The young man was two years out of high school, making a high wage as he worked in construction on the Clinton nuclear power plant, and proud of his shiny new black Trans-Am with the large eagle design on the hood. He was a brash and mouthy country boy, which was understandable. He was young, energetic, with pockets full of cash, and he came from a small town not noted for open attitudes.
Two young men, about the same age, drove down from Chicago, looking for work, but not finding. They filled out applications, but knew they were filed away at best, often just tossed into the waste can. They had more wishes than experience, and their references were not spectacular. Their car was an old beater, barely held together by Bondo and wire. They were as brash and mouthy as the first young man.
They were on a collision course, randomly, to all appearances, not by clear intent, and they had more in common than they knew, except that one had a good paying job and the other two did not. No one witnessed the event itself. We could only imagine what was said, by whom. It was in Champaign, Illinois, outside a bar. None of the three was operating with his best behavior. Prejudices and resentments fueled their encounter.
A telephone call came to me soon afterward. Would I officiate at the funeral of a young man, killed in an angry altercation, his “pride and joy” car stolen? They didn’t know who had done it, but they had ideas. A neighbor had recommended that they call me. I didn’t know any of them, but I said “yes.” They needed someone.
There was a mob at the funeral, filling the mortuary chapel and its overflow spaces. The directors had “never seen such a crowd,” they said. The young man was well-known, if not always well-loved. Grief held center stage, but it was surrounded by a cast of anger, hatred, and fear.
After conversations with his family, I had plenty to say that appreciated his life and work. I noted the absurdity of dying because of one’s proudest possession, and I named the encounter as a tragic and devastating loss for everyone concerned. I represented a “Savior who died for all,” who loved each person, understanding the mixture of guilt and good that is in each one, and who can be trusted to take what we are and to shape it for a better world to come. It was too early to expect anyone to understand a call for forgiveness. What did they need to forgive in the young man who was murdered? How could anyone ever forgive the murderers? Mostly the crowd was silent afterward. A few made the special effort to say that they heard what I was saying. Much later, a man said that it was the one sermon that he remembered and pondered.