Psalm 25: 1-10
Welcome to the season of Lent, lovely Lyndale. For some of us, this is a season of dread carrying the weight of spiritual repression and childhoods that felt arbitrarily full of deprivation during this time. For others of us, this is a season coveted contemplation time. For others, this is a time when we say, “Um, what’s Lent again? Why do we do it?”
No matter what category you fall into, it’s good to remember a few things: There is no Lent, per say, in the Bible. This season came to be as an ancient church practice of bringing to life in our own lives Jesus’s story. Most concretely, we remember the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert wilderness on spiritual retreat with God during Lent. It wasn’t some glamping, self-care experience. There were no mani-pedis or massages. This was a spiritual reckoning with all that sought to draw him away from God – worshiping ego, power and all the forms they take. The way we are talking about that winding wilderness journey back to God this year is through language of these three ancient spiritual practices: Confession, Repentance and Repair of Relationship with God.
Confession asks us to acknowledge to ourselves and to God where we have stepped off God’s path, as the Psalm call it, and away from God. There is a famous rendering of sin that likens it to a locked cage. I have thought of this cage as all the systems of oppression inside of which we can feel trapped. A wise friend of mine this week reminded me that we also ARE the cage, that these systems of domination, of ego, of turning each other into things instead of fellow divine beings, does not exist without our participation. But I would add, that perhaps we are also the key to the cage. We can undo these systems, we can step back onto the path towards the God the dwells inside each other and ourselves. But the first step to doing so is recognizing the cage, recognizing we are trapped, recognizing how we participate in hurting ourselves and each other.
And that leads to the next step of this Lenten journey, which is repentance. “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart,” says Psalm 51. Repentance is the willingness to feel all the brokenness of our lives. And then, instead of just sitting in our own shame, we are asked to be brave enough to bring our broken spirits, our broken hearts, our broken hope to God for help.
And that is where the third step, Repair of Relationship with God begins. Depending on what we need to confess and repent, repair will look different. But it always begins with attending to, listening to, and answering to the God who lives inside those we have hurt. Sometimes that process might happen entirely inside ourselves if we have betrayed a part of our own beings. What does the God inside our own hurt need to be honored again? Or this process might happen on a macro level. The example most familiar to us collectively of this kind of repair is reparations for slavery. The reparations model is repair work for white people in this country. It doesn’t erase the history of pain, but it acknowledges the damage, the trauma and the generations of stolen wages, and offers a concrete step back onto the path of love and faithfulness and covenant with the divine that lives in black bodies and communities.
This is the journey of Confession, Repentance and Repair that is our Lenten journey alongside Jesus in the desert wilderness. It may be achingly painful at times, but it is also a practice ultimately of our own resurrections, of moving through our own pain into new possibility.
So we begin this season with a story from Sarah Kuhnen to inspire your own journey of confession, repentance, repair and ultimately resurrection. Her own family went through a trauma of profound proportions. But both her family the person who caused that trauma have been through a prolonged Lenten journey of sorts over the last few years. Look for the confessions, the repentance and the repair in this story that made the resurrection possible. Thank you for your willingness to share your story, Sarah.
I am sharing with you this morning what I am now calling A Miracle or The Profound Grace of Forgiveness. Forgiveness for me is the ability to see another person’s humanness.
This is my family’s story.
As many of you know 2 1/2 years ago my family experienced a terrible tragedy. I lost three family members my beloved sister Ledell, my beloved brother in law Don, and my beloved niece Katherine to a horrific car accident. A fourth person died, Leona Sinanovic she was only 2 years old. The man who caused the accident, Nerim Sinanovic was charged with four counts of criminal negligence homicide, and two misdemeanors for speeding and reckless driving.
The sentencing finally happened on January 24th. My sister Kelly and I flew out to give impact statements to Nerim Sinanovic and the court. Devan my nephew, whose family all died, also gave an impact statement. The two months before were very difficult for Devan, my sister and me, as well as my entire family, as we were about to relive the horror of that accident in a very big way.
As we arrived at the D.A. office before the sentencing DA Christine O’Conner prepared us for how it would all take place in the court room. She had the head of the DA come in and he thanked our family for showing the usually path of compassion and forgiveness. That there was not a person on his staff that had ever read such words of compassion and forgiveness in a statement like this. Then we were lead to the courtroom.
Devan read his impact statement first, then Kelly and I spoke last.
This is my impact statement.
I begin by first thanking your Honor, the State of New York, Westchester County, the District Attorney’s Office and in particular Christine O’Connor and James Bavero. It is very important to me to have the opportunity to speak to all present today, and especially Nerim Sinanovic, regarding the impact of the loss of my beloved sister Ledell Mulvaney, my Brother-in-law Don Mulvaney and my niece Katherine Mulvaney, as a result of a car accident on August 15, 2015.
