When Joyce Villeneuve was just a young girl, she witnessed horrific violence between the Ugandan government and the civilian resistance. On August 4, 1972, Idi Amin, the President of Uganda, ordered Indians to leave the country. Joyce and her family fled for their lives and landed in Seychelles.
Their new life was vastly different from their old life. They went from living a comfortable life in Uganda to living in poverty as refugees. Shortly after their escape, Joyce’s mother developed a dependency on alcohol, which led to physical abuse. Meanwhile, Joyce’s father struggled to take care of his family and work them out of the poverty they suffered.
Joyce’s mother continued to spiral downward despite her father’s attempts to provide care for her. The turning point came when her mother’s rage threatened Joyce’s life. Shortly after, she began to slowly seek help and open up about her depression and repressed anger of when she was abused as a child.
There are two things you cannot be in the traditional Black church: a gay male and a pregnant teen. Let me cut straight to the point to avoid off-topic debates — although, according to God’s Word, these two individuals have sinned, our decision to rank their sins as the highest on our list of unforgivables is misinformed and potentially destructive.
Yes, I know this scripture: “Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable” (Lev. 18:22, NIV).
Or this: “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control your own body[a] in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God” (1 Thess. 4:3-5, NIV).
But I also know this one: “Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble” (1 Peter 3:8, NIV).
The fundamental error in the way we approach sexual sin in the church is that we often fail to allow God to be the judge and redeemer and instead expect for the guilty parties to grovel before us for forgiveness. GO AHEAD, READ THAT TWICE.
God forbid that the gay community thinks they can get married and be like us. And for Pete’s sake, don’t these horny teens realize they’re ruining their lives and bringing another life into the world to share in their misery? But how many models of solid marriage and physical self-control do we see from our religious and civic leaders? As Wil LaVeist stated in his article, “Gay Marriage Paranoia,”conformity to the world should be a bigger concern to Christians than attempting to impose our values on it. It’s important to preach righteousness from the pulpit, but it’s just blowing smoke if you cannot present a proper example of holy living.
What’s more, so many churches present paradoxes that confuse the younger generations. They condemn homosexuality from the pulpit but employ obviously gay worship leaders and attend conferences featuring celebrity preachers who have been embroiled in sinful scandals. Two things are happening here. On one hand, a pastor feels a responsibility to condemn the sin, but on the other hand they have a heart to restore the lost. Unfortunately, they often clumsily handle this in the pulpit and are more likely to push away someone that could benefit from their sensitivity to the issue.
Others are less pure in their motives. Many people feel like a person cannot be pardoned until they have fully received the punishment for their sin. They feel they have a responsibility to rebuke the guilty party until that person feels absolutely worthless. When is the last time God verbally assaulted you? Think about it, that last time you did that ugly thing that you’re thankful no one else knows about, God forgave you the same as the time your issues became a public spectacle.
When Jesus confronted the adulterous woman regarding her transgression, he simply said, “Go and sin no more” (John 8:1-11). He knew that true repentance would be determined not by how much sorrow that woman exhibited over her failure, but by how she chose to live her life from then on.
Perhaps we could learn something from Jesus’ response.
Is there caution tape around your church? On Sunday morning, does it feel more like a courthouse where people are tried and sentenced than a hospital where the Great Physician can work His miracles?
Let’s try this in our churches. Let’s create a space where people can be honest and learn from their mistakes. A place where they can confess their sins and heal without fear of condemnation.
If we find ourselves judging someone or feeling self-righteous because we beat up some poor,misguided transgressor with Scripture, let’s remember that it’s God’s job to judge and convict. And let’s also remember the sins that person didn’t see in us, and join them in rejoicing over the gift of God’s forgiveness.
Though the facts pointed to their guilt, I could not in good conscience implicate the two men who stuck a gun in my neck and stole my money. But I could forgive them.
