click to enlarge After serving 17 years in prison for drug offenses, Lynard Joiner struggled to find a job and housing when he re-entered society. The Springfield resident now tries to help other ex-offenders.
After serving 17 years in prison for drug offenses, Lynard Joiner struggled to find a job and housing when he re-entered society. The Springfield resident now tries to help other ex-offenders.

I'm not sure if I really understand forgiveness, but I can acknowledge its value. I'm sure at a loss as to how it works, though.

By one count, the Bible has 62 passages with the word "forgive" and 27 with "forgiveness," but nowhere does it say exactly how to do it.

I remember sitting in the kitchen of a woman who had been shot three times by a criminal who also murdered a relative and allegedly raped another. The woman is a devout Christian, but 30 years after the crimes she still struggles. As to whether she has forgiven, she looked at the linoleum and said simply, "I've tried."

Still, two minutes of senseless violence more than three decades ago has emotionally tethered her to the killer.

She didn't testify against him at parole hearings because she wanted to forgive. She has prayed continually to absolve the man who wronged her. Still, she wonders if she has reached a state of forgiveness.

Forgiveness is hard.

It's important to remember that we forgive not just for the benefit of the one who wronged us but for ourselves as well. Holding a grudge is like drinking a bottle of poison and expecting that it will harm the person who wronged you.

During the past few weeks, I've pondered forgiveness, not just on the individual level but on a societal level.

I first started thinking about it when I chatted with Michael Vujovich. The state refused to renew the Petersburg man's gun permit because when he was 13, he was convicted of possession of a stolen vehicle and served 12 months of probation.

How long ago was this? Well, John F. Kennedy was president.

In the years since, he served in the Marine Corps in Vietnam, graduated from college and law school and spent 44 years as a state prosecutor. Despite keeping his nose clean for decades, he doesn't expect to go deer hunting this year because a mistake from his childhood came back to haunt him.

Bureaucracies don't forgive, they enforce.

On Thursday, I sat across a desk from a Springfield man, Lynard Joiner. He was convicted of dealing crack cocaine and served 17 years in federal prison. When he was released, he was a marked man.

Employers wanted nothing to do with an ex-offender. Neither did landlords, nor banks. Finding a place to live and a job to support himself was nearly impossible. But he persevered and committed himself to helping others. He works at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Central Illinois and owns a food trailer with his brother. He now tries to help other ex-offenders.

Although we are more than a quarter century removed from his legal transgressions, he's still barred from consideration for many government jobs. And he's been turned away from even menial positions in restaurants.

He remembers his experience with an area hotel. "They let me work for about two weeks. Then they called me down to HR and said 'Mr. Joiner, oh, we love everything you're doing. You're a great cook, man. You're very dependable, but there is a problem. You have a felony conviction.' I said, 'Yeah, I put that on the application and we talked about it during the interview.' And then they said, 'You have, Mr. Joiner. But you just slipped through the cracks. Our policy doesn't allow us to hire ex-offenders.' So, they terminated me immediately."

Again, bureaucracies don't forgive, they enforce.

As Joiner told me this sad tale, I couldn't help but wonder, "Is society hurting itself when it fails to forgive men like Vujovich and Joiner? Could it be we all are drinking the proverbial cup of poison thinking it will hurt someone other than ourselves?"

When I see "help wanted" signs across the community, I can't help but wonder how many jobs remain unfilled because they won't consider someone who has a mistake in their past?

Don't get me wrong, people should be held accountable for their offenses. But once they have paid their debt to society, should we keep on punishing?

Scott Reeder, a staff writer for Illinois Times, can be reached at sreeder@illinoistimes.com.

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