What happens when restorative justice principles are applied to Christian communities?
by Cheryl Miller / Blossoms illustration by Tamara Madden (TamaraNatalieMadden.com) a
“Compassionate confrontation” was the term Dave Clark used to describe the style I use with the women at Perpetual Help Home, where I serve as director. Dave, who works with the Christian Community Development Association, toured our facility last year and heard the dramatic stories of three residents who are active in our Center for Peace. The center manages numerous ministries in which the women, many of them ex-offenders, give back to the community, especially in the area of restorative justice. Sophie was one of those who spoke that day, and it was my interaction with her that led Dave to coin the phrase.
When the youngest of Sophie’s four sons was 14 years old, she and her husband got a divorce, and in her depression she turned to crack cocaine. Her addiction was instant, and she began a dark journey that ended in a very public arrest. As she shared her story, she said, “I just wish people would look past my mistake and see that I am human.” The frustration in her voice bordered on anger.
As she tried to continue her story, I interrupted and said, “It was a crime, not a mistake.” Sophie acknowledged that she had committed a crime that had sent her to prison. What she meant was that her mistake was when she started using drugs. I repeated, “It was not a mistake. It was a crime. The purchase of crack is a crime.” I felt it was important that Sophie understood the fact that she was minimizing her behavior—behavior that had caused her to plummet into addiction, prison, and poverty. Realizing the truth, she nodded. It was an awkward and blunt conversation, but part of my job is to bring up tough subjects. Sophie knew that I loved her and was deeply invested in her recovery.
When Sophie finished, Dave said, “For most people reconciliation is an option, but here at Perpetual Help Home, reconciliation is a mandate! You are also not afraid to use compassionate confrontation to help people see the truth.”
The meeting ended, but I kept turning the terms “mandated reconciliation” and “compassionate confrontation” over in my mind. Was this really a good way to describe what we do? I intentionally weave the concepts of restorative justice into the fabric and personality of Perpetual Help Home. Infusing restorative justice principles into everything we do has increased and sped up reconciliation and transformation in our women’s lives. The women of Perpetual Help Home know that it is the heart of our ministry. Restorative justice puts a face on crime. Personal accountability to repair the harm they caused to others is the first step in the process.
For some reason, I could not get past the comments Sophie had made about her “mistake.” By minimizing and justifying her actions, she was showing a lack of accountability. Sophie was not just a homeless woman in poverty. She had played a role in her situation. Restorative justice processes promote personal accountability, and without it reconciliation is very difficult to achieve. The next day I pulled Sophie aside to address her excuses. Sophie seethed with anger. Her greatest sorrow was that her behaviors had estranged her from her sons, and she was adamant that I understand how devastating this was for her. I acknowledged her pain, but pain did not erase the need to take responsibility for what she had done. Still Sophie continued to minimize her role. Finally I said, “Sophie, I just wonder if God is not allowing you to reconcile with your sons in order to protect them from your excuses!”
Sophie was enraged. “I can admit the truth to you and other addicts but not to….”
“…to the people you hurt?” I asked.
Sophie began to cry.
Standing in the warm sun, I gave Sophie a hug. Again I told her I really felt that God might be blocking an attempt at reconciliation until she was willing to take full responsibility for her actions. She had to be accountable to the people she had hurt. “Just think of one or two people in your hometown whom you can go to and make things right,” I said.
Immediately Sophie said, “I know where to start. I took money from a man who owned a local store. I knew he was struggling.” In her addiction, it had been easy to ignore his needs. But now it was not. She dropped her eyes and said, “I am so ashamed.”
“Is it time for you to go back and talk to that man?” I asked. Sophie began to tremble. It was one thing to talk about it, but another thing to do it. “Sophie, are you ready to make things right?”
That night I questioned my stern words to Sophie. I thought about the term “compassionate confrontation.” Had I pushed her too hard? Sophie’s reaction made me second-guess my methods.
The next morning I asked Sophie what she had decided. “I just need to go,” she replied. Then she began to tremble again.
“Sophie, it was for the joy set before him that Christ endured the cross. He saw past the shame and pain of his death to the people he would save in the future. Maybe you were the joy he saw.” If Sophie could face her fears and shame, she might see joy on the other side of her pain.
The trip was set for the next afternoon. Sophie had hoped to wait until the following week, but my schedule was booked so that was not an option if I was to go along. Sophie decided to take $500 from her savings to give to the store owner. This was a personal decision. Five hundred dollars was almost a third of the money she had worked hard to save for the last 10 months. It was also the exact amount of the hot check she had written to him years before.
We talked as we drove. Because of my background as a restorative justice mediator, I thought it would be a good idea if we role-played some different scenarios as we drove. “What will you do if he gets angry?” I asked. “What will you do if he tells you to leave or refuses to take the money?”
