Posted Online: March 11, 2011, 12:00 am

Taught to forgive an unforgettable tragedy

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by Leon Lagerstam, leon@qconline.com

More photos from this shoot
Photo: John Greenwood
Emma Williams stands in the St. Ambrose University chapel.
DAVENPORT -- She's never forgiven the drunk driver who killed one of her childhood best friends.

Emma Williams, 19, Milan, a freshman at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, was starting to celebrate her 7th birthday when her parents told her one of her classmates wasn't going to make it to the party. He and his grandmother had died in a car accident.

Photos published a few years later of a smiling driver getting released early from prison kept Ms. Williams from forgetting or forgiving the man.

She doesn't think she'll ever forget the tragic death of her friend, but believes she's a bit closer to forgiving the man responsible for it, thanks to an Ambrose class she took in the fall.

The ''Forgiveness, Reconciliation and Peace-Building'' class was part of the ''Learning Communities for Excellence'' program that groups students with similar interests whotake a couple of general education classes and participate in ''New Student Seminars.''

"Redefining Right and Wrong'' was the name of Ms. William's learning community.

No theology classes were offered when she was a public school student in Sherrard, so she felt drawn to the category when choosing her community, she said.

It was worth three credits, but by the end of term, Ms. Williams said she credited it for taking a huge weight off her shoulders.

''I've always been told about forgiveness since my Sunday school days, but was never told anything specific about how to forgive,'' she said. ''I knew it was one obstacle I had to address in my life.''

As she quickly learned, she wasn't the only one facing forgiveness obstacles. Students from other parts of the country and from other countries also struggled with it.

The Ambrose class used Facebook to link students from the Davenport university, including Ms. Williams, to peers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and St. Mary's University College in Belfast, Ireland.

Stories from the Belfast perspective, with the town's long history of strife between Protestants and Catholics, ''were so different,'' Ms. Williams said. ''But the message about forgiveness' universality was the same.''

One of the first things students learned is ''that it is a process,'' she said. ''I thought, for example, that I would never be able to forgive the man who did what he did to my friend. I knew I would have to come to terms with it somehow, but now I know it's a process that will take some time to complete.''

She also learned that ''forgiveness is my choice, and is something I have to do for my benefit.''

Scientifically, forgiveness has been linked to many health benefits, said Mara Adams, an associate professor in St. Ambrose's theology department, and one of the class collaborators.

Forgiveness relieves stress and depression, lowers blood pressure and reduces the risk of disease, among other things, she said.

Ms. Adams chose to explore the issue of forgiveness after attending a ''Spirituality and Health'' conference at Duke University in North Carolina.

She and University of Wisconsin-Madison educational psychology professor Robert Enright collaborated on some Belfast research, which eventually led to Sharon Haughey, a senior lecturer at the Northern Ireland college, joining the team.

Ms. Adams said that ''never in my wildest dreams'' did she think it would take her to Belfast.

Using Facebook as a teaching tool also was a big step for Ms. Adams, who listed ''wanting to use computers better and embrace 21st Century technology,'' when asked what she wished she knew how to do.

Ambrose philosophy professor Jessica Gosnell contributed computer expertise.

Ms. Adams recently got a grant from the Scott County Regional Authority that she will use to create and provide a form of her forgiveness curriculum to local students in preschool to eighth grade, tying it into anti-bullying programs.

The college-level class also will be back in the fall at Ambrose, she said, adding that shereceived a lot of good feedback from students involved last fall.

''My goal was to help people understand what forgiveness is -- that it is a process,'' she said. ''I want people to know forgiveness can operate independently from reconciliation or forgetting, and that forgiveness is good for one's physical, mental and spiritual health.''

Ms. Williams may not have realized all that when she was 7, when she learned of her friend's death on her birthday, but knowing she has reached the point of figuring out how to forgive the driver is what she calls a valuable gift.





Emma Williams

Address: Milan.

Age: 19.

Occupation: Student at St. Ambrose University, Davenport, psychology major.

Education: 2010 Sherrard High School graduate.

Family: Parents, Bob and Jenny Williams; three siblings.

Favorite book of the Bible: Matthew.

Favorite Biblical character I'd like to meet: Peter.

Hobbies: Theatre, dance, playing guitar and French horn, campus ministry opportunities, including recently selected to be a resident adviser next year.

I wish I knew how to: Sing better.



Mara Adams

Address:
Rock Island.

Age: 51.

Occupation: Theology department associate professor at St. Ambrose University.

Education: Alleman High School graduate; Bachelor of Arts degree from St. Ambrose; doctorate degree at University of Iowa.

Family: Husband, two children

Favorite Biblical character I'd like to meet: Hagar.

Hobbies: Music, reading, family.