Although it is important to me that the court put a real face to Ledell, Don and Katherine Mulvaney, and understand the remarkable people they were, it is also equally important to me that Nerim Sinanovic understand my feelings and wishes for him. The following Statement is directed towards Nerim.
From the moment, I got the phone call and heard of the horrific accident on August 15, 2015 that took the lives of my sister Ledell, my niece Katherine Mulvaney and, your daughter Leona Sinanovic, I felt like your family and my family would forever be connected. My brother-in-law Don Mulvaney died exactly a month later, due to this accident. As a result of this tragic connection I have felt, the formalities of names are not important to me. I will address you by your first name going forward in this statement.
Nerim, as I rushed to the Westchester hospital to see Don, who was still alive, I wanted to also rush to your family and state my condolences on the death of your daughter, Leona. I could not then, as I cannot now, begin to understand the tragic loss of losing your young daughter. I am sorry for your loss. I have carried these words in my heart for over two years. I send you much support and tenderness for the lifetime of grief you now carry.
There is so much to tell you about Ledell, Don and Katherine, and in a way, it feels overwhelming to start, but what I want you to know about them is this; they were good people to the core, they lightened a room with their talent as musicians, their wit, but even more importantly their constant belief in the good of people. They worked with hundreds of people, particularly teenagers, imprinting all with their never-ending passion for justice, fairness, and speaking up on behalf of those who struggled to find their voice with their art and creativity. Their music was focused on love, justice, compassion, joy and life. The compassion they had for others is what I now carry for you.
I want you to understand that my family has been literally crushed by this accident. We are a close family, and Ledell, Don and Katherine’s absence is felt each day in big ways and small. We are all changed forever by this huge loss to our family. My life was turned upside down and grief is constant. Holidays are very tough, but the constant pain in our hearts is the hardest to bear. I imagine it is for you as well, Nerim, as you walk on this same path of sudden loss and grief with your Leona. I have described my grief to so many as having grown a new appendage on my body the day they died, like an extra arm that does not work, and I am trying to learn how to walk with it. This appendage I name for grief is a constant reminder of that day. I cannot rip this extra arm off, as much as I try. Grief will never leave me, but my hope is that I learn how to continue to walk with it better with each passing day.
Your plea of “Guilty” is a hopeful sign to me – something that brings me a spark of hope for you. I have never once felt like it was your intention to kill four people that day back in August of 2015. But I do believe you made some very poor choices that day. Those choices have, led to a life time of grief, loss, and change for everyone who loved Leona, Ledell, Don, and Katherine.
From what I understand you chose to drive with a large amount of Xanax in your body. I do not know why you would think it was a good idea to drive with high levels of Xanax, turn around on a highway and deal with something in the back seat of the car, thus steering with a knee, and no eyes and hands to control a car going at high speeds on the Taconic Highway. To think of these actions that you took cause me great pain but I have chosen to instead focus on forgiveness and healing.
I forgive you Nerim. I have been waiting to tell you this and it is very, very important to me that you know this. I want for you to deal with the choices you made that day. I want for you to heal. I want for you to forgive yourself. The reason I want this is because you are a father to another daughter, you are a husband to a wife, you are a provider to a family, you are a friend, a neighbor, a son and a community member to all who know you. I believe you are needed and loved. I believe the best thing you can do is to heal yourself, face your responsibilities, get help for your Xanax use, and surround yourself with good people, people like the kind of people Ledell, Don and Katherine were, who would want the best for a person, such as yourself.
My family never believed incarceration was a good form of punishment or that it was a good path to heal you. Time in jail for you, would not heal us. Time in jail would not bring back my beloved family members or your Leona. We have also understood that we cannot heal you. That the road is before you. You must decide each day what path you will make for yourself. I can only tell you that my wish for you and your family is that you choose a path of healing, a path that does not run away from your actions but rather deals with them; that you choose to forgive yourself. And if you choose this path, no matter how long it takes or when you choose it, I am open to hearing from you. If you choose to write, I would write to you as long as I see fit to do so.
Your healing, facing your responsibilities, being a good dad, husband, and friend, is the justice I seek. It is the justice I hope comes from this horrific tragedy. It is the justice that upholds the life of four wonderful people, Ledell, Don, Katherine and Leona.
Justice is not always served up neatly, in a court room. Justice is a way of life. A way of being. A way of responding. A way of acting. A way of forgiveness. Healing is not a day’s work but rather a lifetime of days strung together working to bring us peace.
