EDITOR’S NOTE: The ”Struggles of the Faith” chapel series each semester allows a variety of speakers to discuss with the student body how their faith has helped them overcome the burdens of everyday life. Roy Willmon’s story of forgiveness April 10, 2019, literally raised the hair on my head as I was struck by the forgiving power of the Spirit in him and in his wife. Some of our readers will remember the 1995 event described in his powerful words to the two chapel audiences.
I’d like to thank Dr. Bruce McLarty and the University staff for the invitation to participate in your chapel series “Struggles of the Faith.” This is my first attempt to speak to an audience like this so I ask in advance for your patience and understanding as I try to speak about the transforming power of forgiveness.
Dr. McLarty asked me to share our story about our struggle in the tragic death of our daughter and, more importantly, the story of the transforming power of God’s forgiveness — a forgiveness that transforms both the forgiver and the forgiven.
My wife, Jeanie, and I love your wonderful university which was so good to our two children, Curtis and Carla Willmon. And our story started right here on your beautiful campus in 1990 when our son, Curtis, the oldest of our two children, came to Harding followed some four years later by his younger sister, Carla.
In April 1995, Carla, then a 20-year-old junior, returned to Harding on Sunday afternoon following Easter weekend, which was spent with us in Mount Pleasant, Texas. On Monday evening, apparently in the midst of studying — books were left open, lamp on and drink left on her study area — she decided she needed something from Walmart. As she left the store, two men kidnapped her, stole her car, drove her to a vacant trailer house owned by a brother of one of the men, and during what must have been a long and terrifying night, raped and murdered her.
The two men put Carla’s body in the trunk of her car, along with a can of gasoline, with the intention of driving to a remote area and dumping and burning her body. But on the way, they ran off the road and got the car stuck in the ditch. They decided to burn the body and the car there in the ditch, but just as they were about to pour the gasoline, another car came down the road and stopped in a nearby driveway. Realizing it was too populated an area for them to escape such a scene undetected, they fled on foot, not lighting the gasoline. A few days later one of the men turned himself in and implicated the other in the kidnapping and murder.
The eight months before the trial dates were months of bitterness and hatred, filled with a determination to seek revenge through a death sentence for each murderer. However, on the morning of the trial, in response to a plea for a life sentence without parole instead of the likelihood of the death sentence if it went to trial, one man changed his plea to guilty and agreed to testify against the other.
The second trial was delayed for another month to give the defense time to prepare after the first man’s plea. Meanwhile, we were even more determined to seek the death penalty in the trial of the second murderer. However, on the morning of the second trial, the second man also wanted to plead guilty in exchange for a life without parole sentence, and my wife and I inexplicably accepted the life sentence. Perhaps it was God’s Spirit intervening to keep us from having to sit through the gory details of the trial or perhaps God was simply using that moment to set the stage for the transforming of four lives through the transforming power of forgiveness.
Speaking of the providence of God — I must tell you this: After Dr. McLarty called me in late December asking me to share our story with you in chapel, I went back to a scrapbook of news articles about the events surrounding the murder, trial, etc., and a quote by one of the writers caught my attention. It was a quote from my wife, which I was never aware of before my reading this last December: “I hope to find it in myself to find some type of peace in my heart to forgive them for what they did.” God had already planted that seed in her heart way back then. I assure you, that thought certainly had never crossed my mind at that time!
For the first 10 years after the murder, Jeanie and I wrestled with the emotions of our tragic loss, but thankfully we found great comfort through our faith, our brothers and sisters in Christ, and the power of gospel music. The singing group Free Indeed (and others) shared their ministry in music with us. And I would be amiss not to mention and once again thank members of the Harding choir for traveling to Mount Pleasant, Texas, to sing at Carla’s funeral. Songs can touch a place in the heart that words alone can never reach. We will always be grateful to those who shared the love of Christ with us through song.
We gradually over the years came to believe that we had forgiven the two men who had murdered our daughter. But truthfully, at least speaking for myself, I had only tried to suppress their memory to some dark corner of my mind — to pretend that those men just did not exist. I think I called that forgiveness.
