On Friday evening last weekend I set out from the church parking lot, with a group of Junior and Senior High youth and other advisors, to Silver Lake on a weekend retreat. If you haven’t been to Silver Lake before, it’s a picturesque camp owned by the Connecticut Conference of the United Church of Christ, and it’s located in Sharon, Connecticut, way up in the northwest corner of the state.
Traffic and weather permitting, it typically takes about an hour and a half to get to Silver Lake from South Windsor. There’s no direct route from here to there, but over years of trial and error, picking up Route 4 in Farmington and taking it all the way to Sharon is often the best way to go.
Unfortunately, taking Route 4 turned out to be not the best way to go to Silver Lake last Friday. As some of you may have seen on the news that night, there was a major accident on Route 84 West, just prior to the Route 4 exit, and first responders wound up shutting an entire stretch of the highway down. For more than half an hour, I sat in standstill traffic and listened prayerfully as multiple ambulances sped to and then away from the accident scene on the other side…
The combination of Silver Lake and a car accident last Friday took me back in my mind to another day that sent waves of shock and grief throughout United Church of Christ churches across our state. In mid-August of 2015, Katherine, Ledell and Don Mulvaney were on their way home from a weeklong camp at Silver Lake when they were tragically killed in a car accident on the Taconic State Parkway.
I didn’t know the Mulvaney’s personally. But friends and colleagues who’ve told me about the Mulvaney’s have extolled their faithfulness, their loyalty, their generosity, and the wonderful musical talent that brought them back to Silver Lake year after year for more than twenty summers.
Nearly two and a half years later, just a few weeks ago at the end of January, the driver of the car that killed Katherine, Ledell and Don Mulvaney appeared before a judge to be sentenced. And as part of the sentencing, Devan Mulvaney, the only Mulvaney family member who remains alive because he wasn’t at Silver Lake during that week in August 2015, was asked to read a victim impact statement.
The words Devan wrote and shared with the court that day are powerful and moving. Soon thereafter, Devan took some time to reflect on his victim impact statement and the scene that unfolded in the courtroom a few weeks ago. I share Devan’s reflections with you this morning, knowing that Devan has given permission to share his thoughts with friends and churches across Connecticut. Devan bears powerful testimony to the faith we hold in common and the faith that sustains even in the midst of life’s harshest devastation…
“Last Wednesday in New York,” Devan begins, “the sentencing happened for Nerim Sinanovic, the driver that caused the crash that killed my family in 2015. For the whole month of December and January I was dreading this sentencing, fearing the worst, not knowing what to expect. My extended family came out and a few close friends. I spoke first, and my wife, Lucy, stood with me at the podium. My statement began with offering my condolences to Nerim’s family over the loss of his two year old daughter, Leona, who also died in the crash. I told him that when I heard about Leona it broke my heart…Nerim’s side of the courtroom was overcome and Nerim looked at me with deep sadness.
It was hard to get through. I voiced my frustrations at Nerim. Him driving under the heavy amount of Xanax he took was selfish, careless and foolish. He nodded, red in the face. I told him I wanted him to do the right thing, to be a good husband and father to his children, to not dishonor the dead…At the end of my speech I told him that I felt an indescribable bond to him. We are two people caught in a storm that neither of us asked for, and neither of us could step away from. I’ve often felt very alone and misunderstood these past couple years. When I’ve thought of anyone who could possibly understand what it’s like to be at the center of such a tragedy, I’ve thought of Nerim. We made eye contact…his face said me too, and I understand. At the end of my speech I wished him well on his journey of healing and I forgave him.
Finally Nerim got to speak. He said he had deep regret for what happened on August 15, 2015. When he woke up in the hospital he knew he had made a terrible mistake. For months afterward he didn’t think he deserved to live. He prayed for our family every day since the accident. After a couple months, he visited the site of the crash and found that my uncle Scott had made a cross for his daughter Leona, along with crosses for my parents and my sister, Katherine. That opened his heart for the first time. Nerim said he knew the cross had to have been placed there by our family, and that changed his life.
