Set Free by Forgiveness
Set Free by Forgiveness
The Aurora gunman had wounded his body, but his stepdad was still tearing at his soul.
I sat on my bed with my Bible, trying to tear my eyes off the T-shirt crumpled on a chair beside me. The shirt was stained—with blood. A few weeks earlier, I’d survived one of the worst mass shootings in American history, at the Century movie theaters in Aurora, Colorado.
A gunman had burst into a theater and fired dozens of rounds from a shotgun, a semiautomatic rifle and a 40-caliber handgun, killing 12 people. I was shot in the shoulder, one of 58 injured. My friend Rebecca, who’d come with me that night to watch the new Batman movie, was one of the dead.
Now my shoulder was healing. My heart was slowly healing. Even my soul seemed to be healing. At least I knew it would heal if I could take some time to pray and collect myself.
That’s why I was in my bedroom, clutching my Bible and staring at my T-shirt. I’d kept the shirt as proof I’d survived that nightmare. Somehow, God had saved me.
Yes, but saved me for what? My Bible was open to II Corinthians: “For it is God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness.’” My bedroom was dark. It was daytime, but I’d pulled the blinds and closed the door. I wanted to be alone.
The days after the shooting had been a blur of media interviews, people rushing to help. Somewhere in there I’d said something about forgiving the killer. After that, all anyone wanted to ask was, “Do you forgive him, Marcus? How can you forgive something like that?”
I’d become known as the victim who forgave the killer. Inside, I was numb. For some reason, every time I read that passage about light and darkness, I heard something else: Who do you really need to forgive, Marcus?
That was the question, wasn’t it? I knew forgiveness was the path I should take as a Christian. But James Holmes, the suspect with the dyed orange hair and crazed eyes, wasn’t the only one I needed to forgive.
I’d carried my own darkness into that theater. A lifetime’s worth. Who did I need to forgive? I closed my eyes and remembered.
My parents weren’t married when I was born. In fact, my dad was engaged to another woman. He married her and walked out of my life. By the time I was old enough to know such things, my mom had married another man, Herbert Weaver.
He’d been in the military, then went to work for the finance division of General Motors. He earned a good salary and seemed stable and upright. But Herbert was a monster. After he and Mom had two kids of their own, he treated me like an outcast.
The abuse started with yelling. Then came vicious whippings with an extension cord. Then burns with an iron. I was just seven the first time I ran away from home.
Herbert always found me and dragged me back. He chained me to my bed. Once, he filled a trash can with concrete and chained me to that. He abused Mom too. We were all terrified of him.
The only way I knew to fight back was by acting out. I smoked, drank, got in fights, shoplifted. Once, I stole Herbert’s car and crashed it. He broke off a piece of fence and beat me with it. We were like opponents in the wrestling ring, unwilling to let each other go.
Finally, after graduating from high school, I fled Virginia Beach, where we lived. I got a good job in Washington, D.C. But, like I’d do with almost every other job, I soon sabotaged myself. Always the damage inside me won out and I’d do something stupid, walk away or get in trouble.
For years I wandered from place to place, job to job, running away from everything but myself.
I ended up in Colorado. Then one of my sisters, Herbert’s biological daughter, was diagnosed with liver failure. She came forward and said Herbert had sexually abused her when she was young. He was sent to prison. He could rot there for all I cared.
My sister passed away in 2001. Losing her prompted me to try to straighten out my life. I decided to become an X-ray tech and won a scholarship to earn an associate’s degree. I was baptized in 2005, while in school. But I didn’t read the Bible and I didn’t understand what it meant to submit to God’s will. Not then.
I was still doing my own thing after graduation. I fell in with a couple of guys involved in petty crime. Before I knew it, I was doing cocaine and dealing drugs to feed my habit.
I was caught, tried and jailed. The first thing I did in my cell was grab a Bible. Over the next 11 months, I went to jailhouse Bible studies, truly discovering how to become a follower of Christ.
I was released and moved into a homeless shelter. Before long, I was its manager. I went to church, studied the Bible and reached out to other ex-cons. I met a woman named Rebecca Wingo, a former Air Force linguist who was beautiful, smart, grounded, and really seemed to like me.
She had this uncanny ability to get to the heart of the matter, maybe because she was studying to be a social worker. When I confided in her about the abuse I’d suffered, she heard even what I didn’t say.
“I know your stepdad did terrible things to you,” she said. “But you’ve got to let the past go, or it’s going to keep holding you back.” Although we hadn’t known each other long, we were becoming close friends when we decided to go see The Dark Knight Rises at the Century theater in Aurora.
I opened my eyes. my room was dark. Dark like the theater. As often happened when I let my guard down, memories of the shooting swarmed my mind. I saw the gunman’s silhouette stride across the movie screen. I heard the pop of his gun—movie bullets sound nothing like the real thing.
It was all so surreal, a nightmare mingling of screams and twisting bodies blurred by smoke from the smoke bombs the killer had tossed into the theater. In a pause while he reloaded I tried to help Rebecca. She’d been shot.
I picked her up. I staggered toward the exit. I hardly felt the bullet go through my shoulder. I dropped Rebecca. I couldn’t pick her up again. By the time I was outside the theater—I don’t remember getting there—I couldn’t find her. She lay where I’d left her.
The blood on my shirt was brown now. Stiff. Did I keep that shirt because it reminded me of survival? Or of failure? I’d failed to save Rebecca. And every time I thought about that night, I got confused about the silhouette in front of the screen.
I knew it was the killer. But to me it looked like Herbert Weaver. It looked like a monster out to destroy every good thing I had, including this new life I was making for myself outside prison.
Forgiving the killer was one thing. Newscasters said he was a troubled loner. I could leave his fate in God’s hands. But what about my stepdad? Why should I forgive him? He’d tormented me my whole life. Why should getting shot in a movie theater mean I had to forgive the man I hated more than anything in the world?
I looked at my Bible again. “For it is God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness.’” Sunlight glowed through the slats of my blinds. Dimly I heard the world passing by outside.
Why, I wondered for the thousandth time, had I survived and Rebecca died? Another question, another memory, more torment—all of it balled up inside that dark silhouette surrounded by the light of the screen. My questions were surrounded by God’s own insistent question: Who do you need to forgive, Marcus?
For one terrifying moment I let the silhouette in front of the screen take the shape of Herbert Weaver. I let him stride right up to me, carrying not a gun but a piece of fence, an extension cord, a chain. And I realized he was nothing more than that—a silhouette. A shadow from my past. He hadn’t laid a hand on me in years.
The gunman had wounded my body. But all these years later, Herbert Weaver was still tearing away at my soul. He damaged me because I let him. Because, like a wrestler, I refused to let him go.
“Do you forgive him, Marcus?” The reporters’ words echoed in my mind. I looked at my shirt. At my Bible. At the light behind the blinds. The silhouette was gone. In its place I saw plain old Herbert Weaver, a man who lashed out at others because he couldn’t face his own torment.
His fate was in God’s hands too. I could let him go. I could let God’s light fill the shadow in my soul.
I took a breath. I closed my Bible, setting it beside my bloodstained shirt. I opened the blinds; sunlight streamed in. It was a beautiful summer day. I knew it wouldn’t be long before James Holmes had a court date. My phone would ring and the reporters would ask their question again.
I knew what my answer would be. And this time, I knew exactly what it meant.
When you let success live in your spirit, God will do what you once considered impossible.