It took 20 years, but the Spirit of the Lord finally convicted me — and my wife agreed — that we needed to officially tell the two men that we forgave them. So on Feb. 12, 2015, we finally surrendered to God’s will, and I wrote a letter to each of the two men telling them of our forgiveness. Included in that letter were the following two sentences; they are my definition of forgiveness. “To forgive someone is not to say that what that person did was OK; it simply means (at least to me it means) abandoning the desire for retaliation and revenge, and granting forgiveness along with concern for that person’s future welfare. So in your case, although justice must be served and your fate in this life is set, Jeanie and I have a true concern and desire for you to have a better life beyond the grave.” I went on to tell each that there was a much greater forgiveness available to them through Jesus Christ, and if they were interested in learning how they could obtain such forgiveness, I would be happy to study the Bible with them through correspondence.
Both men were housed in separate prisons and did not communicate with each other, but both responded in very similar fashion; with great skepticism over our offer of forgiveness and each stating they doubted our forgiveness and that they did not believe God could or would forgive them or that he even cared.
I responded with the very simple message of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Over the following year and a half, we had regular biweekly Bible studies about the love, mercy and grace of God, his covenant relationship with mankind, his ultimate redemptive act of sending his son Jesus to die for our sins, and that God wanted all men everywhere to come to repentance and accept his offer of salvation, regardless of their sins.
With the help of the College Church of Christ prison ministry team, Randy Hughes and others, both men obeyed our Lord in baptism, receiving the forgiveness of their sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit to live within and guide them in their new walk of life by helping transform them from a world of darkness into the world of light in Jesus Christ.
And you know what is so amazing? It all started by the transforming power of a few spoken words of forgiveness!
Both men’s responses to their newfound forgiveness and freedom in Jesus have been heartwarming and inspirational, showing true repentance through their gratitude, changed lifestyle, and their passion for sharing the gospel with others. They each are leaders in their respective 20 to 30 member “congregations” within their respective prison units — both taking leading roles in their weekly worship services, both giving communion thoughts, teaching, and conducting Bible studies wherever they can find willing participants. Mitchell also leads the singing in his congregation. Patric has led and baptized three other prisoners into Christ, and Mitchell is trying diligently to do the same.
Both Mitchell Skinner and Patric Patterson continue to communicate with Jeanie and me every two weeks, and each and every letter has words of love and appreciation for us, and joy, gratitude and thanksgiving for their new life in Christ Jesus.
Jeanie and I can now testify that God truly is true to his word. It truly is more blessed to give than receive. Our lives have been blessed and our faith fortified by this simple act of giving forgiveness. And Christ’s kingdom is being expanded.
Jesus certainly knew the importance and the transforming power of forgiveness. After all, he died on a cruel cross so that he might give forgiveness to us. He simply asks that we pass it on to others.
Do you remember when Jesus’ disciples asked him to teach them how to pray? Right in the middle of Jesus’ model prayer, Jesus said we should ask the Father to “Forgive us our sins as (or in like manner) we forgive those who sin against us.” Do we really want God to forgive us in the same manner as we forgive others? That’s a sobering question.
Then Matthew quotes Jesus in the two verses following his model prayer as saying these words: “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”
We all need— we all must have — God’s forgiveness. But I also want you to understand, God gives us much more than just forgiveness when we forgive others; he also gives us peace and comfort and a serenity the unforgiving world will never know.
It took Jeanie and me 20 years to do what Jesus had asked us to do and to receive that peace. So as I leave you this morning, let me beg you, let me implore you, don’t be so tardy with your forgiveness. If you have a family member, a fellow student, or someone in the world who has done you wrong, be the stronger person and offer your forgiveness.
And let me say this: The person who has offended you, who has hurt you, who did you wrong, does not need to ask for your forgiveness before you offer it. That is the devil speaking, trying to get us to procrastinate in doing what we know we ought to do. The other party may even refuse to accept your forgiveness. They may even throw your forgiveness back in your face, but you are obeying God, and you are the one who will receive the greatest blessings of comfort and peace and living hope that comes only from the one who gave the greatest gift of forgiveness this world has ever known.
So my challenge and my charge to each of you here this morning is to allow God’s Holy Spirit to fully develop his fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness and faithfulness. Let him develop that fruit into a life that is ready to forgive as we have been forgiven.
You will be blessed and lives can be changed from darkness into the light of Jesus.