Lord, make me an instrument of your peace…

In the summer of 1986, I was an angsty, moody, Long Island 16-year -old with a penchant for Stephen King novels, Ramones records, and watching the nightly news. 

I spent a lot of time out of the house that year. Parents — thunder, a marriage imploding. Still six months shy of getting my learner’s permit to drive, I would often ride my bicycle to my friend’s house where we would hang out and watch TV or just peddle around town pretending to outrun the police for some imaginary crime we never committed. 

In our minds, my friend and I were dangerous outlaws, tough guys with attitudes, disturbers of the peace. In reality we were just wimpy, suburban Catholic school kids with curfews, pimples, and guilty consciences.  

A week after Independence Day that year, my friend and I switched on the evening news in his parents’ living room. A news report broke that New York City police detective Steve McDonald had been shot in Central Park. 

The 28-year-old cop, newly married and with a child on the way, had stopped three teenagers to question them about a series of recent bicycle thefts. One member of the group opened fire on the officer, hitting McDonald in the head, throat, and back. The last bullet, we would come to find out in the days ahead, shattered his spinal cord.

McDonald miraculously survived his injuries, but the damage to his body rendered him paralyzed from the neck down. McDonald would never fully recover from the injuries. For the rest of his life, he would be confined to a wheelchair and bound to a respirator. 

Though he could hear and see the people around him, McDonald would never play football with his son, Conor, born six months after the attack. He would never be able to eat on his own, or dance with his wife, or walk with his family on the beach.

McDonald’s story touched me deeply. Not only was the cop a fellow Long Islander who lived two towns away from me, his shooter, Shavod Jones, was just 15 years old at the time, a year younger than me. I remember thinking if we had lived in the same town he could have been my friend.

Where there is hatred, let me sow love; 

Where there is injury, pardon; ... 

Jones was eventually captured and sentenced to prison. Many of us would have wanted our assailant to rot in jail and maybe even rot in hell. But McDonald wasn’t like most of us.

Journal­ist Michael Daly noted in the Daily Beast that while the detec­tive was confined to the hospital during the days following the shooting, he met Mychal Judge. 

A Catholic friar who would later die ministering to the injured and dead in the North Tower of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, Judge introduced McDonald to a prayer that would change the cop’s life forever after:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,

Where there is hatred, let me sow love;

Where there is injury, pardon;

Where there is doubt, faith;

Where there is despair, hope;

Where there is darkness, light;

Where there is sadness, joy; ...

This prayer, traditionally attributed to St. Francis, a medieval monk known for his love of nature, animals, and the poor, gave McDonald and his family renewed strength and purpose. Its words helped love to enter McDonald’s broken body. And while this prayer seemingly did little to heal his paralysis, the prayer of St. Francis did much to heal McDonald’s wounded heart.

St. Francis of Assisi. (SHUTTERSTOCK)

McDonald forgave Jones and even tried to start a friendship with the teen. As McDonald recounted to writer Johann Christoph Arnold in the book “Why Forgive?”:

“I was a badge to that kid, a uniform representing the gov­ernment. I was the system that let landlords charge rent for squalid apartments in broken-down tenements. … To Shavod Jones, I was the enemy. 

“He didn’t see me as a per­son, as a man with loved ones, as a husband and father-to-be. He’d bought into all the stereotypes of his community: the police are racist, they’ll turn violent, so arm yourself against them. And I couldn’t blame him. Society … had failed him way before he had met me in Central Park.”

Though they kept in touch through letters over the years, McDonald and his attacker would never again meet face-to-face. Three days after being released on parole in September 1995, Jones, age 25, died from head injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident while popping wheelies with a friend in East Harlem.

Where there is doubt, faith; 

Where there is despair, hope; …

A few years ago, I became a lector at St. Agnes Cathedral on Long Island and would often see McDonald with his wife, Patti Ann, at Sunday church services. There in the front row, he sat in his wheelchair, connected to the breathing tube that kept him alive. Body still, eyes bright and sharp. 

As I would look at him from my position on the altar during Mass I would realize that I was in the presence of someone who had suffered so much but somehow learned to embody the forgiveness and love Jesus preached and lived 2,000 years ago. 

How was he able to absolve someone who had sentenced him to a life as a quadriplegic? Mc­Donald provides an answer in Arnold’s book:

“I forgave Shavod because I believe the only thing worse than receiving a bullet in my spine would have been to nurture revenge in my heart. Such an attitude would have extended my injury to my soul, hurting my wife, son, and others even more. …

“I have my ups and downs. Some days, when I am not feeling very well, I can get angry. I get de­pressed. There have been times when I even felt like kill­ing myself. But I have come to realize that anger is a wasted emotion. … Of course, I didn’t forgive Shavod right away. It took time. … But I can say this: I’ve never regretted forgiving him.” 

Where there is darkness, light; 

Where there is sadness, joy; …

Forgiveness can be very difficult for many of us. We can hold on to past hurts the way the body can hold on to cholesterol and fat, causing it to form plaque that builds up and hardens the pathways to our heart. Yet Mc­Donald, though physically ravaged, lived from a place of openness, light, and joy. He was an example of forgiveness in action.

McDonald’s body finally gave out on Jan. 10, 2017. He was 59 years old. At his funeral, his son Conor, now a sergeant for the New York City Po­lice Department, read his father’s favorite prayer to a hushed con­gregation. It was a prayer McDonald lived in his heart. It would do the whole world a lot of good if we lived it in our own hearts as well.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace…

Gary Jansen is a noted spiritual writer and director of Image Books and an executive editor at Penguin Random House. Among his many books are “The 15-Minute Prayer Solution,” “The Infernos of Dante and Dan Brown: A Visitor’s Guide to Hell” and “Station to Station.” As a lecturer, he has been featured on NPR, CNN, Huffington Post, and elsewhere.

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