A drive to help others forgive

The world of investment banker Azim Khamisa shattered into pieces in 1995. His only son, a student at San Diego State University, was shot and killed by a 14-year-old gang member as Tariq was delivering pizzas for a part-time job.

"When I learned of Tariq's death, it felt like a nuclear bomb detonated inside of me," Mr. Khamisa says. "The pain was so excruciating that I had an out-of-body experience. I believe I went into the loving arms of God. Held there for a long time until the explosion subsided, I returned ... with the vision that there were victims at both ends of the gun."

That vision enabled Khamisa to make a crucial choice: forgiveness. Choosing forgiveness has not only transformed his life and that of the murderer and his family, it also led him to create an antiviolence program that has measurably altered attitudes among youths in San Diego and other cities.

This power of forgiveness to reshape the lives of individuals and communities is behind a new national Campaign for Love and Forgiveness initiated by the Michigan-based Fetzer Institute, a private nonprofit research and education foundation. Recently the institute launched a collaboration with public television and community organizations across the United States to stimulate greater consideration of how love and forgiveness can effect healing in difficult circumstances.

"The No. 1 goal is to have love and forgiveness become central in people's lives," says program officer Mickey Olivanti.

Research on forgiveness has demon-strated not only that it liberates lives and relationships but that it also can markedly improve health and well-being.

The campaign includes three PBS documentaries (which include Khamisa's story), a letter-writing initiative, online discussions, and local community projects and special events in several cities with the theme: "Change Everything. Love and Forgive."

In the letter-writing project, individuals are encouraged to compose an intimate, handwritten letter to mend a relationship, express deep appreciation for a friend or family member, renew a lapsed tie, offer or seek forgiveness. Tips for writing a meaningful missive are posted on the website ( www.loveandforgive.org).

The campaign was launched on PBS stations in December with the first documentary, "The Mystery of Love." While popular culture puts a premium on romantic love, the two-hour film explores the many varieties of love that enrich and transform human experience.

One segment depicts the remarkable bond of friendship that has developed since 1995 between Khamisa and Ples Felix, the grandfather and guardian of Khamisa's teenage killer. (Mr. Felix is African-American; Khamisa was born in India, raised in Africa, and emigrated to escape the horrors of Idi Amin's Ugandan rule.)

After his son's death, Khamisa created the Tariq Khamisa Foundation to develop and hold antiviolence forums in elementary and middle schools throughout San Diego. Seeking to inspire youths to choose nonviolent alternatives for solving their differences, he invited Felix to join him in the work ( www.tkf.org).

Kids in a school or gang environment are often tempted or urged by peers (or even parents) to retaliate if they are attacked. When the two men tell schoolchildren their story, they speak of their profound friendship.

"Would he have become my friend if I'd wanted revenge?" Khamisa asks. "Revenge is never the right response. Conflict will never go away, but from conflict, brotherhood and unity are possible."

The school kids hear from former gang members and also learn about Tony Hicks, Tariq's killer, who is in prison for 25 years to life and expresses remorse for his bad choices. Now 26, Tony communicates with Khamisa as well as his granddad.

Community groups in 10 cities so far are using the first documentary to encourage local public conversations. In Richmond, Va., Hope in the Cities, a group working on racial reconciliation, is partnering with the Interfaith Council for four weeks of dialogue on brotherly love in education.

"We'll use it to talk about the power of love in promoting healthy integrated schools," says coordinator Jane Talley.

They'll also join with another local group, First Things First, for a series of all-male dialogues aimed at getting men to look at the power of love as they engage in the business world.

In Bloomington, Ind., Namaste-Sacred Arts is sponsoring a series of dialogues both in the community and among women inmates in the county jail.

"The concept is to promote love in the community as a real force for change," says coordinator Lisa-Marie Napoli, who has a background in conflict management.

Other events tied to PBS film

The second PBS documentary, "The Power of Forgiveness," airs later this spring. The third, "Unforgivable?," exploring forgiveness even in the most tragic of circumstances, will air in 2008.

Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, Calif., plans two major events this semester associated with the films. In March, an intergenerational dialogue involving middle school students, college undergraduates, and "lifelong learners" will engage the groups in challenging and expanding the perceptions of love held by the other age groups.

A second event focusing on forgiveness and reconciliation will involve a Holocaust survivor who has been in contact with a perpetrator at one of the World War II concentration camps.

Ben Frymer, assistant professor of sociology at the university, is also conducting a seminar on "Love and Desire" that encourages students to study love in action in the broader community.

"It's a great opportunity to expand the ideas and beliefs that young people have about love," Professor Frymer says, "especially in this society where they're bombarded with the media message that romantic love is most important."

Khamisa, called upon to forgive in the most challenging of circumstances, was able to do so, he explains, because of the strong spiritual element of his upbringing.

"I'm a Sufi Muslim," he says, "like the poet Rumi, and one of the gifts of the Ismaili order than I belong to is the equal emphasis on spiritual and material aspects of life. It's important to develop core values early on, so if tragedy comes, you can respond without retaliation.

"The tendency in our culture is if we are sad or depressed to go get some Prozac," he adds, "but forgiveness is much better than Prozac because it heals."

Program's impact strong

Last Sunday was the 12th anniversary of Tariq's death, and his father is now a sought-after speaker on forgiveness in corporate and other venues as well as in schools. He and Felix have won numerous awards.

A 10-month-long study has shown that their "Violence Impact Forum" is effective in changing attitudes, particularly among kids who are most at risk for aggressive behavior.

Six public television stations have community outreach projects tied to the documentaries, and KETC in St. Louis, Mo., has designed an ambitious three-year project to serve part of its community that has known great tragedy. The city is now home to the largest community of Bosnians outside of Bosnia itself. [ Editor's note: The original version misnamed the St. Louis television station.]

"For a group of people who have gone through a war, the issues of love and forgiveness may have a different meaning than to those of us who have a calm daily life," says Amy Shaw, vice president of education for KETC-TV. They see the project as an opportunity to build bridges among the Bosnian refugees, who may once have been enemies, as well as between Bosnians and the native St. Louis community.

"Five years ago there were issues at one of the high schools about the Bosnian influx," Ms. Shaw explains. "This year, a Bosnian student is class president and homecoming queen. We see this as a time both communities are ready to get together."

The TV station has worked with a planning coalition of people from both groups, identified "neutral locations" for dialogues, subtitled the documentary, and translated promotional materials into the Bosnian language.

"Starting on Feb. 13, we'll hold three different sets of four conversations each, based on the clips," says Sonya Berkbigler, education project coordinator.

The Campaign for Love and Forgiveness is open to anyone who wishes to participate, Ms. Olivanti says. The Fetzer Institute offers resource materials on its website and encourages networking among the various community groups that participate. Before the second documentary airs nationally on PBS, screenings for the public will be held around the country, including at Washington National Cathedral on March 14.

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