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Aug 09, 2023 2364 Shalom Tidings
Encounter

Crushed but not broken

This family’s story seems like a bad movie, but the ending is sure to startle you

Our story starts at home, where I grew up in San Antonio, Texas, with my two younger brothers, Oscar and Louis. Dad was the music minister at our church, while Mom played the piano. Our childhood was happy– all about church and family, with my grandparents living nearby. We thought everything was fine, but when I was in sixth grade, Mom and Dad told us they were getting divorced. We didn’t know what that meant at first because nobody in my family had been divorced, but we soon found out. We were bounced from house to house as they fought for custody.

About a year later, Dad went out of town for the weekend. My brothers and I were supposed to be with Mom but ended up staying with some friends at the last minute. We were surprised when Dad flew home early and came to collect us but devastated when he told us why. Mom had been found dead in her car in a deserted parking lot. Apparently, two men had robbed her at gunpoint and stolen her purse and jewelry. Then, both of them raped her in the back seat before shooting her in the face three times and leaving her to die on the floorboard of her car. When Dad told us, we couldn’t believe it. Why would anybody want to kill Mom? We wondered if they were going to come after us. Fear became part of our young lives.

The Aftermath

After the funeral, we tried to return to normal life with Dad, but I’ve learned that normal never returns for victims of serious crime. Dad had a construction business. A year after Mom’s murder, Dad was arrested with two of his employees and charged with capital murder and criminal solicitation for hiring these two men to kill Mom. The three of them were all blaming each other. One of the employees claimed he overheard Dad hiring the other guy to commit the murder. Dad proclaimed his innocence, and we believed him, but his bail was denied, and everything changed for us. When Mom was killed, we were the victim’s kids. People, especially at church, wanted to help us through the process. They were giving and kind. However, after Dad was arrested, we suddenly got treated differently. There’s a stigma about being an offender’s kid. People described us as damaged goods who wouldn’t amount to anything.

We moved in with my aunt and uncle, and I started high school in Austin, but kept visiting Dad in the county jail because we loved him and believed in his innocence. Two and a half years later, Dad was finally put on trial. It was really hard for us seeing all the details splashed all over the news, especially for me because I shared the same name. When he was found guilty, we were devastated, especially when he was sentenced to death and transferred to Huntsville to await execution. If you’re the family member of an inmate, it’s like your life is on hold.

Shocking Confession

During my senior year in college, there was a new development in the case. The secretary to the District Attorney disclosed that the prosecutor had altered evidence to prove Dad was guilty. We had always believed in Dad’s innocence, so we were overjoyed. Dad was taken off death row and sent back to the county jail to await a new trial which took place four years later. My brothers and I testified for him, and the jury found him not guilty of capital murder, which meant he would never be executed. I can’t express the relief I felt to know that I wasn’t going to lose Dad like that. However, they found him guilty of the lesser charge of murder, which came with a life sentence. Despite this, everyone knew that he would be released on parole soon. We had done all we could over all these years to get Dad home, so we were so excited that it was about to happen and that he would come and live with our family.

While I was visiting him before his release, I asked him to clarify some of the issues that had come out during the trial. He said I could ask him anything, but when I got to this one particular question, he looked me right in the face and said, “Jim, I did it, and she deserved it.” I was shocked. He was confessing, and he wasn’t even sorry about what he had done. He was blaming it on Mom. He thought he was the victim because he was in prison. I was furious. I wanted him to know that he wasn’t the victim. My mom, who was buried, was the victim. I can’t describe how betrayed we all felt that he had been lying to us for all this time. It felt like we were all grieving for Mom for the very first time because when Dad got arrested, it all became about him. My family protested his parole, so the parole board denied it. I went back to see him in jail to tell him that he would go back to prison, not to Death Row, where he was safe from other prisoners, but to a maximum security prison for the rest of his life. I told him that he would never see any of us again. We had been visiting him all these years, writing to him, and putting money in his prison account. He had been a big part of our lives, but now we were turning our backs on him.

Letting the Hook Off

After four years of no contact, I went back to see Dad in prison. I had my own son now, and I couldn’t comprehend ever hurting him, especially since I’d learned that Dad had also hired the men to kill my brothers and me as well. I wanted some answers, but the first thing he did was apologize to me for what he had done to Mom, my brothers, and me. He was a man who had never said sorry for anything. I didn’t believe it, but I learned that when you hear somebody say they are sorry, you start healing. The next thing he said was, “Jim, I finally gave my life to God and became a Christian after I hit rock bottom in prison.”

For the next year, I visited Dad once a month. During that time, I went through a forgiveness process. On the face of it, it seems impossible to be able to forgive your dad for killing your mom. I work with a lot of crime victims. What I have learned is that if you don’t forgive an offender or someone who has hurt you, you become bitter, angry, and depressed. I didn’t want Dad to control me any longer, so I forgave Dad, not to let him off the hook, but to let myself off the hook. I didn’t want to be that bitter, angry, depressed man. In this process of reconciliation, I spoke up for Mom, who had had her voice taken from her. Over that year, as we talked through the issues, I saw a life change in Dad.

About a year after I resumed contact, I got a call from the prison chaplain telling me that Dad had suffered a brain aneurysm. He was brain-dead, so we had to make the decision to take him off life support, which sounds easy, but it wasn’t. Despite everything, I still loved him. We claimed his body so we wouldn’t have the legacy of having our father buried on prison grounds. We were surprised to see the warden and prison chaplain at the funeral, and they told us that, for the first time, approval had been given to have a memorial service for our dad at the prison chapel. When we attended, we sat in the front row with 300 prison inmates seated behind us, surrounded by guards. For the next three hours, the men came up to the microphone, one by one, looked us straight in the face, and told us their stories of how they had turned to Christ because Dad had shared his faith with them and changed their lives. By admitting and repenting his bad choices, taking responsibility for his actions, and asking God for forgiveness, he had taken his life in a new direction and led others with him. When you hear one person say that, it is powerful–300 is overwhelming.

I started speaking in churches, in prisons, and in restorative justice programs – to victims and to offenders wanting to rehabilitate, sharing our story of restoration after a forgiveness process. I have witnessed over and over how people can change. When I tell our story, I get to honor both our parents–Mom for the positive impact she had on our lives and Dad for his decision to truly repent of his sins. The ending of our story is that we have been able to see how God can take horrible situations and turn them into good. What we have learned about repentance and forgiveness has made us much better husbands and fathers because we were intentional in giving our families something better. We have learned through bitter experience that to truly repent, you have to keep repenting, and to truly forgive, you have to keep forgiving, not once, but constantly.

The article is based on the testimony of Jim Buffington and his brothers on the Shalom World program “Seventy Times Seven.” To watch the episode, visit: shalomworld.org/episode/forgiving-their-mothers-murderer

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