Inside a fellowship hall of a church in Austin, Texas, twenty-five people sit upon folding chairs arranged in a horseshoe pattern around a wooden podium. One at a time, they introduce themselves to the rest of the group. The open-circle gathering consists of educators, a licensed counselor, lawyers, prison ministry advocates, pastors, a cop, and criminal justice employees. The release of a new book, There is a Balm in Huntsville, has brought them together. All of them either had a part in its story or a hand in the book’s production.
The book tells the tale of a tragic drunk-driving wreck and its adverse consequences for the families of two teenagers who perished in the wreck and for the perpetrator who pleaded guilty at his trial and received a prison sentence of forty years. But there’s much more to the story than destruction and pain. Through two prison programs—one institutionally created, and the other a prison ministry—hope and healing emerged for the perpetrator and for some of those affected by the wreck, from the places of the story’s deepest darkness.
It was my idea as the author of the book to gather the group and to host this private event. But it wasn’t my idea originally to write or produce the book. That idea was hatched, eighteen years ago, by the perpetrator of the drunk-driving wreck and one of his crime victims when they met face to face in the chapel of the Walls Unit prison in Huntsville, Texas.
Yes, a face-to-face meeting between an offender and his crime victim—in the prison.
Andrew Papke, the perpetrator, and Martha Early (now Moffett), the mother of Bethany Early who died in the wreck, met face to face in a program instituted by the Texas criminal justice system called “Victim-Offender Dialogue.” During their meeting, supervised by a Texas criminal justice system employee of its Victim Services Division, the two adversaries came up with their book idea. To understand how I came to write the book—eighteen years later—you’ll have to read through the story and continue to the book’s Epilogue section.
Among the twenty-five persons at the gathering in the Austin church are Andrew Papke and Martha Moffett—face to face again after their last encounter in a prison fifteen years ago.
After the introductions, I stand at the podium and thank Andrew and Martha for their idea to write a book of God’s ability to reach down into a horrible situation and produce some good from it. My primary hope for the book, I tell them and the group, is for its readers to know about the healing possibilities of restorative justice.
Andrew Papke addresses the group. He speaks of his regret, still fresh more than two decades later, for what he did. But he also acknowledges, moments later, the healing power that came to him through the process of the Victim-Offender Dialogue program and his participation in a prison ministry called Bridges To Life. He calls out the people in the horseshoe circle who work or worked in those programs and helped bring about his healing: David Doerfler, Raven Kazen, and John Sage. He also acknowledges Lisa Looger, a formidable criminal justice system employee, who passed away in 2004. Andrew shares with the group that he decided to give me the go-ahead to work on this book project toward the end of 2016 because, if Lisa Looger was still around, she’d have told Andrew to go forward with it.
After Andrew finishes his remarks, I return to the podium only for a moment to tell the group that the floor is theirs—open-mic style.
David Doerfler, who developed the Victim-Offender Dialogue program for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, addresses the group. Doerfler is now retired, but the fire in his soul that guided him to create the face-to-face dialogue program, the first of its kind in the nation, still burns.
“This dialogue program didn’t come from me. It came from victims who struggled to stay alive, who, somehow, were able to keep going in the midst of their pain.”
“Healing,” he says, “is about holding opposites together—about facing the pain. Sometimes solutions are found within the problem.” He looks at Andrew and invokes the memories of the two teenagers who lost their lives from his horrible mistake the summer 1996.
“I believe, Andy, that they are urging you on to continue to tell your story.”
Raven Kazen, a woman with a vibrant spirit and a generously commanding tone, addresses the group after Doerfler. Even though she retired from directing the Victim Services Division in 2008, she, like Doerfler, still has a burning heart for crime victims and offenders who, like Papke, choose to take responsibility for their actions.
“The first time I met Andrew, I knew that he was sincere in his sorrow for what he had caused, and for his heartfelt desire to do something to make things right.” Kazen gives the group a bit of a history lesson and thanks crime victim extraordinaire and early-on Texas Board of Criminal Justice representative, Ellen Halbert, for all she did to help build up the Victim Services Division of Texas’s criminal justice system.
