It was 20 years ago today: Untold Stories from the Youth Ministry Center
Today’s Episode: Impossible Forgiveness
There would soon be nothing to celebrate on Cinco de Mayo for the Aguirre family. It was in the year 2000 on the 5th of May that a young man named Raul Aguirre died outside his High School. In an effort to break-up a gang-related scuffle, Raul got caught in the mix and a knife meant for another boy, killed him instead. Raul was not a gang member. He was a student, a very decent and hard working students. He was 17 years old.
All this took place directly across the street from the Armenian Church Youth Ministry Center, in Glendale. Rival gangs made themselves known in the neighborhood as well as on the school campuses. Gangs were defined mostly along ethnic lines. And here, the listeners may understand why we refer to this as a place that Armenian organizations had abandoned and forgotten.
Our church and Youth Ministry Center opened in the year 2003 and so, I came to know Raul from the stories I heard about the day that he died. When we arrived on the corner, there were still students who remembered the tragedy with vivid details. However, I have to mention that the full story of Raul I only discovered after meeting his mother, Leticia, a woman who was a living testimony to the power of compassion, love and forgiveness.
On that tragic day Raul was late coming home from school. The phone rang and Leticia first received the news that her son had been hurt in a fight. Only three hours later, Raul died on an operating table.
Mrs. Aguirre recounted, “That moment was the most horrible in my life…. I felt that I would die, but the worst is that I didn’t die…”
During those early days at the Youth Ministry the community was very much talking about this murder. The trial was underway. The minor tensions that existed between the Armenian and Latino communities were even more pronounced by some of the students at the school. The boys who killed Raul were Armenian.
Day after grueling day of testimony Mrs. Aguirre attended the trial of her boy’s killers. And then the unexpected happened. Yes, I’ll admit it, even for me.
“I wanted justice to be done,” said Mrs. Aguirre. “In court I saw the mothers of the gang members kissing crosses and praying to God to forgive their sons and I thought how difficult this must be for God.”
But when Rafael Gevorgyan, one of three gang members being tried, begged for Mrs. Aguirre’s forgiveness on the final day of his trial, she gave it to him.
“I saw a boy, almost a child, in a situation so grave asking for forgiveness,” she said. “I felt huge compassion and huge tenderness.”
Mrs. Aguirre did the impossible. She forgave her son’s killers. She lived Christ’s command, to forgive. She expressed the final definition of love.
I was so moved by this story that I asked Mrs. Aguirre to come and share her story at our church. She accepted the invitation. She walked into an Armenian Church, packed to standing room only, with Armenian mothers, fathers and children. There was so much interest we set up speakers outside to handle the overflow crowd.
She stood up and spoke and told her story. Her words came out of her mouth in Spanish. A translator echoed the words in Armenian. The translator was unnecessary that evening. Everyone understood. Mrs. Aguirre was speaking the universal language, God’s language of love. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
Forgiveness is supernatural. Forgiveness is going beyond the expected and therefore the result is spectacular. Mrs. Aguirre’s actions were supernatural, that is, they rose above the expected argument of hatred and they acknowledged the power of love.
We witnessed many miracles while on that corner, and perhaps this was the greatest. Armenian ears heard a story spoken in Spanish and understood in Love. This day we learned that humans have the capacity to forgive and in so doing they reflect the Divine.
Join me tomorrow as we continue with the untold stories from the Armenian Church Youth Ministries Center, from 20 years ago today.
Leticia Aguirre’s speech
Translated from Spanish to English
My name is Leticia Aguirre. My husband and I came to Glendale from Guadalajara, Mexico many years ago searching for a better life. My husband and I had three daughters and one son, Raul.
Raul was a very youthful, kind, well in mind and body, full of ideas and dreams to live. He had a month left before graduating high school and worked part-time at Taco bell. His wish was to join the Marines and study planes, which he liked very much.
May 5th of 2000 was an ordinary day. My children had gone to school. Around 4pm, as I was preparing dinner, I became worried that Raul hadn’t come home yet. Since he started work at 5pm, he would usually come home, change, eat, then go to work. Suddenly, then phone rang. It was a call from [Raul’s] school, notifying me that Raul was hurt in a fight outside of the school. I was horrified and even thought that this was a mistake, that it wasn’t Raul. I had never before received any complaints from school about Raul getting into trouble. On the contrary, he was a very quiet boy, even a bit timid.
We rushed to the hospital, not thinking that the situation could be so grave. Upon arrival, the doctor told us that Raul had been seriously injured. He had been stabbed twice in the back and twice in the heart. The doctor said that they were operating, but there was little hope. Three hours later, he died.
Seeing my son dead so abruptly was the most horrible thing that had happened to me in my entire life. It’s a pain so difficult to describe. I felt like I had died, but the worst part was that I hadn’t died. I had to live what was to come by the minute.