A white woman is raped by a black man in North Carolina. During the assault, she studies his face, determined to bring him to justice. She later identifies a suspect both in photos and in-person line-ups. Only she’s wrong. An innocent man spends 11 years in jail before he’s exonerated by DNA evidence. His response? Forgiveness. Now they are close friends who speak out for reform within our law enforcement and criminal justice system. It’s not a made-for-TV movie. It’s a two-part segment on 60 Minutes that still blows my mind as I think about it.
And no, it’s not as predictable as white-woman-thinks-all-black-men-look-alike. That definitely happens, and folks have been falsely accused as a result. But in this case, seen side-by-side, the real culprit and the falsely accused bear a striking resemblance — so much so that when they were both in jail, other inmates and staff confused the two. No, this is a story about the frailty of human memory and its malleability — whether by conscious coercion or flawed investigative technique.
And then there’s the part where Ronald Cotton forgives Jennifer Thompson after spending 11 years in jail on her testimony.
(And I’m not using that name in vain.)
This report brought back memories of the night almost two years ago.
I wrote about that night for the Sojourners blog shortly afterward, but something I didn’t write about at the time was how quickly the police apprehended the suspects in my case. In fact, within hours of my mugging, I was taken for a “show-up” at the site of their arrest on the other side of D.C. I had described two African American males, one wearing a camouflage jacket and holding what looked to be a .22 caliber revolver, and driving a white pickup truck. But when the suspects were presented to me just hours later, I could not in good conscience say “Yes, those are definitely the guys.” Even though one was wearing a camouflage jacket. Even though they had wrecked a white pickup truck while fleeing police. Their faces were simply not clear enough in my memory. I hadn’t had much time to study them while lying on the ground with a gun to my neck. And there just might have been two other guys driving a white truck in D.C. that night.
Another factor was that a couple who were good friends of mine had recently been falsely arrested in a wrong-place-wrong-time scenario, and I wasn’t about to put anyone through that hell unless I was 99.999 percent sure they were the guys. And at 2:00 a.m. on the other side of the city, I did not have that confidence.
I think about that incident often, not because it was particularly traumatic to me — I wasn’t hurt physically, and they only got about $20 off of me. But often it’s come to mind when I’ve driven by the site of the crime almost every week this year on the way to a small group Bible study that coincidentally meets about a block away.
Mostly I think about how I knew on a logical level that those probably were the guys. I later learned that their truck had been spotted by police almost immediately and chased from my street — since they were dumb enough to leave my cell phone, I was able to call 911 right after they left. I learned that when arrested, the man in the camouflage jacket was also wearing a bullet-proof vest. He was also carrying .22 caliber ammunition. That was enough circumstantial evidence to convince me. Wouldn’t it have been simpler if I had IDed them on the scene?
But even knowing what I know now — and especially after seeing the 60 Minutes segment — I feel reassured that I did the right thing that night. I wasn’t sure it was them. I decided that all I could do at the trial would be to tell the facts as I knew them, and put my trust in God’s justice should the U.S. criminal justice system falter, as it so often does.
As it turns out, God’s justice did prevail — but not in a way I anticipated. After being postponed multiple times, the trial was scheduled for this past September — almost exactly two years after the incident. However, about a week before the court date, both men pleaded guilty to the crime. I was relieved, to say the least.
I had testified at a parole revocation hearing for the main suspect a few months after his arrest in my case. I told him then that I was not angry with him, that I forgave him, and that it was because of Jesus that I felt that way, and that he should check out Jesus if he gets the chance while he’s locked up. His public defender reminded me that I was presuming his guilt — that he was still only a suspect in my case. Yes, of course. So I rephrased: “If you mugged me, I forgive you.”
I’ve always been an extremely awkward evangelist, if any. I’m no Ronald Cotton, but I do my best.
For the past 20 years, Brad Gaines has driven 175 miles from Nashville, Tennessee, to Russellville, Alabama, three times a year to visit the tiny cemetery where a friend he barely knew is laid to rest.
In 1989, after a collision on a typical football play, Gaines, a tailback for Vanderbilt, walked back to his team’s huddle, but Chucky Mullins, a safety for Mississippi, didn’t get up.