in time, forgiveness would work a little miracle there too. “It’ just not that big a deal,” in the scheme of things. “God has us in the palm of His hands and He’ll take care of us.”