HAMMOND | As part of their own Lenten journey, students and staff at Bishop Noll Institute heard the emotional and inspiring stories of two members from Journey of Hope during a recent visit.
Journey of Hope. . .from Violence to Healing is an organization led by murder victim family members who conduct public education speaking tours and address alternatives to the death penalty.
At BNI, Bill Pelke and Bess Klasses-Landis described the gruesome murders of their beloved family members, and detailed their own long journeys of healing and forgiveness.
Pelke told the audience about the May 14, 1985 murder of his grandmother, Ruth Elizabeth Pelke, a Bible teacher who was brutally murdered by four teenage girls in Gary. Paula Cooper, identified as the ringleader of the foursome, was sentenced to die in the electric chair despite being 15 at the time of the murder.
Pelke originally supported the sentence of death for Cooper, but went through a spiritual transformation in 1986 after praying for love and compassion for Cooper and her family. He became successfully involved in an international crusade on Cooper's behalf and, in 1989, her sentence was commuted to 60 years in prison.
Cooper is set to be released from prison in July, and Pelke has pledged to help her adjust to life outside of prison.
Klassen-Landis described how her mother, Helen Klassen, was beaten, stripped, raped, strangled and shot four times in their rural home in Elkhart, while she and her three sisters were at school and her father was out of town. It happened March 14, 1969, before DNA testing was available, and there was never a conviction.
In 2005, Klassen-Landis learned of the Journey of Hope. . .From Violence to Healing and, for the first time, met peers who had lost a loved one to murder, including some who had forgiven the murderer.
By publicly telling her story, she was able to expose and release all the ugly feelings of fear and shame that had filled the hidden spaces of her being, she explained, and she forgave herself for her failures.
She said believes that people are all instruments in healing the hatred in this world and that it will never be accomplished with violence (the death penalty), but only by eradicating hunger, poverty and disease, and reaching out again and again in love.