He became a part of his community, went to church and found God. He’s been clean and has tried to become the father he wished he was to Leona. He called Ledell, Don and Katherine beautiful angels and was thankful my sister and mother were with Leona when she passed to the other side. He assured us that he wanted to get better and do the most he could to make things right. All of this brought tears to everyone’s eyes. To hear of Nerim’s remorse was something I and my family have been waiting to hear for over three years now. The judge and DA said that in over 20 plus years that they’ve been doing this they’ve never seen such forgiveness and compassion.
Nerim was sentenced to four months of jail time and five years of probation. It requires weekly drug tests and counseling. He will always have four counts of criminally negligent homicide on his record. My family and I are comfortable with this sentence. I truly believe Nerim never wanted to kill four people. I believe that sending him off to jail for a longer sentence wouldn’t help him in the long run. It’s a better test of a man to be in the real world and fend off addiction than to be in prison. I believe he needs to be with his family now more than ever.
I believe in forgiveness. Anger and hate are an affliction that will eat you up and keep you from moving forward with your life. Put yourself in other people’s shoes. Remember we are all human beings in this crazy, crazy life, who make mistakes, even ones that cause lives to be lost. Don’t get me wrong, I do feel people should take responsibility for their mistakes. It’s just difficult to believe they should pay with the hatred and dehumanizing our society often subjects one another to. Let the one who has not sinned cast the first stone, right?
The feeling I and my family have after this experience is profoundly healing. It was incredible to behold. Lucy and I feel more like ourselves for the first time since the crash. I feel like I can grieve my family now without focusing on the horror of the crash. I can focus more on who they were as people. I feel a renewal and rebirth like never before. For the first time I feel like a positive came from this whole awful thing. I, along with my family, helped save Nerim’s life, his wife’s life, his remaining children’s life and Nerim’s extended families lives. Meanwhile, I feel like Nerim’s words helped save me and my family’s lives. It’s a catch 22 but it makes sense to me. I hope this post will help all of my parent’s and my sister’s friends. There is so much we don’t understand about this world. I believe in humanity. We are in this crazy thing together. Be at peace. Glory, Glory, Hallelujah.”
When I read Devan Mulvaney’s reflection, I hear echoes of the apostle Paul writing a long time ago to the Colossian church. “Make allowance for each other’s faults and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others.” Just like Devan Mulvaney, Paul wanted his brothers and sisters to be at peace. Even, or especially, if it meant forgiving somebody in order to get there…
In the year 2018, there are nearly two and a half million adults locked up in American jails and prisons. Which is a subject for a different sermon. But countless others, including people you and I probably know well, are locked in cells of anger and resentment and revenge.
The good news is that none of us have to spend one more day or one more night holed up and consumed by hatred and resentment. The key to getting out of our emotional prisons is forgiveness.
I’m not saying it’s easy. When we’ve been wronged, our first inclination is to have the wrongdoer come and confess and apologize and cry and beg. We want the person who made our lives miserable to acknowledge how ashamed they are and then ask for pardon. Until someone does it right…at the right time with the right tone showing the right amount of remorse…we hold onto forgiveness tightly, reluctant to dole it out in the smallest measure.
But Jesus says to each of us, just as he said to his own followers generations ago, “Pray for those who abuse you. Forgive those who sin against you.” The same Jesus who had every reason to resent those who mistreated him. The same Jesus who was full of compassion and righteousness. The same Jesus who was arrested on a trumped up charge and convicted under false pretenses before he was nailed unceremoniously to a cross and mocked by those who were witnesses. As he neared the end of his life, Jesus could have offered his own version of a victim impact statement. Instead, Jesus spoke words of pardon. “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”
Resentment and the inability to forgive eat away at our souls. The question is whether we can let go. Can we abide by the words of the Lord’s Prayer where we claim in unison every week to want forgiveness for our own sins even as we forgive those who sin against us?
Forgiveness is the key to being at peace and it’s also the secret to rebirth and renewal. Jesus Christ knew it. Devan Mulvaney and Nerim Sinanovic know it. And those of us who have forgiven and been forgiven know it as well.
We don’t have to spend one more day or one more night imprisoned. We can choose, instead, to forgive. Because we believe in humanity. Because we trust in God’s grace. Because we’re in this crazy life together. Glory, glory, hallelujah. Amen.