My childhood was not a happy one. It wasn’t my parents—they were fine, and I was never abused or mistreated by my family. They were militant atheists, and I grew up with no concept of God or anything beyond a materialistic world, but that didn’t bother me until much later. The problem I had as a child was where I was living. Brooklyn, New York, is not a gentle place, and it was perhaps even less so in the 1950s and 60s than it is now. The boys in the neighborhood played rough, as boys tend to do, but there was a deeper menacing presence surrounding us as children. Many of the adults we knew were connected in some degree to the pervasive crime families that dominated parts of New York City at the time.
And then there were the gangs. I remember arriving at school one day to find a young man hanging on the fence, where he had been left the night before as a punishment and warning. The police arrived and took him down. He was badly injured but alive, and he refused to speak a word. It was a powerful message to the whole neighborhood.
Shortly after I reached adolescence, something changed on my block. The guys I had hung out with all decided to form their own gang. I wanted to be a part of it, but my parents put their foot down and forbade it. I tried to defy them, but in the end, reason (and perhaps the hand of God?) prevailed, and I told the guys that I would not be joining them in their exciting plans to spread mayhem through the neighborhood.
While this was obviously the right decision, I suffered for it for several years. I became the new gang’s primary target. Getting home from school became a terrifying and dangerous daily adventure. No matter how many new routes I came up with to avoid them, I was attacked and beaten several times over the next few years, and it wasn’t until I finally left Brooklyn for college that I had any sense of safety in my life.
While I no longer felt the kind of fear that had tormented me, what I couldn’t leave behind was my anger. The one time I had gotten the better of my tormentors was when I became so angry that I let loose and actually hurt one of them badly. As an adult, I retained the sense of rage that I felt against the gang, and particularly the leader. I would fantasize about meeting him somewhere and doing him great harm. At different times, I told some of the details of my childhood experiences to people close to me, and each time I received sympathy and understanding. I also would add how angry I felt, and how that anger had given me strength and the iron determination to never be a victim, to always fight for the safety and security of myself and those I loved. I was a pretty tough guy, and I was proud of it.
I never thought that the way I felt about that part of my life would or could ever change, and I had no interest in it changing. But it did. In my 40s, I was not a believer, but I had managed to go from the strict atheism of my youth to being an agnostic questioner of the purpose of life, and to considering the possibility that science did not actually have all the answers to every question.
One day, I told the story of my childhood to a Christian friend, as an explanation of how I had become such a tough guy. She expressed sympathy, but she added something I had never heard or even imagined before: “You need to forgive them.” The words provoked an angry reaction from me. “Never!” I told her. “I hate them for what they did. If I saw them today, I would kill them!” She looked at me in silence for a while. She then said, “Do you hear yourself? Your rage is killingyou, not them. Let it go. Forgive them. Jesus asked for forgiveness for those who crucified Him. He taught us to forgive our enemies.”
I sat there stunned, and somewhat hurt. I was thinking, “Why doesn’t she respect this anger that is so central to my very essence?” Then it struck me: What kind of person thinks of an emotion like anger as part of their essence? How can I be that kind of person? And then I felt a kind of breath, something I couldn’t recognize, come over me. It happened in an instant, and it left me with a vision of joy and peace washing away the dark anger in my soul. I started to cry, and with great emotion I said the words that could never have come before: “I forgive them” and once out of my mouth, everything changed. There was an immediate sense of relief and lightness as a heavy weight inside me disintegrated and left me feeling—free.
I didn’t become a Christian at that moment. I still had a ways to go on my journey. But it was an enormous step for me to take, and the Holy Spirit was there, waiting for me, ready to hold me and guide me. Some years later, the Spirit again showed mercy and presented me with the experience that removed all doubts and hesitation, and I devoted my life to following the risen Christ. Praise God for His grace that saved a sinner like me.
This post was first published as an article in More to Life Magazine, Dec 1, 2019.