Kazen concludes her remarks by looking at Martha Moffett and thanks her for being a participant in the Victim-Offender Dialogue program. There’s nothing more Christ-like, Kazen says, than to forgive. “Martha, thank you for your extreme grace.”
John Sage, who founded the prison ministry Bridges To Life in response to the brutal murder of his sister, looks out at the group from the podium and tells them that none of them ever though they’d be part of what’s brought them all together this night. He explains that Bridges To Life brings offenders and surrogate crime victims together in the search of healing for crime victims, and of accountability for prisoners.
Sage looks at Raven Kazen and smiles: “She was the force that helped establish our prison ministry program.” He then looks at David Doerfler and calls him “the teacher” who taught Sage about “the inner spirit of what we were tying to do.” Doerfler’s guidance, Sage says, helped Bridges To Life attain its crystal-clear vision and mission.
Paul Diaz, a licensed family therapist and pastor, addresses the group from behind the podium and explains that he and Andy were good friends in high school. He turns to Andrew and says, “We were going down parallel paths of destruction in high school. One year after your wreck, I woke up after a rough night. My car was halfway in the grass, halfway in the street—I don’t even remember how I got home.
“That morning, I do remember having the distinct thought that the only difference in the beds that we’re sleeping in . . .” His voice trails off. He looks at his friend and says, “In you, I saw myself. I saw that I was fragile, and not bulletproof.”
Andrew’s experience, Diaz says, was more than a cautionary tale. It compelled him, after that rough night, to look for paths other than the one of destruction he had been favoring.
He continues to say that the great Jewish theologian, Abraham Heschel, is one of his heroes. “Heschel says that ‘words create worlds.’”
Before the fires burned at Auschwitz, Paul Diaz says, there were hateful words that helped create the death camps. Heschel teaches us, he says, that we can, by the grace of God, use our words to create better places. “We’re not done creating. I love that you, Andy and Tim, are helping to create, with this book, a much better place—something different, a place of grace—with your words.”
He looks at both Andrew and Martha as he concludes his remarks.
“My life, in a large part, was impacted by your story twenty-two years ago when it happened. It hasn’t been for naught. I’m one, but there many more people who will be touched by your intersecting story.”
The two old high school friends embrace. Those in the group smile and clap.
A few months earlier, Andrew told me that Paul Diaz was the only friend from high school who kept in touch with him after his entry into prison.
The last speaker to take advantage of the open-mic is a woman named Kim Thonhoff. She and her young son were the two lone eye-witnesses to the wreck on South Brodie Lane that summer night in 1996. She tells the group that she’s been nervous for weeks about the gathering, and that she asked her regular Bible study partners for support and prayer in preparation of this event.
She tells the group of a dream that she had two days prior to this event. The number of nightmares she’s had the past twenty-plus years after the wreck have always centered upon moms—like Martha—having to deal with the devastating pain of losing a child.
This most recent dream, she offers, is perhaps an answer to the prayers of her friends.
She explains that she’s at the same wreck event once again. As she walks out of her van to approach the wreck scene, she’s surrounded by harmless glass falling all around her in slow motion, with the light of a full moon glistening in the glass. The glass then becomes incredibly bright—it takes on a radiance she can’t describe. It’s as if a blanket is coming down and there’s no sadness, nothing shattered, no one dead. The other-worldly bright blanket of healing, she says, covers everything.
She pauses in her retelling, smiles and wipes away a tear.
She then says that she woke up with the most profound peace and energy, and most importantly, she felt good about coming here tonight. She says that she wants the rest of us to have this same indescribable peace and undeniable hope that she’s experienced.
The room is silent. The silence isn’t an uncomfortable one, but a concluding one. We’ve been together for more than two hours.
After a few more silent moments, I approach the podium one last time. I invite all to stand and join together in the Serenity Prayer.
God, give me grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.
Tim/T. Carlos Anderson – I’m a Protestant minister and Director of Community Development for Austin City Lutherans (ACL), an organization of fourteen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin. I’m the author of There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System (Walnut Street Books, April 2019).
Check out my author website: www.tcarlosanderson.com.