Stephen Owens was 12 years old in 1985 when he discovered his father at home badly beaten and near death. Evidence proved Stephen’s mom, Gaile, had hired a hit man to carry out the murder, and she was sent to death row. Stephen and Gaile did not see each other for decades, but through an amazing series of life transformations and revelations about the tragic event, God opened a door for both of them to be set free -- one from a prison of unforgiveness, the other from a literal prison cell.
The choices I made in 1985 destroyed a family. The most important people in my life were understandably filled with hate and trying to find their way. My prayer every single day was, "God keep them safe, let them know they are loved and please let me see them one day.” As I tried to find forgiveness for my choices, my focus became centered on, one day, being able to ask my sons to forgive me. Though there would never be any justification for my choices and I could never make it right, I did hope I would at least hear the words, “I forgive you, Mom.”
As the years went by and still no contact from my sons, I felt that I deserved this and the reality of never seeing them again was an actual possibility. My prayer became, “Please God, let me see them just one time. I just need to ask for forgiveness.”
For many years following the death of my father and the incarceration of my mother, I was filled with intense anger and resentment. I was exposed with open wounds, refusing to see the path to healing. My journey towards forgiveness and my healing began more than a decade after the tragic events. My first child was born and his birth marked the gradual death of my anger and resentment. This gift of new life sparked an immediate desire to examine my heart and reflect on my future. The next several years were filled with specific, God-appointed events leading me directly to a life altering decision. I could choose to endure the pain, the torments and the anger… or I could choose healing. After over 20 years, I walked into the prison and I offered my mother forgiveness and healing. I chose to accept healing from a God who loves me and saves me from a life consumed with relentless suffering chained to my past.
There have never been words that meant more than “I forgive you, Mom.” I had waited over two decades to hear these words. The day Stephen left, I had no assurance of seeing him again, but my prayer had been answered in seeing him this one time. I would have to accept it if this was my only time to hug my son and hear him say he loved me and forgave me. Little did I know, we would look back today and see God’s hands all over our lives.
“There is no justice in taking her life. There is no justice in denying the healing power of forgiveness.” These are the words I spoke to Governor Bredesen, just over three years ago in pleading for my mother’s life as she sat on death row in the State of Tennessee. Our story, our lives, our relationship are proof of the healing power of forgiveness. By the grace of God, my mother was gifted with a commutation from Governor Bredesen and later released on parole. By the grace of God, I was released from a personal prison of anger and resentment. By the grace of God, we were both gifted the healing power of forgiveness. Choosing to forgive was the first step in the process of healing . My mother and I will spend the remainder of our lives in this healing process and each day brings new challenges and new triumphs. Forgiveness is not the easy choice. Letting go of the past, moving forward and celebrating the blessings in the life of someone who inflicted severe pain is not for the weak. Forgiveness is a difficult and challenging day-by-day effort. Forgiveness also brings indescribable peace and freedom. The healing received from the love of God and in actively loving one another binds up the wounds and gives us a life full of hope.