At Virginia Tech, a film asks, 'Can we forgive?'
A PBS documentary called 'The Power of Forgiveness' has a healing message for survivors of the school shooting.
Blacksburg, Va. — Larissa Mihalisko remembers when she forgave the shooter. It was at a candlelight vigil after Seung-Hui Cho killed four students and a faculty member she knew at Virginia Tech. She felt her heart release its anger, she says, and decided instead to carry out what had been in the hearts of her friends. Building homes in Appalachia. Helping the recovery from hurricane Katrina. This fall she'll do both.
"I realized there's a lot more to life than blaming him and being angry," says Ms. Mihalisko, a senior in international studies who became friends with one student killed in the shootings while doing Katrina volunteer work. "It was a relief."
When she spotted a flier for a screening of a film about forgiveness she decided to bring a group of friends. She was among up to 100 students and community members to turn out Sunday for "The Power of Forgiveness," a spiritual documentary that is screening in theaters nationwide and scheduled to air on PBS next year.
Five months after Mr. Cho opened fire April 16 in the worst shooting in US history, killing 32 students and faculty members before killing himself, the students of Virginia Tech and the community of Blacksburg are talking about forgiveness. Sunday's screening is the latest expression of an emotional process under way here. While recrimination rages for a war gone bad, for trouble in the economy, and for much else, students and community members here are trying to let go of their blame.
After Sunday's screening, a question-and-answer session delved even deeper into the emotional and complex process of forgiving. It was the first in a series of discussions on forgiveness scheduled throughout the week in Blacksburg churches and community centers. Later this fall a campus minister will lead a series of discussions on forgiveness with some two-dozen students, using curriculum developed by the filmmaker and already in use by churches, universities, and other community groups nationwide.
"We are living in a culture of payback and justice. 9/11 shows us that. Lives are being lost," says filmmaker Martin Doblmeier, founder of Journey Films Inc. and director of 24 spiritually themed films including "Bonhoeffer," about a German theologian who resisted Hitler. That film aired on PBS in 2006 and was released in 75 theaters. "I think there's a sense in this country, we've been taking a path that people are beginning to rethink, and forgiveness may be one element in the process."
Mr. Doblmeier worked on the documentary, which has a broad religious perspective, for two years before finishing it in March. He decided to make the film after attending a conference in 2004 in Atlanta organized by the John Templeton Foundation that explored forgiveness from health and science points of view. He had just begun screening it nationwide when Cho opened fire. A resident of Alexandria, Va., Doblmeier felt a connection to the campus and sought to screen the film in Blacksburg. Eventually, he connected with HERE (Honoring Experiences, Reflections and Expressions), a community organization established in response to the shootings. The organization hosted the screening.
"I'm not out to promote forgiveness as the solution to all the problems of the world," he says. "But what I want to do with the film is make the idea of forgiveness, put it on the table as one component of how we want to respond to what is happening."
The movie includes interviews with Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh and bestselling authors Thomas Moore and Marianne Williamson. Some of what they say garnered murmurs of recognition from the audience in Blacksburg.
"Forgiveness allows us to actually let go of the pain in the memory, and if we let go of the pain in the memory, we can have the memory, but it doesn't control us," says Alexandra Asseily in the film. She is the founder of a forgiveness garden in Beirut. "When the memory controls us, we are then puppets of the past."
Here in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the 25,000-student Virginia Tech campus is the backbone of Blacksburg, a small town on a rolling, pristine landscape that is secluded from the bustle of city life. It is the sort of town where everyone knows everyone, everyone knows someone associated with the university, and so therefore everyone knows someone affected by the shootings. And emotions still are raw.
Some students don't want to talk about the shootings, even among their friends, because they are trying to achieve some sense of normalcy. Hours before Sunday's screening, in the morning after the Hokies' thrilling 28-7 home-field football victory over Ohio, parents and alumni soberly lingered at an on-campus memorial for those killed in the shootings, an arc of stones engraved with their names a few yards from Norris Hall, where Cho fired more than 100 shots. The memorial is on the edge of the Drillfield, a grassy expanse at the heart of the campus, where on this sunny morning people played with their children, threw Frisbees, and walked golden retrievers.
Throughout town, signs and even restaurant receipts proclaim, "We are Hokies. We will prevail. We are Virginia Tech."
Even so, perhaps the hardest part of forgiving is letting go of anger without feeling that one is forgetting the incident, dishonoring someone, or allowing a crime to go unchecked. "The Power of Forgiveness" confronts these sorts of complexities and recognizes that the process by which we forgive – and even the definition of the word itself – is different for everyone. It chronicles forgiveness as it unfolds for those victimized by violence in Northern Ireland, for Holocaust survivors, 9/11 widows and widowers, and for a Pennsylvania community where, last year, a gunman opened fire and killed five children in an Amish schoolhouse.
Victoria Wilson found the film moving. A graduate student in English, she had shared a class with Cho. It is an important film for Blacksburg, she says.
"Forgiveness is essential to the healing process," says Ms. Wilson. "A lot of people are struggling with forgiving Cho and forgiving the administration. Everyone wants to put blame on someone, and I don't think that's good for anyone. I think everyone makes mistakes including the administration, and it doesn't make sense to keep being angry."
The community will continue to grapple with such issues. After the shootings, students put together a temporary memorial, and in the days that followed a 33rd stone for Cho appeared and disappeared twice. Eventually a permanent memorial replaced the temporary one. It has 32 stones.