When I first read a post on Facebook commemorating the 24th anniversary of the tragic and untimely death of Mckay Gell and her unborn daughter Megan, my heart gave pause. The date, 12/29, will forever be burned into my heart. The original date fell on a Thursday. I rarely talk about it and I live with a sense of shame that not many of you can fathom. Yet at the same time, I credit Mary’s (I never called her McKay) amazing family for giving me something more precious than gold – the knowledge of what Christ’s forgiveness looks like. I’ve never put this in writing before and I’ve rarely ever spoken of it outside the confines of my immediate family. Bear with me, after 24 years I need to tell the story. It deserves telling.
To make some extra money, my Aunt and Uncle took the job of cleaning the law offices where my Aunt and Mary worked. They would go on Tuesday and Thursday nights after regular working hours. On this particular Thursday night it was quite cold and neither of them wanted to leave the warmth of their cozy fire at home. So they flipped a coin to see who would go. My aunt lost, so she headed to the office. I had just finished feeding my kids and was settling in to watch a Cheers rerun when I received a frantic phone call from my aunt. She was begging me to come to her. At her office. Mary, who was 8 months pregnant, had been raped and murdered. My aunt found her and the police hadn’t yet arrived.
You must know that my aunt and Mary were very close. Mary was like a sister to my aunt and she often referred to her as her best friend. Mary’s parents and my family had a long history of being good friends. I spent quite a bit of time in that law office where Mary and my aunt worked. I’d come down to go to lunch and hang out with the two of them. We’d talk about our kids and pregnancies since Mary and I had our first children pretty close together and she was currently pregnant with her second child and I had just given birth to my second child. I called the office almost every day and was greeted by Mary’s cheerful voice. She was such a joy-filled person and I greatly enjoyed spending time in her presence.
So on that night, one of my cousins came to babysit and I got down to that office as fast as I could. By the time I got there, the police had just arrived and it was a crime scene. They let me see my aunt and be there to hold her while she was in complete shock. She recounted the details of the scene and it burned into my heart forever…. I don’t care to recount that for anyone. I’ll NEVER forget that night.
It was so incredibly hard to fathom my aunt’s pain at not only losing her best friend to such a heinous crime but to be the first one on the scene to discover the crime was just – unimaginable. I spent the next two weeks living at my aunt’s house trying to comfort her, counsel her, and pray with her. It was HELL.
Then it got worse. My aunt figured out that her own son had committed the crime and had to be the one to turn him in. This son had grown up like a brother to me. We were together ALL the time as children. He slept over at our house so much it was like he lived with us. The events surrounding this crime was so mind reeling and heartbreaking that to this day I don’t think anyone in my family can fully express how we felt then or feel now.
Then came the funeral. It was like a wedding in a macabre way. It seemed like all of Mary’s family was on one side of the aisle and all of my family was seated on the other side of the aisle. My entire family experienced so many emotions collectively – – outrage, shame, guilt, grief – – we felt dirty and unworthy to be in the presence of this precious family. There were no apologies heartfelt enough to be of any comfort to anyone. I heard several of my uncles and cousins outside the church exclaim that they would kill my cousin if they could get their hands on him. With their jaws set and damnation in their eyes – I knew they meant it. Who wouldn’t feel that way??!
Then a miracle happened. A miracle for me anyway. I was already a saved believer in Christ and I knew that I was saved because of Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross. God had forgiven me of my sins. Forgiven! I thought I knew what that word meant. But I didn’t know how little I understood until one by one Mary’s family got up and spoke at that funeral. Their words were full of pain and grief but through it, they ALL spoke of forgiveness and the mercy of God. They continued to be unwavering in their faith in our Lord and trusted Him to have all of this in His control even though we couldn’t understand it. If just one person spoke those words it might not have impacted me so much, but every single one of them spoke about forgiving my cousin and asked that the rest of us do the same. The ones that weren’t ready to forgive spoke of praying to the Lord asking Him to allow them to be able to forgive at some point. I felt like the roof opened and the Lord and I were the only ones in that room. He was telling me – THIS is what I’ve done for YOU! I have forgiven you EVERYTHING, therefore you have no right to withhold forgiveness from anyone including yourself. I cried knowing that I had received divine intervention and wished I didn’t have to learn this lesson in such a real way.
I saw side by side that day hate contrasted with grace. My family was full of hate and her family was full of grace. Mary’s family were the messengers of God himself and I am eternally grateful they allowed themselves to be used by Him to glorify His holy name. My prayer is that I wasn’t the only one who heard the message so clearly. I spent years unpacking the revelations of what forgiveness truly means. I have learned how to have empathy and grace in situations where most people would not. I learned that part of forgiveness is being able to forgive myself for my own sins and shortcomings. If the Lord could forgive a sinner on the magnitude of my cousin (if he chooses to ask for it – and to my knowledge he has not), then I must be able to forgive myself and others. Not to forgive, places me higher than the Lord. Am I greater than He who made me? Certainly not.
I haven’t been faced with having to say “I forgive you” to my cousin, and my prayer, like one of McKay’s brothers said the day of the funeral, is that I would be ABLE to forgive if the opportunity arose. In the meantime, I have lived my life looking through the lens of grace. I still experience extreme guilt and shame just for being related to the murderer. It pains me and torments me when I think of it. Every single time I see Mary’s family and friends I want to crawl in a hole and die. My life was forever changed that December 29th. God redeemed those events to make me a more humble and grace-filled person than I surely would have been otherwise. Whenever I’m tempted to think ill of anyone I have a very real voice in my heart that says “There but for the grace of God go I.”
Acts 13:38-39 Therefore, my friends, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. Through him everyone who believes is set free from every sin, a justification you were not able to obtain under the law of Moses.