Sophie laughed, “There is no way that will happen! He will take the money.” During the drive she also talked about her four sons. Three were successful professionals, and the youngest was in college. She had contact with two of them, but the other two would have nothing to do with her. She hadn’t spoken to them in years. Someone in her family had told her that her oldest, Joseph, hated her. She was ashamed.
We drove past places familiar to Sophie—places she had worked, her former house, and her ex-husband’s home. She hadn’t expected anyone to be home at that last location, but his car was there and someone was on the porch. We drove on to complete the task at hand.
When we arrived at the store, there were no customers and the owner was outside checking the gas pumps. Sophie trembled noticeably. She swung open the car door and got out. “Do you remember me?” she asked.
The man squinted into her face for a long time. Finally he said slowly, “Yes, I believe I do.”
“I want to pay you back for the hot check I wrote you when I was doing drugs before I went to prison.”
“Didn’t you make restitution?”
“No. I was ordered to, but I never paid any money. I just sat it out in jail.”
The man looked into Sophie’s eyes but wouldn’t accept the money. Remembering our rehearsal in the car, Sophie continued to insist.
“How about you put it in God’s offering plate?” he asked.
“Will you make it an offering at your church?” Sophie suggested.
“Well, I guess I could do that,” he admitted. After Sophie handed the money to him, they began talking about old times, neighbors, and family members. Sophie looked pleased when he told her how good she looked. Finally he asked, “Why are you doing this? You served your time.”
“It’s just right. It has been a burden for so long. I had to do it.”
As we drove away, Sophie’s trembling changed to giggling. She giggled like a schoolgirl. Sophie had faced her shame, and the reward was kindness from the one she had harmed. We were both so relieved. Sophie’s joy was proof that compassionate confrontation was the right thing to do after all.
As we headed out of town, I had an idea. “Let’s drive by your ex-husband’s house again,” I suggested. Sophie wasn’t sure about that, but for some reason I had an urge to go back. She finally agreed.
When we arrived, the person we had seen earlier was still on the porch. Sophie whispered, “It’s Joseph, my son! I have to stop!” As she got out of the car, he glanced up. “Hi, Joseph,” she said.
Unsure at first, he finally recognized her and said, “Hi, Mom.” Then he smiled.
“I could really use a hug, Joseph.” He raised arms, which were covered in car grease, to show his mother why he couldn’t hug her. He had been working on his car, but Sophie walked right into those open greasy arms. “How are your brothers?” she asked.
“Thomas is in the house,” said Joseph. Thomas came out with a bewildered look on his face. Sophie opened her arms to him, and he hugged her. Both of the sons Sophie had not spoken to in years were standing on the porch and smiling.
Thomas smiled and said, “I love you, Mom, but I am just not sure what to say.” “Awkward” was the best word to describe the conversation. Sophie understood and graciously retreated. “I love you both,” she stated.
Both young men replied, “We love you, too.”
The moment Sophie heard those words, her world changed. All the way home she and I marveled at the miracle of reconciliation that had happened. Sophie had yearned for the love of her boys, and today she had heard the words, “I love you, Mom.”
The goal of the trip had not been reconciliation with her sons. It had been about personal accountability and making things right with someone else she had harmed. She had gone home voluntarily to make restitution for a crime she had committed years ago, a debt that the State of Texas considered paid. Obedience had led Sophie back to the scene of her crime, and the reward had been phenomenal. The shame was gone. The sorrow of losing her sons’ love had begun to heal. Joseph and Thomas, the two sons who had hated her and not spoken to her, on this day had smiled at their mother, hugged her, and told her they loved her.
How had God pulled this off? Though these two sons did not live in that town, they were in town on the same day and time that Sophie and I drove by. We had thought that my schedule had dictated the day, but now we knew it had been God!
We were so amazed that all we could say for the next 10 minutes were things like “Wow!” and “That was so amazing!” We recognized that we had just been standing on holy ground. God had allowed me to be present as he demonstrated the gospel to Sophie and her sons by working a miracle of reconciliation for them.
Do principles of restorative justice and Christian community development need to be intertwined? Sophie and I think they do. Is compassionate confrontation a good thing? On Sophie’s day it was. Should reconciliation be mandated in ministry? Ask Sophie.
As we giggled and cried on the way home, I asked Sophie where she was on the shame meter. “Yesterday’s shame is today’s glory,” she replied.
“Amen, sister! Amen!”
Learn more at PerpetualHelpHome.com.
Cheryl Miller is the author of The Language of Shalom: Seven Keys to Practical Reconciliation (Quantum Circles Press, 2012; foreword by John M. Perkins), from which this article was adapted.