By Elizabeth G. Nissley
For the past eight years, my husband, Ken and I, have been volunteers with the Pennsylvania Victim Offender Dialogue Program, operated under the Pennsylvania Office of Victim Advocate. Victims of violent crimes may request to participate in a process that prepares them and the offender (if he/she is willing) to meet and talk about what happened between the victim, their loved one and the person who perpetrated a crime. Most of these face-to-face meetings take place in the prison where the offender is incarcerated and may occur years after the event, in one case, 50 years after the murder.
As volunteers, we always work in pairs completing multiple preparatory meetings with both the victim and the offender before bringing them together. Ken and I have been able to work together in many different situations.
Several years ago, we traveled to Florida to meet with and prepare the mother of a young woman who had been murdered by a young man who was a family friend. We then had several meetings in prison with the young man. Finally, we accompanied the mother to the prison for the meeting between both parties.
We gathered around a conference table – victim, offender and two volunteers, with prison guards periodically looking through the glass window during our four-hour conversation. The mother shared some pictures, told her story and asked her questions. The young man patiently told her what happened and apologized. As the meeting came to the end, the mother reached her hands across the table and asked to hold his hands. She said, “I cannot believe I am holding the hands of the man who pulled the trigger of the gun that killed my daughter!” And we all cried!
I reached in with my hands and covered their hands, saying, “You may not know that this is Holy Week (it was the Thursday before Good Friday and Easter) but we all know that this is a Holy moment!” And we continued to weep.
Now this is not a religious program and we do not talk about or promote faith. But that process and those hours changed all of us, as we discovered more completely in our follow-up conversations. The young man was released from guilt; a guard reached out to him in kindness the next day, and the mother told us that she finally slept through the night, something she had not been able to do for the previous eight years. And us? We were encouraged to continue with this kind of volunteer work where people are made whole, through careful preparation for powerful healing conversations!