In July 1986, NYPD officer Steven McDonald while on patrol in Central Park was shot repeatedly at point-blank range by a teenager in broad daylight. He survived the attack but was confined to a wheelchair until his death by heart attack earlier this month at the age of 59. Perhaps you read or heard reports of his funeral at a packed St. Patrick’s Cathedral with many politicians and celebrities in attendance. Heralded as a true hero, McDonald was remembered especially for his act of forgiveness and the occasion at which it was delivered.
Six months after the shooting, he attended the baptism of his son, Conor, who is now an NYPD Sergeant. His wife read a statement he had prepared: ”’On some days, when I am not feeling very well, I can get angry,’ Mrs. McDonald said, reading a letter from her husband to the people of New York City. ‘But I have realized that anger is a wasted emotion, and that I have to remember why I became a police officer. I’m sometimes angry at the teen-age boy who shot me,’ she added, her voice quavering. ‘But more often I feel sorry for him. I only hope that he can turn his life into helping and not hurting people. I forgive him and hope that he can find peace and purpose in his life’” (via the New York Times). Over the next years, he became a beloved spokesperson for the force and for the gift of forgiveness.
I arrived in New York just a few months later, a time when the city was a much meaner place, featured in tabloid news, and filmed as crack-infested, racially charged, and overrun with violent crime. 1,582 murders were logged that year. Moving in from sequestered Connecticut suburban life, friends and family were shocked to learn that Melissa and I would be taking our children, then 4 and 6 years old, into the scary city, the ages that prompted many New York City parents in those days to move away.
Thirty years makes a big difference. Compare 335 murders in 2016, emblematic of the remarkable transformation that’s taken place here, and as many have learned, now providing a wonderful environment for raising families, albeit with monetary and logistical complications. (Btw, it turned out terrifically for my family with both my 30-something kids well-ensconced in Brooklyn along with a granddaughter for an especially wonderful added pleasure—New Yorkers all!)
McDonald’s gracious act of forgiveness was big news back in the day, in part because it came in such stark contrast to public perceptions—a cri-de-coeur for civility, decency, and the common good. And when I read about his funeral not long ago, I was once more ennobled by his story and life trajectory. I knew it was important to share again. It doesn’t require a lot of translation; it speaks for itself, and in its way, serves as a prod to conscience.
This Sunday, we’ll be reading the famous Beatitudes, Matthew 5:1-12: “Blessed are the poor in spirit…those who mourn…the meek…those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…the merciful…the pure in heart…the peacemakers…” Tempting to think that’s sentimental hyperbole but then someone like Steven MacDonald comes along to reset the bar on the glory of our humanity…if we would only choose it.
Consider this an invitation…