Later on, I found out what had happened. Raul was waiting for the Beeline in front of school when Jimmy, a boy from a Hispanic gang, came to leave school. Jimmy was with his friends when a car full of youth from an Armenian gang drove by. They exchanged gang signs and suddenly, the kids from the car got out to fight Jimmy and the Hispanic gang members. When he saw Jimmy in trouble, Raul tried to help and saved his life, but they killed Raul.
This changed many of our lives. I no longer feel complete, like a part of me died with Raul. My daughters and husband have also suffered. My youngest daughter who was then 8 years old has spend 3 years in psychiatric therapy, taking anti-depressants. She was emotionally unstable and diagnosed with fibromyalgia when she had deep depression and had pain throughout her body. My husband was a diabetic and his health worsened. My other daughter, who was 12 years old then, does not ever want to talk about what happened. Our lives changed forever.
Raul left us, but still lives in our hearts and in our memories. I still have all of his clothes hanging in the closet and folded in the drawers, as if he were still here. I have his shoes and his homework – they’re the only things I have from him and I will keep them forever. A child is never forgotten.
Gang violence is a terrible thing and not only do the families of the victims suffer, but also the families of the aggressors.
But from the very first minute of this, I felt God’s presence around me, giving me the strength to survive through something so terrible. Only He gave me the courage and hope for continuing to live.
I know that God is loving, merciful and forgives us all, but I did not know how I could have forgiven the boys that had killed my son. I was present at every day of the trial of the boys – I wanted justice to be served. In court, I saw the mother of one of the boys kissing a cross and praying to God for the boys. I thought about how difficult this situation was for God – with whom would He be with? With the mothers who were asking for compassion for their sons? Or with me who was asking for justice for my son?
Now I understand that He was with them and with me.
When the day came for Jimmy – the Hispanic gang member – to testify, it was sad. He has been involved in gangs since he was 12 years old, committing all sorts of crimes. His life seemed so sad and empty. But he felt an even greater [pain – dolor] and guilt for what had happened to Raul – after all, he was the one who started the problem and even ran off when Raul got involved in the fight to help him. He told me that since the incident, he had left the gang and was trying to be a good person. He was too ashamed to look me in the eyes and looked down instead. After his testimony, I went to the hallway to find him and speak to him. He asked me for forgiveness, crying, and said that he would have preferred to have been the one who was killed and not Raul, who was such a good person. He said that he could no longer stand such guilt and I forgave him from my heart. I gave him a hug and told him that the only thing he could do was to keep trying to be a good person, so that Raul’s death won’t have been in vain. If Raul gave his life for Jimmy, he should leave behind the gangs and all the bad that they do.
I saw how his face and heart felt so relieved, as if a weight had been lifted off of his shoulders. He was very grateful and happy for my forgiveness.
I kept attending the trial of the Armenian boys, day after day, waiting for justice and still not understanding how God forgives us all, even the boys who killed my son.
When the day came to read the verdict, one of the boys, Rafael, who had struck my son with a crowbar, asked me for forgiveness. He told me that there was not a day that passed when he didn’t feel repentance for his involvement with what happened to Raul. He said that he knew it would be almost impossible for me to forgive him, but even if it were in 20 years or more, he hoped that one day I would forgive him.
At that moment, I felt something so hard to describe. I saw a boy, practically a child, in a situation so terrible, asking for my forgiveness. I felt great compassion and I forgave him with all my heart. I tried to give him a hug, but the judge would not allow it.
Then I understood God and how easy it was to forgive when you feel compassion, when you open your heart. God knew that I understood Him.
I know that Raul is happy to know that I have peace in my heart and that he is with God.
Since that day, Rafael writes great letters to me from prison where he tells me that my forgiveness gives him the strength to endure life in prison. He tells me that he is trying his best to be a good person. He graduated from high school in prison and that when he gets out, the first thing he plans to do is to visit Raul’s grave to tell him how sorry he is. I write back to him and try to tell him things that will help him move forward, that God always with him and that he is always in my prayers.
Time has passed and good things and sad things have happened.
Jimmy, the Hispanic boy, died a year ago; he was killed by the police. Apparently he couldn’t leave behind his bad habits. It was very hard for me and brought back all the pain that I felt when I lost Raul, my son. I felt that my son had died in vain, trying to help Jimmy, who couldn’t attain a life that was good and complete. But what I do thank God for is that He gave Jimmy and I the opportunity to open our hearts, for him to ask for my forgiveness and tell me how guilty he felt and for me to have forgiven him and to have felt the tranquility that I needed to feel. I think that if I had a different attitude and not listened to him, I would not have a clear conscious, to know that he would have died feeling so terrible.
Rafael, the Armenian boy, in one of his letters, told me that his appeal could cost him more years in prison. He tells me that if I am capable of forgiving him, after all the pain that he has caused me, then he also could be strong to get through his own pain and situation. He says that if he doesn’t get his appeal, for me not to worry because he is already grateful for the forgiveness that I have him for his error and this is a much bigger and real appeal compared to his situation.
These days, Rafael is happy to know that his sentence will be reduced by a few years and I am very happy for him.