May Nerim and this court know that my family walks towards compassion, the path of Justice and healing for all people, that includes this court, Nerim and his family.
Each impact statement basically said the same thing only in our own words. Devan’s and Kelly’s statement were unbelievable powerful and beautiful. Devan’s talked more about the impact his family’s deaths had on him, Kelly focused on accountability and mine had a focus on my wishes for him. But each of us gave our condolences to Nerim and his family for the loss of his daughter Leona and we each forgave him. After each of our statements the judge would tell us and the court that never in his experience had he heard such compassion and forgiveness.
As we each gave our condolences for his daughter, Nerim cried, his whole family sobbed, and in that moment, it felt like his family’s grief melted into ours and our family’s grief melted into theirs. As we gave our forgiveness Nerim cried and so did his family. As we told of our grief and sorrow, Nerim and his family cried.
Then Nerim gave his statement which was unbelievable. He owned his actions and apologized over and over again. One of the most powerful moments was when Nerim stated that he did not know how to go on living after the accident. That after several months he went to visit the sight of the accident and when he saw that there were four crosses put into the ground, with one of the crosses that included Leona’s name on it…it was at that moment that he realized that it must have been our family that did that. In deed it was, it was my brother, Scott who had made those four crosses and wrote each of their first names on the crosses. Nerim than realized he needed to go on living.
Many times Devan, Kelly and I as we read our statements our eyes turned to Nerim and Nerim in turn looked at us. It was so powerful. The connection and energy we felt was palpable. It felt like the divine was in the room. It felt like a strand of our DNA was floating down and their families DNA was floating down and suddenly the DNA from both sides was being wrapped around each other. It felt like Ledell, Don, Kat, and Leona were in the room present with us.
Devan looked like a broken man, as one could imagine, walking into the court room. When he walked out he looked like a transformed man.
Although we did not request jail time the judge felt it was important that Nerim at least have 4 mouths of Shock Incarceration. Shock incarceration includes treatment and counseling while he is in prison and it is for lighter offenders.
Before Nerim was handcuffed Devan interrupted the judge to ask if he could shake Nerim’s hand. The judge paused and then said, it was okay with him but that he could not make that choice, the security had to. As Devan asked, Nerim’s head was shaking yes. Unfortunately, the security would not allow it. Nerim then turned to all of us and put his fist on his heart and bowed to us. Grace melting everywhere.
It was heart wrenching seeing Nerim be handcuffed and walked out of the courtroom, and listening to his wife and family wail. As we got up and were escorted out of the court room we were not allowed to talk or touch his family. As soon as we were out of the court room we waited for his family to exit. As they came out my family walked over to his family and we all shook hands or hugged their family through tears. They kept apologizing to us and we said we were sorry too. Nerim’s father told each of us how sorry he was, and that he will never understand what his son did that day and that on that day he thought his life was over. He told Devan that Nerim was a good kid. He told me and other family members that never in his life did he meet a family as kind as our family was today. I told each family member to keep loving Nerim, he will need your support more than ever in the next four months.
None of us could believe what just happened. It was GRACE. It felt holy. We could not believe it. Devan kept saying he felt totally different. He felt lighter. He has said, countless times that now he can just focus on the grief of losing his family and honoring his family for who they were, instead of it being mixed up in the horror of the accident and his anger. He no longer was feeling triggered by the roads, highways and places of White Plains that moments before he felt triggered from.
We had talked, the day before the sentencing, about visiting the Chaplin, Doug, who was by our side for a month when Don, was still alive, in the hospital but Devan felt like it was to triggering and hard to go there preferring to meet with Doug at a coffee shop. The day after the sentencing, Devan decided it would be fine to visit with Chaplin Doug at the hospital. As we walked the halls of that hospital, that we knew so well after being in it for 30 days back in 2015, Devan kept saying in total astonishment and that he was okay.
Devan felt that as he might have saved Nerim’s life, Nerim had saved his life.
Devan has continued to report feeling lighter and at peace.
My family is reporting the same feelings.
I am feeling the grace of God all around us.
I have dedicated myself to writing a letter to Nerim each day, with simple messages of encouragement and inspirational quotes, for the four months he is in prison. This has become in a way a Lenten type practice for me. This process for me has opened me up to so much healing on many levels as I now seek to understand ways in which I have not forgiven others in the whole of my life.
On this past Thursday, I received my first letter from Nerim. He again thanked our family for their kindness, forgiveness and knows that this does not happen very often. He told me he reads my letters two to three times a day, and that the inspirational quotes I send help him.
This is my family’s resurrection story. Thank you for honoring me and my family with your listening.