By Marge Bitetti
SAN BERNARDINO—“He who can no longer listen to his brother will soon no longer listen to God.”
Marciano Avilla, Director of the Diocesan Office of Restorative Justice, offered these words authored by noted German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer at the opening of the Victims Symposium that was held at the Diocesan Pastoral Center April 10 to commemorate National Crime Victims’ Rights Week. It was a day for listening, sharing, and reflecting on hope and forgiveness.
The morning keynote speaker was Rita Chairez, Program Coordinator of Healing Hearts, a Los Angeles based organization for people affected by homicide. Chairez shared the pain of her personal story of the untimely loss of two of her brothers to murder. She said she drew strength from her mother’s forgiveness of the persons who killed her sons.
Through retreats and joining a faith sharing group, she was able to learn how to walk with victims and survivors, Chairez shared.
“My mother’s faith taught me how to accompany people and forgive.”
Through her years of healing and courage, Chairez has also been able to also work with those who are incarcerated. When she works in prison ministry, she said that she tells the people, “I come to walk with you.” Even though the pain of two homicides has touched her life, she says she is still able to reach out to victims, and survivors and embrace them with hope.
“It is important for people who have lost a loved one through violence to know that they are not alone.”
Speaker Hector Vargas shared that his son was home on leave from military boot camp and attended a neighborhood party when he was murdered by party crashers.
“I felt like my entire world came to an end,” he shared. “I felt like I was going to die.”
After his son’s death, he did not receive counseling and did not show his grief publicly. He waited until private moments in the shower to shed his tears, he said. A priest friend told him that if he wanted to be at peace, he needed to give his pain to God. He was able to ask God to take his pain and suffering. He shared that his faith in God has allowed him to accept what happened to his son.
“Living with hate and bad thoughts did not let me move on with my life,” Vargas said. “No one can tell you how to grieve or how long to grieve.”
Deacon Nelson Glass from Fontana talked about his work in a new ministry of the Diocese which brings prayer services to recent murder sites. “We all seek peace in our lives and violence is one of the things that alters that peace,” he said.
Even though violence took the lives of their daughters both Rose Madsen and Linda Miers have been able to provide hope to other families who are struggling with the death of a loved one due to violence. Madsen’s daughter was 20 years old and working as a meter reader when she was murdered. For 15 years Madsen has been helping others through the organization Family and Friends of Murder Victims.
Miers tragically lost two daughters to violence. One daughter was killed in a drive by shooting and the other daughter was stabbed to death by her boyfriend. Despite Miers’ losses she willingly assists others facing similar circumstances through the organization Parents of Murdered Children. Both Madsen and Miers shared that one of the main problems for families that have endured violence is taking the step to attend a support group. Helping others is beneficial in many ways, they said.
“Reaching out to victims and walking with them through their journey also gives me hope,” says Madsen.
Dr. Marco Elias, Ph. D. who was a victim of kidnapping, himself, shared his insight on ways to turn trauma into healing and motivation.
“Recovery is the ability to live in the present without being overwhelmed by thoughts and feelings of the past,” said Elias, who also serves as Director of the Ministry of Transitions for the Diocese.
Elias advised that when speaking to family or friends who have experienced a tragic loss it is better to say, “Can you allow me to walk with you. I don’t know how you feel.”
The final presenter at the symposium was Doris Frey, a participant in the Bridges Program offered by the Office of Restorative Justice. Bridges pairs mentors with formerly incarcerated men and women to assist them on their faith journey and re-entry into the community. Frey, herself a victim of domestic violence, served a 35-year sentence for her involvement in the murder of her first husband. She shared her journey to a new life filled with faith and hope. Her presentation offered attendees a different aspect of hope and forgiveness.
Deacon John Barna, who journeyed with many families in their grief and loss during his years as Director of Catholic Cemeteries, served as Master of Ceremonies for the Symposium.
Marge Bitetti is a freelance writer and a parishioner of St. Matthew Church in Corona.